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Diane Cummins holds a certificate confirming her membership in the Mayflower Society in her office in Katonah, N.Y.

Suzanne DeChillo • New York Times,

Nancy Pawlikowski, at home in Rome, N.Y., was rejected because she couldn’t prove her great-great-great-great grandfather’s parentage.

Heather Ainsworth • New York Times,

To prove their lineage, Mayflower descendants must be tenacious

  • Article by: ANN FARMER
  • New York Times
  • November 28, 2013 - 5:00 PM

 

A well-worn potato masher was a tantalizing clue. “You’ve got to see the thing. It’s old,” Kristina Mack said.

Indeed it is. According to family lore, the battered wooden utensil traveled to America from England in 1620.

But while the potato masher is a prized possession, with a place of honor in Mack’s china cabinet in Buffalo, it is not what recently won her acceptance into one of the country’s most rarefied clubs. Instead, a stack of evidence that included birth, death and marriage certificates, cemetery records, photos of gravestones, wills and even love letters linked Mack to William Bradford, a relative with 14 “greats” in front of the title “grandfather.”

That would be the Bradford who sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower and became the second governor of Plymouth colony. Her ancestral relation earned Mack, 62, membership in the Society of Mayflower Descendants in the State of New York, which since its founding more than a century ago has recognized about 5,830 New Yorkers as descendants of one of the 102 hardy souls who endured that trans-Atlantic crossing and established one of the earliest colonies in America.

Many are disappointed

Thanksgiving is a busy time for the society. Marking the Pilgrims’ first harvest celebration motivates some to dig through the attic. But gaining entry to the society is a demanding journey that for many ends in disappointment.

Nancy Pawlikowski believes she is a descendant of Miles Standish, a Mayflower passenger and the Plymouth colony’s military commander.

“It gives me chills up and down my spine when I tell my cousins and children and grandchildren, ‘Hey, we are related to Miles Standish,’” said Pawlikowski, 74, a retired secretary who lives in Rome, N.Y.

But she has not been able to prove it, at least not to the Mayflower society’s satisfaction. She could trace her lineage back to her great-great-great-great-grandfather, Alonzo Young, but she failed to prove that he was the son of Amy Standish Young Holcomb.

Sarah C. Morse, the executive director of the New York Society of Mayflower Descendants, understands the disillusionment of those whose applications fail but says her organization has a reputation to protect and an obligation to preserve historical accuracy. She fields many inquiries from people who have no idea of the high bar to membership.

“I have to tell them that you have to do the work,” she said. “It takes a lot of time.”

It took Dianne Cummins a second try to persuade the society that she was eligible. When she first applied, Cummins, 64, of Mahopac, N.Y., was told that she had mixed up two people with the same name. She took the news in stride.

Her research stretched over two years, but Cummins finally convinced the society that she was a descendant of James Chilton, who is considered to have been the oldest passenger and who died soon after arriving in America. “It really does root you,” Cummins said. “We all learned about it as kids. We drew pictures of Pilgrims. We all celebrate Thanksgiving. I felt very proud that I could do it.”

Proving authenticity

Of the roughly 500 inquiries the society typically fields a year, only about 100 lead to a full application, either because people do not clear an initial screening of their potential genealogical link to the Mayflower or because they do not want to follow through with the rigorous process.

Historians say there is a dark side to what they refer to as “lineage societies.”

Mayflower societies developed, at least in part, as a “reaction to immigration” that was transforming the United States late in the 19th century, said Herb Sloan, a history professor at Barnard College.

Membership, he said, conferred the notion that “we’re authentic. We’re better. We were here before. Unlike these unwashed immigrants coming to America.”

“It doesn’t make you better,” said Adelaide Farah, of Manhattan, whose Mayflower ancestor was John Alden, a crew member on the ship. “I’m proud of what my ancestors did. They came to a place unknown to them in every way.”

 

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