ICYMI: Four hundred years local

[Editor’s note: This blog post originally appeared in Vita Brevis on 6 January 2020.]

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 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.

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.

19 thoughts on “ICYMI: Four hundred years local

  1. I don’t know. I have Italian ancestry and on some lines I can get into the 1500s because there’s church records as well as civil registration. And there are no gaps and Unknown maiden names for females which is a plus for me. I actually have more problems with my English Canadian lines!

    1. LOL Same here! Only my “easy” side is French Canadian The handwriting, French or Latin, may be atrocious but with a lot of staring at enlarged images you have a chance. Not so with my English folks on either side of the border.

    2. You’re right, Mike. Italian parish and civil records sometimes rival (or surpass) the availability of English sources.

  2. James – with your family sticking around Plymouth and some of mine being there until my paternal grandfather, do you find William (b. (1783) or William T. Davis (b. 1822) appearing in your genealogy? The Davis family gathered around Long Pond and is there to this day.

  3. James, my father’s family did the same, but 10 years later in Essex County. The earliest immigrant on his mother’s Ordway side came over with the Winthrop Fleet. They had all been “here” so long that when I asked my dad where his family was from, his answer was, “Nowhere.”

      1. James, the same horse bit my family and my wife’s, so many staying around Plymouth that she and I are cousins through Richard Warren. We both love fried seafood too! So our combined ancestries leave our grandchildren with 17 Mayflower ancestors. It’s also true in our families that tracing the Pilgrim roots has been much easier than those of other lines from Scotland, Germany, Holland etc.

  4. Just wonderful! Your wry humor and “hey we are all just people” perspective is spot on. We are ALL where ever we are because or maybe in spite of our ancestors.

    I feel I have to defend my “wanna be” descendant search because it puts me in the humble company of those millions and millions of others coming here to escape whatever horrors their families endured in their place of origin – just like the Mayflower passengers. And those stories enrich us all.

    Thanks for yours

    1. Barbara – my mother-in-law says in her family genealogy that her Palatine ancestors were happy and contented people. We could not get her to understand that happy and contented people did not climb into a small ship in 1710 and cross the Atlantic. You use a much better word, horror

      1. James, Just think we may be connected after all. In 1955 my family returned from Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, my dad’s last duty post before he retired from the Navy. Our brand new next door neighbors, in our brand newly built post war neighborhood near San Diego were the Herrernan’s! Kathy was my best friend for years until they moved.

  5. My story is similar to yours but over a wider area (Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont). My maternal ancestors stayed in these three states from the 17th century until my generation in the 1960s. My mother was the first one to pick a spouse from out side NE. My paternal grandparents were born in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. And yes the genealogy is much easier on my maternal side.

  6. It has been gratifying to me to also have ancestors who lived in New England since the early 1600’s or detoured for 140 years in Nova Scotia before returning to Boston around 1900, I’ve also benefited from relatives who who recorded branches of the family and help from NEHGS staff. Now I need to dig deeper and learn more about the lives of the people on my family tree. Jean S.

  7. How strange to read about ‘Plymouth and Plympton” from this side (Canada) of the pond. I was born in Plymouth Devon England, and have visited Plymouth Rock, Mass. As you say, a bit disappointing, but interesting nevertheless. As you can see, I did stray very far away from my Plymouth, but I regularly do my genealogy. I was sorry to learn nobody came over on the Mayflower! THEY all stayed put!

  8. Having ancestors stay put for three hundred years (1620-1920) in Plymouth, Bristol or Barnstable Countries almost assuredly would mean more than one Mayflower ancestor. Staying put in the rest of Massachusetts for that period did not. All of my paternal grandfather’s arrived in Massachusetts In the 1600s. Most during the Great Migration. There are no Mayflower ancestors in his line.

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