Thanksgiving has special meaning for the 475 members of the Minnesota chapter of the Mayflower Society, which verifies ancestral links to the pilgrims.
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.
That’s what gave meaning to the first Thanksgiving. “They’d gone through a rough winter so they were celebrating the first harvest” in the fall of 1621, she said. Those remaining “knew at that point they were going to survive.”
The event probably was much different from today’s holiday, she said. For starters, it’s debatable whether the pilgrims ate turkey. Being on the coast, they were more likely to have had seafood.
It’s more believable that they had cranberries, another Thanksgiving staple, which are abundant in Plymouth, she said.
‘A badge of honor’
Carol Bergemann of Brooklyn Park, who is originally from Milbridge, Maine, joined the Mayflower Society in 2004, and several of her grandchildren are junior members.
She wishes she’d known she was related to the pilgrims when she was younger. “I would love to go back to school with that knowledge. It would be a badge of honor,” she said.
Bergemann is related to pilgrims Stephen Hopkins and Thomas Rogers. She’s found early evidence of other ancestral ties, including William Bradford and Mary Allerton, who was the last Mayflower pilgrim around when she died in 1699.
“I’d like to have all of my lines documented and proven, just to see how many I have,” said Bergemann.
When she toured Plymouth Rock, she was struck by the replica Mayflower, which was crude and small. “All I could think was that those passengers were crazy, destitute and brave,” said Bergemann. “I wouldn’t want to take it across Lake Minnetonka.
“The more you look, the more you find, and the more you want to find. It’s almost like an obsession at times,” she said.
Lino Lakes resident Dolores Shellum can relate. She spent almost a decade chasing after family information. Finally, with the help of a fellow society member, she was able to prove that she’s a descendant of Edward Doty, a servant of Stephen Hopkins.
Doty was a troublemaker who supposedly participated in the country’s first-ever sword fight, she said.
A historic wedding
Dudley and Marti (McClure) Ryan, who live in Mahtomedi, got engaged in Plymouth, Mass., in 2005. They returned several years later for their wedding. “We were moved by the history of our connections,” he said, adding that they met online.
Ryan is related to William Brewster, who was a spiritual leader on the Mayflower, while Marti is connected to John Alden, among other pilgrims.
“Our great-grandfathers 14 generations ago were next-door neighbors and best friends in Plymouth, and here we find each other in different cities on the Internet,” Dudley said.
The society’s get-togethers are sort of like a family reunion, Marti said. “The longer you’re in, you know who’s related to who. It’s just like family — a very extended family.”
Some members even refer to each other as cousins.
“It raises the hair on your back when you think of the first Thanksgiving, the relatives of these people sitting at that table,” Dudley Ryan said.
To find out more about the Minnesota chapter of the Mayflower Society, go to www.minnesotamayflower.org.
Anna Pratt is a Twin Cities freelance writer.