Local residents trace their lineage to the Mayflower

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2013 - 4:17 PM

Thanksgiving has special meaning for the 475 members of the Minnesota chapter of the Mayflower Society, which verifies ancestral links to the pilgrims.

About 20 million people worldwide are descended from the pilgrims who came to America in 1620 on the Mayflower. Among the most famous settlers were John and Priscilla Alden.

When Mike Brey started researching his family tree, he secretly hoped to uncover something unexpected, like a royal link.

So it was a pleasant surprise when he found a direct connection to John and Priscilla Alden, pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower.

“I just felt it was kind of neat, to be able to have something in my background that’s a part of American history, that everyone knows about,” said the Champlin resident.

Brey pulled together the documentation to prove he’s related to the Aldens. Now, he’s waiting to hear back from the Minnesota Society of Mayflower Descendants about whether his research holds up. He’s hoping to join the group.

The Minnesota Society’s 475 members are descendants of those who arrived in ­present-day Plymouth, Mass., from Holland and England aboard the Mayflower in 1620.

On Saturday, Nov. 16, the society, a chapter of the national organization that’s based in Massachusetts, is hosting a Thanksgiving dinner in St. Paul that coincides with its annual meeting. The event also celebrates the Mayflower Compact, which was signed on Nov. 11, 1620.

John Alden was among those who signed off on the document, Brey said. But he’s guessing that Alden is better known for his courtship of Priscilla Mullins, a tale that has been immortalized in paintings and illustrations and an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

For Brey, proving his ancestry was no easy task. When Caleb and Ruth Simmons moved to Minnesota in 1856, “Our history was lost and no one knew that this link to the pilgrims existed,” he said.

Brey filled in the gaps by researching an old family notebook, Internet message boards, public records and even a handwritten will that someone online offered up. All told, the project took him a year.

It’s like being a detective, he said. “You keep digging into the facts, uncovering other things. It gives you real insight on the history of the U.S.”

The Mayflower Compact

The society “proves” an average of 20 applications each year, says Deb Kopas, the organization’s volunteer historian.

To become members, people must prove “the birth, death and marriage of the line carrier and spouse for each generation from their pilgrim to themselves,” she said.

Although estimates vary, about 20 million people across the globe are thought to be direct descendants of one or more Mayflower passengers, Kopas said, adding, “Most people just haven’t looked into it.”

The pilgrims’ story is interesting on its own, but it’s their contributions to the government that make them stand out, she said.

The Mayflower Compact, an agreement that predated the U.S. Constitution by nearly 170 years, laid out a form of self-government for the pilgrims. The contract espoused democratic ideals. “It put in the writing the idea that each person needs to have a vote,” Kopas said.

Kopas is a 12th-generation descendant of William Bradford, a governor of the early Plymouth Colony.

Bradford’s diary contains the only record of the ship’s 102 passengers, she said. Only half of those passengers survived the first year in America.

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