"Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor," by William Halsall, 1882 at Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

Resources for Mayflower Research

This article was originally posted by the late Carolyn Barkley. We’re bringing it back with minor edits in honor of the Thanksgiving season. As mentioned, the author’s own roots are tied to the Thanksgiving story, making her knowledge that much more relevant.

Thanksgiving is around the corner. In addition to the turkey and trimmings, the approaching holiday is inextricably linked to the voyage of the Mayflower and its landing at Plymouth on the coast of Massachusetts. My primary purpose is to share information about the wealth of resources available about the voyage and its passengers, but first, as a native of Massachusetts and a thirty-seven year resident of Virginia, I’m obliged to muse momentarily on the origins of the thanksgiving event.

Growing up in Massachusetts, every school child’s attention is focused on the Mayflower passengers and their feast of thanksgiving held in 1621. The New England tradition, of course, flies in the face of Virginia’s claim to the first Thanksgiving, let alone that of St. Augustine, Florida, where a Thanksgiving celebration was held in September 1565! In 1619, a group of settlers left Bristol, England, and landed three months later at the present-day site of Berkeley plantation on the James River in Virginia. The tradition is that immediately after reaching sold ground, they fell to their knees and thanked God for their safe arrival. A rivalry about whether the Virginia event in 1619 or the Massachusetts event in 1621 represents the “real” Thanksgiving continues today. Both are re-enacted annually and I would suggest that they can coexist as different types of Thanksgiving events, although neither of them is the “first” in the New World. The Massachusetts event was a harvest festival in which the settlers gave thanks for the summer’s crops and their survival through the harsh first winter. They were joined by Wampanoag Chief Massasoit and about ninety of his men who brought venison and turkey. The Virginia event was a religious service of thanksgiving at which a meager meal of bacon, peas, cornmeal cakes and cinnamon water was served. (It is interesting to note that at the time of the Mayflower’s arrival, Massachusetts was considered to be a northern part of Virginia.) Thanksgiving proclamations were made by American presidents beginning with George Washington. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln formally designated Thanksgiving as a national holiday to be held on the final Thursday of November.

Who, then, were the individuals feasting and giving thanks in Massachusetts in 1621? Continue reading…

Pocahontas

What do We Know About Pocahontas and Her Descendants?

Pocahontas, the legendary Native American princess who saved the life of Captain John Smith, has been the subject of many forms of art and literature – from Colonial paintings to Disney movies. The reality of Pocahontas, and of her descendants, is a more complex topic generally colored by legends more than facts. It’s rare to find information that deals only with known facts without the pull of the colorful stories. The following post discusses the known facts and lineage of Pocahontas, as well as provides literary resources to help you learn more should Pocahontas and her descendants be part of your family history or research.

“She was of a ‘Coulour browne, or rather tawnye,’ and her age was somewhere between twelve and fourteen. She probably was round-faced, with the fore part of her ‘grosse’ and ‘thick’ black hair ‘shaven close,’ and the very long ‘thicker part’ being ‘tied in a pleate hanging down’ to her hips. Her hands almost certainly were ‘pretty.’ Her ‘handsome lymbes,’ breast, ‘slender armes’ and face may well have been cunningly tattooed. And she probably wore a headband or crownlet and copper-decorated beads and earrings, her head and shoulders being covered with red colored powder ‘mixed with the oyle of the walnut, or Beares grease.’ In winter this paint ‘armes (in some measure) against the Cold’ and ‘in Summer doth check the heat’ while helping to defend ‘from the stinging of Muskeetoes which here breed aboundantly, amongst the marish whorts, and fenburies.’

“Her name was Matoaka, but they called her Pocahontas, the appellation possibly being derived from the Algonkian adjective meaning ‘playful, sportive, frolicsome, mischievous, frisky.’

“She was a member of one of a confederacy of some thirty well-organized, thriving agricultural and fishing tribes, who lived in approximately 160 villages widely scattered over much of the lower section of the Chesapeake Bay, and had a total population in the neighborhood of 9,000. And she was one of the many children of Powhatan, the confederacy’s overlord or supreme ‘werowance.'”

Thus begins the late Stuart Brown’s diminutive biography of the legendary Native American princess who saved the life of Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame. Mr. Brown, an attorney and antiquarian bookman by day, devoted much of his spare time to recording everything that could be found out about Pocahontas and her progeny. His biography, entitled Pocahontas, which occupies a focused 36 pages, uses only contemporary or near-contemporary facts pertaining to Pocahontas’s appearance, words, and actions. It is fully documented and features a number of reproductions of engravings made of the princess, her father, and scenes from early 17th-century Virginia. Continue reading…

chancery records, government collection Library of Virginia

What are Chancery Records and Why Should I Use Them?

When I began my genealogical research many years ago, like many other beginners, I focused on marriage records, birth and death records when they were available, as well as wills. With experience came more knowledge and I began to use deeds and other land records. As I started research in Virginia I attended various workshops and seminars in order to become more knowledgeable about the specific records available in that state. One of my educational goals was to learn about those things called “chancery records” that I kept hearing my colleagues discuss. By doing so, I was able to add depth and detail to my research, learning to piece together information about individuals who might have otherwise gone unknown and their stories untold.

To understand chancery records, a definition of chancery, or chancery courts, is necessary. Not all courts judge cases in the same manner. Some courts decide cases based on the written laws that either specifically allow or specifically proscribe various actions in certain circumstances. There is no latitude for judicial interpretation in these cases; there is no “grey area” as the legal requirements are defined quite clearly. Continue reading…