Friday, 7 November 2014

Researching Your Mayflower Ancestors

Celebrating our Mayflower ancestry!
Every year, just before Thanksgiving, some folks  want to know if they have a ancestor from the 1620 ship Mayflower.  My first advice is that it will probably take you more than a few weeks to prove a lineage back to someone born in the late 1500s, who might qualify as a passenger on this ship.  After all, it has been about thirteen or fourteen generations since those passengers were born.  But, if you work hard at it, you might be able to introduce your Mayflower passenger ancestor to your friends and family around the 2015 Thanksgiving table.

Mayflower descendants live all over the globe.  There are active Mayflower Societies in all 50 states, Washington DC, and Canada.  Societies are being considered for the United Kingdom and Australia because there are descendants living there, too.  Many descendants live in the Netherlands, because the Pilgrim families left siblings and married children behind in Leiden.  There are good numbers of other descendants scattered across the map.  Are you one of them?

1.   Start with yourself and work backwards in time.  It is impossible to start with a passenger and try to work forward to yourself along a lineage.  Besides, there were 102 passengers.  Even if grandma swears you descend from William Bradford, you just might be a descendant of Myles Standish or Priscilla Mullins. You will never know unless you follow proper genealogical practices of starting now and working back through the generations.

2.  Become familiar with the surnames of the 102 passengers, their descendants and where they lived.  Yes, BREWSTER is one of the Mayflower names, but there was also an early Brewster family in New Hampshire.  They were not related. Some of the passengers had common names like BROWN and WHITE.  However, if your BROWNS lived in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1600s and 1700s, this is worth researching.   You can find a complete list of passengers with known descendants are at these links:

Scroll down to “Mayflower Research” on this page to read sketches on each Pilgrim family from early Plymouth, Massachusetts:

3.  If you can work your family tree back to about the mid 1700s your next step is to review the Silver Books published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.  These are books produced by the “Five Generations Project” to document the first five generations of each Mayflower passenger. Some of the finest colonial genealogists have been part of this project.  Most of these lineages have been published, and the project is now called “Mayflower Families in Progress” as they continue researching the sixth and seventh generations.  You can find these books in good genealogy libraries, book stores, and for sale online at this link:   For a good listing of all the books, see this link: 

4. Use primary source documents (birth, marriage and death records) if you are planning to submit your research to a lineage society.  Deeds, probate (wills), gravestones, diaries and family bibles have also been used to establish lineage.  Some of this is available on the internet, and are acceptible if they are scanned images of original documents such as censuses and birth records.  Note all records with proper citations (page numbers, microfilm numbers, etc.).   User submitted trees on and are not acceptable because they lack documentation, but you can use them as clues to help you find primary source materials.  Don’t forget to make photocopies of everything you find.  Click this link to read about “The Best Records to Prove your Case” by Mayflower genealogist Alicia Crane Williams:

5.  In rare cases, you might want to consider DNA testing.  Many of the Pilgrim family associations have DNA projects.  However, for acceptance into a lineage society such as the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, DNA testing must be backed up with a paper trail.  DNA can help establish that two men descend from a common ancestor.   Several DNA tests have been used to in the lineage application process for GSMD. 

Let’s say you find a link to one of the Mayflower families.  What happens next?

1.  Congratulations!  You are connected to some of the most well researched group of immigrants on the planet earth.  There are endless books, articles, blog posts and all sorts of stories, documents and things to learn about your ancestor to keep you busy for quite some time. New research is being published every year.

2.  You've earned your bragging rights.  Not just that you have a famous ancestor, but you have done an impressive job at researching thirteen or fourteen generations.  You can now take those documents and research papers and apply to family associations (more than half the Mayflower families have family associations), to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, Colonial Dames, or any number of other lineage societies.  Here is a link to the “Join GSMD” webpage:

3.  Double check your research against these links to common Mayflower genealogy hoaxes:

4.  If the historian of a lineage society questions your lineage application papers, don’t worry.  They are just asking you to clarify a point with additional documentation.  They usually can help point you where to look for that additional piece of information.  Remember that lineage societies are actively recruiting for new members, they don’t want to keep you out of the club!


Some good links for online information on the Mayflower Passengers:

The General Society of Mayflower Descendants

Leiden, Netherlands Pilgrim Archives

Leiden American Pilgrim Museum Foundation

The Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts  

Plimoth Plantation Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts

The New England Historic Genealogical Society 

Caleb Johnson’s Mayflower History website

Sail 1620 (Pilgrim Biographies)

Thru the Looking Glass:  Mayflower Families


Good Books (there are many, but here’s a good place to start):

The Great Migration Series, The Great Migration Begins (3 volumes)  and The Great Migration (7 volumes) by Robert Anderson published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society

The Pilgrim Migration: Immigrants to Plymouth Colony, 1620 – 1633  by Robert Anderson, NEHGS, 2007

William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, edited by Caleb Johnson, 2006

The Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick, 2007

Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the Foundations of Plymouth Plantation, by Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, 2009

Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History, by Nick Bunker, 2010


  1. A very informative (and entertaining) post on researching possible Mayflower ancestors. I enjoyed your style of writing.

  2. Great post Heather. Lots of great resources here.


Hello, thanks for leaving a comment on the World Wide Genealogy Blog. All comments are moderated because of pesky spammers!

Best wishes
World Wide Genealogy Team