Patriarchs and matriarchs

Courtesy of Nutfield Genealogy: Women of the Mayflower Project

In my last post (in a footnote), I gave a summary of presidents with Mayflower ancestry. Readers called attention to the fact that some of the presidents were grouped by descent from a male passenger, while in some of these groupings the male passenger’s wife was also a passenger. The footnote was meant to be brief, and referred to pages in Ancestors of American Presidents, which had more specific information (including all passengers, female and male, within a family from which each president descended).

While I was not specifically leaving out female passengers (other Mayflower passengers who were themselves children of named passengers were also omitted), the comments clearly spoke to the often “male-preferred” nature of how genealogies are frequently summarized, leaving out or minimizing female ancestors. Although this is surely a factor that is present in published genealogy, for summarizing Mayflower ancestry there are reasons (based on the composition of the ship and what we know about who left modern-day descendants) why such summaries take the form they do.

A significant number of genealogies, especially those written in the nineteenth century, focused largely on the surname of the male immigrant, many ignoring daughters or only treating them for only one or two generations; a notable exception to this trend is the 1864 Hyde genealogy. A consequence of this practice is there are frequently no published genealogies for colonial families where the immigrant surname itself “daughtered out.” To a certain extent, applying to the Mayflower Society itself is a deviation from this male- or surname-preferred practice, as one applies through descent from a passenger, regardless of surname, and some male passengers do not have surviving male-line descendants.[1]

[There] are frequently no published genealogies for colonial families where the immigrant surname itself “daughtered out.”

However, there is certainly a history with why people refer to their Mayflower ancestor by the male name going back to the Mayfower Society’s beginnings in 1897. Originally when someone joined, they had to apply under the “senior male patriarch” of one of the Mayflower families. For example, if you descended from passenger Remember Allerton, who came with her parents Isaac and Mary (Norris) Allerton, your application had to begin with Isaac Allerton, not Mary or Remember. The same was true for junior male passengers, such as my ancestor Francis Billington, who came with his parents John and Elinor; an application had to begin with John, rather than Elinor or Francis.

A change to this practice began in 2006, allowing for applications based on the three first-generation women whose maiden names were known (Elizabeth Fisher, wife of Stephen Hopkins; Mary Norris, wife of Isaac Allerton; and Joan [Hurst] Rogers, wife of John Tilley),[2] and today applications can go through any ancestral passenger. Still the “silver books” are all titled with the senior male patriarch, and some reasons for this family grouping are unique to the Mayflower passengers known to have living descendants.

Of the 102 passengers, 50 have known living descendants (35 men, 15 women).[3] Of the family groupings of these fifty individuals, there were no married women who were on the Mayflower without their husbands, as well as no widowed women, unless they married again, in which case they traveled with their husbands. Several married men traveled without their wives (for those leaving descendants, these are Francis Cooke, Moses Fletcher [whose wife and children remained in Leiden], Samuel Fuller, Degory Priest, Thomas Rogers, and Richard Warren).

There were younger unmarried men and women on the voyage traveling without their parents...

There were younger unmarried men and women on the voyage traveling without their parents; however, only some unmarried men (John Alden, Peter Brown, Edward Doty, John Howland, Richard More, Henry Samson, and George Soule) are known to have left descendants. All of the unmarried women travelling without their parents – Humility Cooper, Desire Minter, Ellen More, and Mary More – either died the first winter or returned to England and did not leave any known children.

In addition, for the Mullins family, William Mullins was on the ship with his wife Alice and his children Joseph and Priscilla, but it’s unknown if Alice was the mother of William’s children. In terms of including the senior male’s name with the overall family, there are a few reasons this has been done, the most obvious being the Fuller brothers. Samuel Fuller came alone, while his brother Edward was with his wife (name unknown) and their son (also named Samuel). In this regard the “Samuel Fuller family” refers to the senior male passenger, and not his namesake junior nephew.

The John Tilley family has the first name added to avoid confusion with his brother Edward Tilley (who came with his wife Agnes, but they had no children of their own, and thus no descendants). Also, three other male passengers – John Howland, Henry Samson, and Edward Winslow – all had brothers or a cousin of the same surname arrive in Plymouth later.

However, there are a few cases where a “senior female matriarch” may exist. Passenger Joan (Hurst) (Rogers) Tilley had several children by her first husband who remained in England. My colleague Julie Helen Otto has traced descendants of her daughter Joan (Rogers) Hawkins into the mid-seventeenth century. Passenger Mary (____) (Prower) Martin came with her second husband Christopher Martin. She and her first husband Edward Prower had five children (including passenger Solomon Prower). Mary, Christopher, and Solomon all died the first winter, but Mary’s son Edward Prower had two children baptized in the 1620s in Great Burstead, Essex.[4] In either case, if living descendants could be identified, their only Mayflower ancestor would be a senior female matriarch.

So while there are certain historical reasons Mayflower families are often listed with the senior male passenger, descendants today can join the Mayflower Society through all of their ancestors who arrived in 1620, women and men!


[1] Peter Brown and Degory Priest are the only male passengers with known living descendants who clearly left no surviving patrilineal descendants, given they only had surviving daughters. Isaac Allerton (through his passenger son Bartholomew), James Chilton, Moses Fletcher, Richard More, and John Tilley do not have documented patrilineal descendants today, but possibly could have some in England (Allerton and Tilley), Netherlands (Chilton and Fletcher), or probably outside of New England (More), although nothing is known beyond one to two generations of the passengers’ sons or grandsons.

[2] Mayflower Quarterly 72 [2006]: 398.

[3]Meet the passengers..." A list on the Mayflower Society’s website lists fifty-one passengers, the additional one being Bartholomew Allerton.  Bartholomew returned to England and had four children mentioned in his will. While it’s very likely he has modern-day descendants, no grandchildren of his have even been identified, so obviously no one has joined the Mayflower Society under his name.

[4] Caleb H. Johnson, “Mary (Prower) Martin: A new Mayflower ancestor?,Mayflower Quarterly 76 [2010]:  244–46, which also shows Mary’s son Nathaniel Martin (by her second husband) may have also left descendants.

Christopher C. Child

About Christopher C. Child

Chris Child has worked for various departments at NEHGS since 1997 and became a full-time employee in July 2003. He has been a member of NEHGS since the age of eleven. He has written several articles in American Ancestors, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, and The Mayflower Descendant. He is the co-editor of The Ancestry of Catherine Middleton (NEHGS, 2011), co-author of The Descendants of Judge John Lowell of Newburyport, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2011) and Ancestors and Descendants of George Rufus and Alice Nelson Pratt (Newbury Street Press, 2013), and author of The Nelson Family of Rowley, Massachusetts (Newbury Street Press, 2014). Chris holds a B.A. in history from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.View all posts by Christopher C. Child