Four hundred years local

Plymouth Harbor at dusk.

For whatever reason, my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put. They ignored the call to go west (“young man!”) or to secure the nation’s manifest destiny. Maybe they had political objections and instead manifested disdain for American imperialism and conquest. Maybe they felt comfortable where they were, and bred wanderlust right out of the gene pool. Wasn’t it enough that many of their ancestors had traveled thousands of miles to get to Plymouth in the first place? Plympton is west; Marshfield and Kingston are north; and that is just about as far as they went.

And here is the humble brag: because my grandmother’s ancestors stayed put, and let’s face it, married their extended relatives (folding the family tree in on itself numerous times), I can prove descent from many Mayflower passengers, many times over. When Gary Boyd Roberts put together his forthcoming book The Mayflower 500: Five Hundred Notable Descendants of the Founding Families of the ‘Mayflower‘ and included a section covering NEHGS Mayflower descents, he let me know that I had the most of any person on staff. No surprise – the family spent eleven-odd generations in Plymouth County before my grandmother married a Polish-Italian guy from Boston.

I grew up in Bridgewater, about half an hour from downtown Plymouth. For me, the town wasn’t just a chapter in my school book, but a living, breathing place, where we went for fried fish and school field trips. In college, I acted the tour guide to my out-of-state friends. I still get a sick kick out of watching the disappointment on a person’s face as they peer down and see how small the Rock is. Even more, when I explain its dubious history to them.

For me, the town wasn’t just a chapter in my school book, but a living, breathing place, where we went for fried fish and school field trips.

Truthfully, the best part of having Mayflower ancestry is the volume of material that has been researched and published. It makes these lines much easier to trace, and I have been able to go much further back in my grandmother’s family tree than any of my Irish, Scotch, Polish, or Italian branches. I am fascinated by the history of the Pilgrims but don’t get any kudos from having them in my family tree. Their actions plunked me here, but then so did every other ancestor in my tree, known and unknown. It is interesting to see how the settlers of early Plymouth Colony have been lionized and mythologized. Take a look at Plymouth court records and you will find boundary disputes, cattle theft, adultery, and murder – a far cry from Longfellow’s treatment. However, it is through those ancestors that I feel so rooted to Plymouth, and as long as I can continue to get a parking spot and affordable fish n’ chips, I probably won’t push west either.

James Heffernan

About James Heffernan

James earned his BA in history at Boston College. Before joining the NEHGS team, he worked in the conservation department of the John J. Burns Library at Boston College and the research library at Plimoth Plantation. Propelled by his interests in genealogy and history, James spent a semester abroad at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. In addition to Slavic history, he is very interested in the history of Colonial America and 19th century Massachusetts.

17 thoughts on “Four hundred years local

  1. My maternal ancestors were a bit more adventurous than yours. They went as far north and west as Vermont. I have one family line that traveled through Connecticut (took about a generation to get to Hampshire County, Massachusetts. All of my mother’s ancestors were in the New England area by 1700. By about 1850 they had converged on the area near Concord NH. I have found 4 Mayflower families and two of them came from Bridgewater but they left migrated to Vermont after the American Revolution. The other two were from different lines of her family.

  2. I often mused about my “wanderlust” Rice ancestor who moved through MA, NY, through “Western Canada” aka Ontario and then into Michigan, still with at least 3 moves. Why would one want to move so much; build a new house and business, running a mill? Further research revealed he was often running away from bad debt. He repeatedly gave credit but got burned when the economy took a turn south and his customers had no money to pay their debt, nor then did he. But his line still managed to give me a number of Mayflower lines.

  3. I lived in Easton and heard the Mayflower stories. It wasn’t until later that I found my Mayflower connections thru my grandmothers. The old family stories can be true.

  4. I have a very similar situation with my maternal grandmother who grew up in the town of Newbury and whose ancestors go back to the founding of the town. In a larger sense, almost all of my ancestors were Puritans and therefore I am fascinated by Puritan history from the time that Henry VIII broke with Rome and inadvertently created freedom of religious thought in England to their “city on a hill” in the new world and the eventual changes in thought and attitudes of the 2nd and 3rd and 4th generations and eventually resulting in the Revolutionary War.

  5. I only began working on my ancestory just two and a half years ago and had no expectations of what I might find. It had never occurred to me that I might have Mayflower ancestors. My big aim was to see if my mother’s Webster line included Noah Webster of dictionary fame and Daniel W. the statesman. I quickly established the dictionary Wesbster as an ancestor. Daniel was not the same family.

    I then became obsessed with checking out the pedigrees, first of the main family lines, and then of every wife who married in. That took me back to the Mayflower. Who knew? My people moved gradually from New England, through Connecticut, Vermont, eastern New York State. They finally wound up after the Revolution in western NY, never to really move out from the tiny farming communities there until my parents moved to Buffalo and my generation went to N Jersey and California, and, oh, I went to Germany. I always think of my move as reverse migration.

  6. Another “stayed-put” family here. They made it as far as the CT/RI border towns and settled in. I’m also a quadratic Mayflower descendent, all four of my grandparents had mayflower ancestry which I’ve always thought was kind of cool.

  7. Your family stayed put longer than mine, but I am descended from 4 of Roger William’s children and several early settlers of Rhode Island. My paternal grandmother’s family were all Rhode Islanders from 1636 until my father’s death in 1970. We also have 2 Mayflower ancestors.

  8. On behalf of “the diaspora” – Many thanks to my Mayflower ancestors for giving me that sunset over the Pacific! You “rock!” 🙂

    “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many…”
    ― William Bradford

  9. Interesting because I have gotten sometimes into the 1500s with some of my Italian ancestry…due to church records, then my “Yankee” Connecticut and Massachusetts lines. My French Canadian side has every ancestor with no gaps due to unknown surnames of women.

  10. Mine went first to Marshfield and then to Carver and stayed put (Shaw and Shurtleff were the surnames of my father’s parents, and they were next door neighbors) for 12 generations or so, until…in 1956, my father moved us to British Columbia, and he never looked back. I am grateful for my childhood in Carver, but also thankful for my Canadian education. As a child I used to wonder if I’d be alive for the 400th, and now I know that answer. Thanks for the post, and thanks, Jeff Record, for the comment, which brought tears.

  11. Perhaps you should check how many of those ancestors who “stayed put” inherited the homestead. Only one sibling would inherit the homestead, the rest having to “venture out” on their own. I’m sure many went west. Some perhaps even become industrialists, instead of farmers. While the aristocracy held to primogeniture, the gentry tended to leave the homestead to either the youngest son, or the child that cared for their elderly parents.

  12. Like the author, my Pilgrim ancestors were not adventurous once they reached Plymouth. One quarter of my family is New York Dutch and Irish, but the rest were Eastern New Englanders, particularly the Cape and Bridgewater. As a result, I have ten signatories of the Compact among my ancestors and hope to find more. Our one exception was my great grandfather, Samuel Pierce Lathrop, who moved to Black Hawk, CO as a mining supervisor after the Civil War. There he had my grandfather and great aunt, but moved back to Bridgewater while they were still children. Another great grandmother was of Nantucket origin, so I am related to almost all of the original families, sometimes as many as twelve times over.

  13. Enjoyed your post. Few of my Mayflower ancestors (Warren, Alden, Brewster) ever strayed from Plymouth or a few miles away; my Warren/Bartlett line stayed put in Manomet and remains there; I was one of the very few in my immediate family to move out of state for decades, chasing a journalism career, although have always returned to visit once or more a year and ultimately will be buried at Manomet Cemetery near my parents and so many grands, aunts, uncles, cousins and childhood friends.

  14. The “Mayflower children” of Stephen Hopkins and Thomas Rogers were among the founders of Nauset (later Eastham) in 1644. It remained isolated into the 20th century and descendants of the seven founding families thus stayed put.
    As a result I, and many others, are descended from all seven founders. Twenty Four of my tree branches lead back to Stephen Hopkins of the Mayflower

  15. My ancestor moved west almost immediately and kept going until they hit the Pacific about 1849. . Line includes Wm White (via Resolved) and John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley. I hope to get back to Plymouth this year.

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