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Researching Your Pilgrim Ancestry from Mayflower Ship Passengers

Introduction: In this article — just in time for Thanksgiving — Mary Harrell-Sesniak searches old newspapers to trace ancestry all the way back to the Pilgrims, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on board the Mayflower in 1620 for a fresh start in the New World. Mary is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background.

Although endlessly rewarding, it is true that tracing ancestry is a time-consuming process requiring much patience — especially if one wishes to connect to the Mayflower passengers, those 102 Pilgrims who sailed from Leiden, Holland, in September 1620 bound for the New World — anchoring off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in November 1620.

Tragically, only half the Plymouth Rock settlers survived their first winter in the New World — and if any are your progenitors, you could conceivably be required to compile from 12-18 generations of documentary evidence to trace your Pilgrim ancestry and prove you are a descendant . Fortunately, there are many ways to research the Mayflower voyage and the Pilgrims, even if you can't visit Leiden or Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts (although please put these stops on your genealogical travel shortlist).

I traveled to Leiden, Holland, several years ago to conduct first-hand research on my Mayflower Pilgrim ancestry, and found this Dutch marriage record for future Mayflower ship passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris from 1611.

However, as I say, you don't need to travel to research your Mayflower Pilgrim ancestry — you can do it from the comfort of your own home, relying on your computer and the Internet, using several helpful websites and having access to online historical newspapers.

Common genealogical advice suggests that you start your family history research with yourself and work backwards to prove ancestry. However, with Mayflower genealogy research, you might want to work "down the research ladder," instead of up, as it could very well save you a few steps.

Approved list of Mayflower Passengers

Start at the top of your family tree by looking for surnames matching the list of passengers on theMayflower, shown on the accepted list of eligible ancestors compiled by Pilgrim lineage societies, most notably the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

John AldenBartholomew AllertonIsaac Allerton
Mary (Norris) AllertonMary AllertonRemember Allerton
Elinor BillingtonFrancis BillingtonJohn Billington
William BradfordLove BrewsterMary Brewster
William BrewsterPeter BrowneJames Chilton
Mrs. James ChiltonMary ChiltonFrancis Cooke
John CookeEdward DotyFrancis Eaton
Samuel EatonSarah EatonMoses Fletcher
Edward FullerMrs. Edward FullerSamuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller (son of Edward)Constance HopkinsElizabeth (Fisher) Hopkins
Giles HopkinsStephen HopkinsJohn Howland
Richard MorePriscilla MullinsWilliam Mullins
Degory PriestJoseph RogersThomas Rogers
Henry SamsonGeorge SouleMyles Standish
Elizabeth TilleyJohn TilleyJoan (Hurst) Tilley
Richard WarrenPeregrine WhiteResolved White
Susanna WhiteWilliam WhiteEdward Winslow

Publications by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants

And if that surname research strategy fails, research Mayflower descendants to the fifth generation to try and find a match to your family. Many publications exist, including the famous pink or gray Pilgrim lineage books published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants — many of which are available at libraries. As accepted references, these Society publications allow you to bypass submitting proofs for any Mayflower descendant they’ve already established.

The silver books trace the first five generations of Mayflower descendants.

The smaller pink books are Mayflower Families in Progress (MFIP), and are produced as new information becomes available.

Newspaper Evidence for Peregrine (or Peregrin) White and His Descendants

An extraordinary amount of newspaper articles and obituaries mentioning Mayflower ancestry exist in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.

Although not my Mayflower ancestor, I'm fascinated by Peregrine White. He was the son of William and Susanna White, who crossed the ocean on the Mayflower with his older brother Resolved. Susanna was pregnant with Peregrine during the Atlantic crossing, and he became the first Plymouth Colony baby of English ancestry when he was born on 20 November 1620 on board the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peregrine_White.)

After William White died — as so many did, during the Colony’s first winter — Susanna married widower Edward Winslow, of whom much is written. After reaching manhood, Peregrine married Sarah Bassett, and if you are one of their descendants, you have a multitude of cousins.

One of your relatives is their grandson George Young (1689-1771), son of their daughter Sarah White (1663-1755) and Thomas Young (1663-1732).

George Young’s lineage was noted in this 1771 obituary.

Being such a small colony of settlers, the Mayflower Pilgrim’s children intermarried. As reported in this 1821 newspaper article, John Alden was a descendant of his grandfather by the same name — and also of Peregrine White, via his grandmother. He is thought to have married twice, first to Lydia Lazell and later to Rebecca Weston, although neither of his wives are mentioned in this obituary. Note how many of John Alden’s descendants were living when he died at the ripe old age of 103.

Elder James White, who founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan, was another direct descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims. His religious affiliation and his Mayflower ancestry were reported in this 1881 newspaper obituary.

Reporting trend in Pilgrim Descendants ’Obituaries

Do you notice a trend in these obituaries? The importance of being a descendant of a Mayflower passenger tends to overshadow all other aspects of an individual’s life!

For example, Ellen Gould Harmon was the spouse of Elder James White — and her obituary from 1915 makes more notice of his roots than her own.

Are you my Mayflower Cousin?

Although I have not located Peregrine White ancestry in my own family tree, if you trace to any of the following Mayflower passengers, then you and I are cousins:

  • William Brewster and Mary (maiden name unknown)
  • Giles Hopkins and Catherine Whelden
  • Stephen Hopkins and Mary (maiden name unknown)
  • John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley

We are in good company. By 1909, one writer's conservative estimate calculated that by the 10th generation, any of the Mayflower passengers could have had at least 3,500,000 descendants! Since most Mayflower descendants are now of the 13th, 14th, 15th or 16th generation, that number has skyrocketed.

The rising number of Mayflower Pilgrim descendants is reported in this 1909 newspaper article.

If you think you are a descendant of theMayflower passengers, this article from the New England Historic Genealogical Society may be of interest, "The Society of Mayflower Descendants: Who they are, where to find them, how to apply".

Learn more about the people on the Mayflower passenger list and how to research your Mayflower genealogy using GenealogyBank. Or search our ship passenger records to start tracing your family history on the Mayflower and other passenger ships from 1704-1984.

Have you traced your ancestry back to one of the Mayflower ship passengers? If so, please tell us about it in the comments section. We’d love to know who your Mayflower ancestors are.