An American Legacy:
The Mayflower ’s Descendants Today
LILLIAN ANN SLUGOCKI
The American character is one of multiple contradictions: deep religious conviction mixing with freedom
of belief; a desire for home and family competing with a thirst for adventure. Here, we look at the people on board the Mayflower and their descendants today, to see how this one ship has shaped American lives. This piece is inspired by National Geographic Channel’s two-night movie event, Saints & Strangers, which looks at the diverse—and often untold—stories of the people who boarded the Mayflower, in all their flaws and successes.
Tax records show that the early Pilgrims initially rented homes, in the poorer parts of town, adjacent to a brewery. After a while, some bought property. Some lived, and some died. Children were orphaned and cared for by the community. But, they weren’t destined to stay—Holland was a bit too licentious for their tastes, and after a decade they were on the move again; this time, for the New World. But not all Mayflower passengers shared these Pilgrims’ religious convictions. This other group were more heterogeneous. They were bound not by religious convictions, but instead by earthly desires: for adventure, money, and land.
But one thing is certain, at least: One lone ship, the Mayflower, with 102 passengers, sailed across the Atlantic in the fall of 1620, in the most dangerous time of the year, and survived. This is our origin story. And, in a way, it’s perfect— those passengers were a very disparate group of 102 people, whose differing ideals and values would come to comprise the initial American character. If this group of proto-Americans were, in many ways, the progenitors of our country, what are their descendants up to today? Have their ancestral ties to the Mayflower affected them in any way? To understand, we need first to know more about the original Mayflower passengers.
Most Americans know that a good portion of the Mayflower’s passengers took the voyage to the New World in search of religious liberty. And, according to the American Society of Church History, many of these religious pilgrims previously lived for more than a decade in Leiden, Netherlands—their first attempt at expatriating to a more, in their view, religiously liberal location. At that point, they didn’t much resemble our typical conception of the ascetic and stern Puritans. Instead, they were an ad hoc group of hardworking and passionate people, accused of treason in England for splitting with the Church of England; it was too formalized, too complex. They wanted simple, pure. And if they wanted to survive, they had to leave.
They snuck out of England one night, and joined the diaspora of other revolutionaries-saints and strangers alike-who migrated west to Holland and other countries. Some were pious, some were not. Some of them were educated. Some were new to the world: A child was born during the crossing. Richard Pickering, 17th century historian and Executive Deputy Director of Plimoth Plantation says of the original 102 souls on board, half were lost in the first 2.5 months of landing at Plymouth. But they had enough sense to draft a proto-constitution, The Mayflower Compact, which ensured their survival. And, in a way, America’s own survival, too. We are still a disparate group of people, and the direct descendants of the Mayflower number between 25 and 30 million.
Samantha Bonar, a Los Angeles-based journalist, her brother Malcolm, who owns a food truck in Maine, and her sister, Elisabeth, an astrophysicist, are all direct descendants of Isaac Allerton, Stephen Hopkins, Francis Cooke, and Richard Warren. Isaac Allerton was one of the religious pilgrims on board the Mayflower. His wife, Mary, gave birth while at sea and died without ever setting foot in the new land, but their daughter survived. Samantha’s family, in the early part of the 20th century, were lumber barons. She has photos of her great grandparents socializing with the Wrigleys at their ranch in Arizona, as well as photos of her grandparents published in the society pages of the Los Angeles Times.
Yet, Samantha says she’s always felt a little lost in terms of her cultural identity. As a country, we view Mayflower descendants as a kind of American royalty, but her roots have been a mixed blessing for her. From her perspective, her Mayflower ancestors rebelled against everything that was British. They were, in effect, anti-British. And, because we are essentially a country of immigrants and slaves identifying as German-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, or other hybridic identities, she doesn’t. She doesn’t consider herself British-American, though her DNA disputes this. Rather, she says, “My heritage is less about identifying with a culture and more about identifying with qualities of character. Free-thinking, brave, adventurous, defiant toward authority. My ancestors were radical thinkers and doers.”
Radical thinkers and doers sounds a lot like the character of this country (or at least the myth of it) that can-do attitude, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Recently, she walked the Freedom Trail in Boston and felt a profound connection to her past, explaining, “These are my people, this is my history.”
Scott Aldrich, a musician in Brooklyn, is a direct descendant of Mayflower passenger Myles Standish. In fact, his is a very old family that dates back to Eleanor deStanis, from around the time of William the Conqueror, in 1099. Myles was a nobleman, a member of the landed gentry; however, by law, only his father’s eldest son could inherit the family fortune and Myles was not the first born son. So while it was common for the second or third born son to go into the military, Myles was a soldier of fortune; educated, ambitious, and intelligent, and he sought adventure on the high seas. Myles Standish, unlike Samantha’s relative, Isaac Allerton, didn’t make the crossing for religious reasons.
According to Scott, Standish’s aim for boarding the Mayflower was about the chance to reinvent himself. He operated in the political life of the new colony, rather than the religious. He made it his business to learn the language of the tribes of Native Americans, and to broker treaties with them, which allowed them to live in relative peace. Scott is also part Chickasaw on his father’s side. He is, he says, aware of the inherent contradictions in his ancestry, as well as the political implications: “I feel very American...a uniquely American identity mixed with European and Native American. I feel that sense of intrepid can-do-ness.”
America, he says, is still a country perpetually moving forward. And part of that history has involved the breaking of treaties with Native Americans, the stealing of land, and enslaving people. His mom has a hard time acknowledging this is a part of their history, but he doesn’t. He understands his privilege, even though he grew up “in genteel poverty” with lots of expensive, but very old, furniture and paintings. He has a strong sense of social responsibility—the necessity of giving back wherever possible.
When he was in college, he worked as a dishwasher in a resort in Rhode Island. Fascinatingly, he met eight other descendants of Myles Standish, all around the same age, all working in nearby resorts that summer, and not far, geographically, from where their ancestor first set foot in a strange, exciting new land. He also speaks movingly of the Trail of Tears, spurred by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The government carved out Oklahoma as “Indian Territory.” His great-great grandfather was one of the last Native Americans forced to move from Mississippi to Oklahoma. Like that of Samantha Bonar, his is also a uniquely American story—a dark one, in its way, but a truthful one.
Waves and waves of immigrants from all around the world will continue to step into the template created by these initial American immigrants. Their stories remains an important part of our mythology, helping us to think and rethink our sense of what it means to be an American. Richard Pickering feels there is something very dramatic about this solitary ship, the Mayflower, at sea with its 102 passengers—on their way to landing in the wilderness, and governing themselves for the first time in their lives. Many other people arrived to try their luck in the New World, and almost as many left. But the colony, as we know, survives and flourishes, in its contemporary form: America. Plymouth Rock itself, and the area surrounding it, has changed greatly since the Mayflower first landed there. But the ship’s story, our origin story, potent and complex, remains.
istory is always in flux: Boundaries shift and change, new evidence and new narratives emerge, and the truth can be hard, if not impossible, to pin down. In American culture, for instance, we hotly debate—to this day—the circumstances and ideals surrounding our nation’s founding.
National Geographic Channel's Saints & Strangers is a story that goes beyond the familiar historical account of Thanksgiving, revealing the trials and tribulations of the settlers at Plymouth Plantation. 102 men, women and children sailed on a chartered ship for a place they had never seen. Of this group, half are those we think of as “pilgrims,” religious separatists who abandoned their prior lives for a single cause: religious freedom. The other half, the "merchant adventurers," had less spiritual and more material objectives. This clash of values created complex inner struggles for the group as they sought to establish a new colony, compounded by a complicated relationship with the local Native American tribes. The conflicting allegiances among these groups, culminated in trials of assimilation, faith and compromise that continue to define our nation to this day.
Saints & Strangers, a two-night movie event, premieres Sunday November 22nd at 9/8c on the
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