They sat down together and feasted. They gave thanks for a plentiful harvest and for the friends they’d made in this wild place. Prayers were said, in their own way, without censure or fear of retribution. They were grateful simply to be alive.
It was the first Thanksgiving, 400 years ago this fall. The 50 or so Pilgrims who had survived that first year welcomed nearly 90 American Indians, who brought five deer they’d killed to the banquet. The feast lasted for three days on this rocky piece of land, the windswept ocean at their backs and the impenetrable forest a few hundred yards ahead.
For many of us, Turkey Day is our favorite holiday. Family, food, friends, and football are followed by a long nap. What more could you want? For about 200 people here in the Cincinnati/Dayton area, though, “family” means a little more than who sits around the table. They’re direct descendants of the Pilgrims.
I originally thought it might be difficult to track down an actual Pilgrim descendant in this area. It wasn’t. Depending on which source you want to believe, there could be as many as 35 million Americans, or as few as 3 million, who can trace their lineage back to those hardy souls. You could be one, but if you want any sort of official recognition you’ll have to convince members of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants with shoeboxes of documentation. They’re based in Massachusetts and very particular about who gets in the club. Ancestry.com doesn’t count with these folks.
Cincinnati has a chapter of the Society, known as a colony. “It’s a great group to belong to, and we all have our stories not just about our ancestors but also about what we had to do to prove they were our ancestors,” says Star Vondrell of Springfield Township, the local colony’s leader. “When we get together, we’re probably a little geeky, but it’s just because it’s exciting to share our stories and listen to what others have discovered.”
Like many members of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Vondrell can likely trace her ancestry back to more than one Mayflower passenger. You see, the Pilgrims were determined procreators, and, at least initially, the only opportunities were right there in their own colony. One of the more famous passengers, John Alden, for example, had 10 children with his wife, fellow passenger Priscilla Mullins, and the kids in turn gave the Aldens 70 grandchildren, some of whom married the offspring of other Mayflower voyagers. The intertwined branches of Pilgrim descendant marriages—some of which still happen today—suggest the family tree is more like a burgeoning bush.
Beth Anderson is fascinated with all of her ancestors, but there’s one who stands out. “Oh, I think I’m probably most like Stephen Hopkins,” she says without hesitation. “I like my beer and I like my wine, and obviously so did he.”
Hopkins is described by most historians as the “rogue” on the good ship Mayflower. As a colonist in Plymouth, he often ran afoul of the strict Pilgrim penal code both in terms of his business practices and his morality. He drank beer and played shuffleboard on Sundays. He offended customary sensibilities by selling dry goods to fellow passengers for twice their fair price. He was sued by another colonist and then fined for beating him up. Authorities threw him in jail for refusing to support his maid, who had been impregnated by another settler. He was a colorful character in a rather colorless world.
“He was very much the bad guy, but also the adventurer,” says Anderson, laughing as she recounts Hopkins’s transgressions. He had been one of the early settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, before returning to England, where the Pilgrims, as they sought experienced New World help, persuaded him to make a second trip across the ocean. He knew and understood the native tribes and the value in their friendship. In many ways, he was Plymouth Colony’s chief diplomat to the Wampanoags, Thanksgiving’s first guests.
Discovering your Mayflower roots can reveal other more recent family mysteries, as Anderson, a retired nurse from Centerville, discovered. Her grandmother on her mother’s side abandoned the family when Anderson’s mother was only 3 years old. Growing up, the missing grandmother was a hole in Anderson’s family story. “I guess I just assumed she had died,” she says.
Then, about 20 years ago, her mother asked Anderson to drop in on a cousin who lived in Florida. “I said, What? I have a cousin in Florida?” she recalls. “I was 56 years old and never knew. And it turned out that the cousin used to live across the street from us.”
The cousin had her own bomb to drop. “She says to me, Do you know you have Mayflower ancestry? and I said, Yeah, right, sure we do. Everyone from Massachusetts has Mayflower ancestry,” Anderson recounts, her eyes rolling. She’s originally from Salem, Massachusetts, and is familiar with blue bloods in the Bay State who, as she puts it, “live by the sea in the big mansions my mother used to clean as a child.”
That isn’t Anderson, who lives in a comfortable condo off I-675 with her husband. But mansion or not, she’s a 14th generation Mayflower descendant and has file cabinets worth of material to prove it.
Genealogy is hard detective work. For most people, it starts as a hobby, but as the trail broadens and takes you into the pages of your high school history book, it often becomes an obsession. As Vondrell dug into her past, she found her great-great-great-great grandfather’s pension document that cited his service in the Continental Army and “meeting up with General Washington.” “That just sent chills up my spine,” she says. “It brings history to life in a way that’s so personal.”
Clay Crandall of Mason also has Massachusetts roots through his mother and, like Vondrell, found his family tree full of Revolutionary War patriots. When he worked backwards, he discovered he was related directly to both John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, the prolific Pilgrim couple. Crandall says he loves to brag about being a Mayflower descendant but has also embraced his patriot roots as a member of the local chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution. He even owns a woolen Continental Army uniform.
Crandall, Vondrell, and Anderson worked for years to confirm their Pilgrim roots. Doug van der Zee, a business executive living in North Avondale, had a head start thanks to his grandmother, who had done a lot of legwork. But there were loose ends to tie up, he says, including trying to prove his line went not only to William Brewster, the Pilgrims’ religious leader, but also to their military strategist, Miles Standish.
It also took years, though van der Zee readily admits he wasn’t working on it full-time. “I had a job, and still do,” he says. “But I kept at it out of curiosity. It’s kind of like earning the Good Housekeeping Seal when you finally get blessed by the General Society of Mayflower, like getting your diploma.”
The road to that approval traverses a valley between two genealogical mountains. You and your family are on one peak, and the Pilgrims and their next four generations are on the other. Those lines are documented and confirmed in what’s called the “Silver Books.” Your branch on the Mayflower tree is likely at Generation 13, 14, or 15, and your job is to connect back directly with Gen 5. That valley is full of dead ends, faded records, dusty books, broken tombstones in weedy cemeteries, and official documents with misspelled names. The praetorian guard standing sentry on the road is an exacting official Mayflower Society historian trained in the art of skepticism. Van der Zee calls it the hardest club in the world to join, and everyone has their story of frustration followed by joy.
“I ran into a brick wall at Generation 10,” Vondrell recalls as we sit in a room at St. Xavier High School. She just retired from years of service as the school’s director of facilities, a perfect job for her organizational skills. In Gen 10, she discovered a death certificate in the Mayflower line of her great-great-grandfather that didn’t name his parents.
It took Vondrell several years to collect 26 documents from the 18th and 19th centuries and then write a “probability letter” connecting the generational dots to persuade the Mayflower Society that the links in her chain were provable and unbroken. One of her last obstacles was presenting research showing that, back in the first decade of the 19th century, “Polly” was a common nickname for Mariah—a critical link to connecting her chain, because Polly was the name on her ancestor Mariah’s death certificate. Yes, the Mayflower Society’s walls are formidable.
Scaling them might take you to the Board of Vital Records in Chicago or west to military archives in St. Louis. You might have to track down the sexton who has records to a long-abandoned cemetery in rural Clermont County. Or you might spend part of your next vacation in a land deeds office in Vermont. Nearby, the Latter-Day Saints Family History Center in Norwood has a treasure trove of genealogical microfiche. The biggest fish of all is the library whose records rival Google’s: the Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
“It doesn’t stop, because every door you open goes into a room with more doors,” says Vondrell. “I had piles and piles of paper on my dining room table for a long time. My daughter tells me I get bogged down in the history and the stories, but that’s what I like.”
This 14th generation has worked hard to establish its links to the Mayflower, but none of them has been successful drawing interest from the 15th generation. No children have expressed more than a mild curiosity, I’m told, and some were even disdainful, deciding the Mayflower Society was either elitist or nothing more than another senior citizens club. There’s also plenty of debate among historians over whether the first Thanksgiving actually included the Wampanoags or even happened at all, as well as questions about colonialism and the mythmaking surrounding the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags. So, it’s complicated.
But like it or not, kids, you’re in The Club. Maybe it simply makes for a good story over a beer today, but when you’re older you just might find yourself telling the grandkids Pilgrim stories as you carve the turkey.
I don’t know whether to blame my grade school teachers, the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving TV special, or my own imagination. But I know now that my somewhat romanticized version of the first Thanksgiving was, well, romanticized.
Yes, the Pilgrims fled religious persecution, but they didn’t come to America in search of religious freedom. They came here so they could practice their religion and only their religion. And it was as severe as the weather. No hymns, no holidays, no crosses or statues, and no talk of salvation and hope. If you were a Pilgrim, you believed your fate was already ordained. You could neither screw it up nor help your cause by leading a spiritual life.
Back in 1620, the Pilgrims had commissioned two ships for their journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the Virginia colony. The Speedwell leaked and delayed the voyage until it had to be abandoned, leaving the Mayflower to sail alone into the fall storm season. Gales pushed the boat helplessly north to Cape Cod, hundreds of miles from their land charter. By then it was the beginning of winter, and they were in trouble.
But the Pilgrims were tough and, out of necessity, decent diplomats. Half of them were dead by the end of that first winter, and it’s true they probably would have all died had the natives not given them a hand—and a lot of venison. The Wampanoag Nation was fresh off a plague that had all but wiped them out, so maybe they were “friendly” or maybe they were just pragmatic.
Give the Pilgrims points for pragmatism, too. Sure, they had guns, but just how many of those Wampanoags were out there in the woods? They knew they were the “away team” and, after an initial skirmish, smartly signed a peace treaty that lasted 60 years.
Pilgrim society was a bit of us and them. The Pilgrims referred to themselves as “Saints,” which tells you something of their confidence that their next voyage would be to Heaven. The hired hands—many of them skilled craftsmen or trained soldiers—were known as “Strangers” and, considering the Pilgrims believed in predestination, it’s likely they were considered to be on a different path. Still, it’s notable that both Saints and Strangers signed the Mayflower Compact, and many Strangers became colony leaders.
The Pilgrims were, oddly, English nationalists. Some of us remember the story about how they detested the Church of England’s hierarchy and precepts and fled to Holland, where they established their own expat colony. But, after a time, they worried their children were becoming more Dutch and less English and too worldly, independent, and influenced by what they considered a less spiritual environment. So it was off to America with a land charter issued by the despised King James himself.
The Plymouth Colony would be all about law and order. The Mayflower Compact, signed by only the men, of course, was a short but sweet “all for one, one for all” document that established the colony’s rules of the road. “It essentially said, We’ve got to work together to survive,” says Vondrell. The Compact wasn’t detailed, but it did set up a governance methodology and a leadership hierarchy. The Pilgrims filled in the details later.
Vondrell argues, and a lot of historians agree, that the Compact was the first spark leading to the fire of American independence. “They were the laws of the land,” she says. “Laws made by the people and not the King.”
The Pilgrims were capitalists, and John Alden was likely the first capitalist, first entrepreneur, and first monopolist in the New World. He marketed his skills as a barrel maker and carpenter to earn a place on the Mayflower and, years later, when the colony faced a loan crisis with its English creditors, he cut a deal to personally assume the debt in return for being granted a monopoly on the fur trade in what is now Maine. He died rich. How American is that?
“The thing I always come back to is how tough the Pilgrims were,” says Crandall, a 20-year Air Force veteran. “A different breed. They were packed into that little ship, sick and hungry and cold. When they landed, people died all around them, but they couldn’t mourn. They had to get back to work. I wonder how I would have done under those conditions.”
I heard that from all of the descendants: an admiration for their ancestors, gratitude that they survived long enough for their line to remain unbroken, and a lot of self-reflection. Would your faith have been strong enough to leave your home forever? Would you have boarded that ship and sailed into the unknown? Would you have survived the ocean voyage or that first brutal winter? Would you have pulled your load and contributed to the colony’s survival? How would you have handled the Wampanoags?
On Thanksgiving Day, Vondrell will tell the story to her family again of the Pilgrims’ courage and of the First Feast, which likely occurred in October or November 1621. She will read the Mayflower Compact and the Pilgrims’ Pledge aloud, and her family will keep their eyerolls to themselves. She herself has much to be thankful for: Five children and 22 grandchildren, all of them (like it or not) descendants of America’s first religious colony. She is proud that one of her daughters-in-law is a member of the Oneida Nation from upstate New York.
“I tell them every year that the Pilgrims and the natives were both faith-filled and grateful on that first Thanksgiving to be alive,” says Vondrell. Her voice wavers a little, and she admits she can’t talk about that momentous feast without getting teary-eyed. “They were grateful for the food they shared together and for the common bond that had joined them.”
Cincinnati’s Pilgrim descendants agree that tracing their roots back to Plymouth Rock has changed their perspective. Some devour any book they can find on the Pilgrims. Some know minute details about their ancestors, while others are less interested. Some are embarrassed that the second generation of Pilgrims mangled the peace with the Wampanoags, setting a tragic pattern of broken promises to our continent’s native people.
History is nothing more than millions of stories, good and bad, linked into a tapestry that defines us as a people. “When you think about that first Thanksgiving and the two peoples coming together like they did,” Vondrell says of her Mayflower colleagues, “we need to keep the story alive.”
The story exists at all thanks to William Bradford’s biography Of Plimouth Plantation and Edward Winslow’s letter home to a friend in England, recounting the first Thanksgiving. “Although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us,” Winslow writes about the early months of famine, “yet by the goodness of God we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”
And so every fourth Thursday of November we partake of plenty with our family and friends. And the Pilgrim ancestors among us keep the origin story alive.