Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Ten Things to Know About Researching a Pilgrim in Your Family Tree

The Mayflower II
at berth in Plymouth Harbor, Massachusetts

The big National holiday in November is Thanksgiving, and so for November 10th I’m presenting another list of 10 important facts about Pilgrim genealogy research.  This is the time of the year many people start to look for a Pilgrim in their family tree.

It is estimated that over 35 million people are descended from at least one of the 102 passengers who arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts on board the famous ship Mayflower in 1620.  According to GenealogyBank, 12% of Americans are descended from the Mayflower. Don’t you think that is an amazing number, considering that half of the passengers died within the first three months?  Odds are good that YOU might be descended from the Mayflower passengers, too.

#1:   You probably won’t find your Pilgrim ancestor in time for Thanksgiving if you start now.  But better late than never!  At least you can discuss your family history at Thanksgiving dinner, and start gathering some clues from the oldest family members.  Perhaps you will have a great research story to tell everyone at Thanksgiving next year!

#2:   Start with yourself and work backwards.  You won’t have success if you pick a Pilgrim from the Mayflower passenger list and try to work forward through time. There are too many potential descendants, and it would be a big waste of time to follow all the incorrect lineages for the estimated 14 or 15 generations needed to reach back to 1620.

#3: You may already have a clue in your family tree. The 102 passengers on the Mayflower had some distinctive names like STANDISH, BREWSTER and BRADFORD, but they also had common surnames like BROWNE, COOKE, ROGERS, and WHITE.  To see a complete passenger list, click on this link: https://www.themayflowersociety.org/about-the-pilgrims20/the-pilgrims

#4:  Is there a branch of your family from colonial era (pre-1776) New England?  Were any of them born in Massachusetts?  Were any of your ancestors born in Plymouth County, Massachusetts?  This can be a big clue that might lead to finding a Pilgrim.

#5: The Mayflower Society has a large project to publish a set of books known as the “Silver Books”, which contain the first five generations of descendants from each Mayflower passenger known to have issue.  This project is mostly complete; with a few surnames still being researched (these names “in progress” are published as “pink books).  If you can connect to an ancestor in one of these books, five generations of research will have already been done for you!

#6:  The Mayflower Society also maintains records of every lineage application ever submitted for membership.  Before proving your lineage, send a “preliminary application” to the Society in Plymouth, and they will check the records to see if your lineage has already been proved. If you are lucky, you may have had many generations of your lineage already proven in these files.

#7: Plymouth Colony was very small.  In the first hundred years several Mayflower passengers married each other, even more of their children married each other, and dozens of grandchildren of passengers married each other. If you find you are related to one passenger, keep looking and you might find several more Mayflower Pilgrims in your family tree.

#8:  Although the Mayflower passengers are some of the most intensively researched genealogy subjects in America, there are also many lasting myths about them.  Many books and web pages claim that someone’s ancestor was a passenger on the Mayflower.  Look up to #3 on this list to see the “official” list of passengers.  Caleb Johnson has a webpage with some of the most common fake Mayflower genealogy.  Check it out here: http://web.archive.org/web/20070611110521/http://members.aol.com/calebj/hoaxes.html

#9:  If you find a Pilgrim in your family tree, please consider joining the Mayflower Society.  Registering your pedigree from a Mayflower passenger is part of the creation of one of the biggest, most researched, and most documented, family trees in United States history.  Having your family tree on file will insure that your future descendants can make a cousin connection and be part of the Society, too.  Membership is open to any man, woman or child who can document their descent from one or more of the Mayflower passengers. For more information, please see the General Society of Mayflower Descendants website at this link: https://www.themayflowersociety.org/

#10:  The Pilgrims and their story belong not just to the descendants, but to all Americans.  The story of survival, cooperation with each other, collaboration with the Native Americans, Thanksgiving and the founding of a new colony is part of American history. “The Pilgrims are America’s Family” is a quote from the current Governor General of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Lea Sinclair Filson.  

Good luck!  Maybe you will be one of my new Mayflower cousins!  I am descended of the following Mayflower passengers- Capt. Myles Standish, Isaac Allerton, Mary (Norris) Allerton, Remember Allerton, John Howland, John Tilley, Joan (Hurst) Tilley, Elizabeth Tilley, George Soule, and Edward Doty.


If you are interested in the story of the Plymouth Colony and the Mayflower, there will be two new movies premiering on television this month:

National Geographic Channel “Saints and Strangers”, a four hour event November 22 and 23

preview video clip

PBS “American Experience: The Pilgrims” by Ric Burns, November 24

Please check these resources for more information:

The General Society of Mayflower Descendants  www.themayflowersociety.org
Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts   http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/
Plimoth Plantation Museum,Plymouth, Massachusetts   http://www.plimoth.org/
Caleb Johnson’s Mayflower website http://mayflowerhistory.com/  
Sail 1620, by the Pennsylvania Society of Mayflower Descendants  http://www.sail1620.org/
The Leiden Archives, The Netherlands  http://www.pilgrimarchives.nl/
The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum  http://www.leidenamericanpilgrimmuseum.org
The Scrooby Pilgrim Heritage Center http://www.leidenamericanpilgrimmuseum.org/index.htm
The Harwich Mayflower Project   http://www.harwichmayflower.com/

Published under a Creative Commons License
Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Ten Things to Know About Researching a Pilgrim in Your Family Tree", Nutfield Genealogy, posted November 10, 2015 ( http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2015/11/ten-things-to-know-about-researching.html : accessed [access date]). 


  1. I had no idea the percentage of Americans descended from the Mayflower was so high. I tend to think of it as one of those genealogy myths that rarely bare fruit, like being descended from Native Americans. There is a Mayflower myth in my family which looks like it is just that, but it is still not fully researched either way.

  2. Great post, Heather! My husband must be a distant cousin of yours, because he's a descendant of Isaac Allerton, Mary Norris Allerton, Mary Allerton, and Degory Priest. Plus Thomas Cushman of the Fortune, for good measure. Thanks for all the links and ideas.

  3. I descend from Mayflower passengers William White, his wife Susanna and their son Resolved and recently found the missing document that links generation 6 to the earlier ones. You mention in your #6 above about sending a preliminary application. How would I go about doing that?

    1. The preliminary review form is available on the General Society of Mayflower Descendants website. The page link is https://www.themayflowersociety.org/component/breezingforms/view/form?Itemid=350
      You can fill it out online. You will receive preliminary results in six weeks. It is NOT an application, you must still apply through the individual state (member) societies. If you prefer to fill out the preliminary application by hand (it is a long lineage form) you have the option on that page of filling out a printable PDF form and mailing it directly to the society. California residents are asked to use the special preliminary form on the California Mayflower website. You can call 508-746-3188 with questions about membership, but most of the information is on that webpage linked above.

  4. what if your family arrived before the Mayflower? which lineage society would relate to them

    1. There is a Jamestowne Society http://www.jamestowne.org/
      The Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters for those who arrived in Virginia before 1616 and survived the massacre of 1622: http://www.ancientplanters.org/
      There is the Order of Founders and Patriots of America for those who arrived in the British Colonies before 1657 http://www.founderspatriots.org/
      I don't know about French or Spanish colonial lineage societies except for the Societe des Filles du Roi but that was not pre-1620 http://www.fillesduroi.org/src/kings_daughters.htm

  5. thank you Heather...I am a Fille du Roi. I will check the Order of Founders and Patriots of America