This year’s Thanksgiving was more meaningful, and personal, than usual.
Most of us know at least the basic story of the “first Thanksgiving.” One hundred and two Puritan separatists arranged to travel to America, on a ship named the Mayflower, to be able to practice their religious beliefs without interference from the English government. One passenger died en route, and another was born. They arrived in November of 1620 near what became Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, by the next spring, only 47 had survived the harsh winter conditions, malnutrition and the many diseases of the day.
In the autumn of 1621, reaping a bountiful harvest, the settlers, together with their indigenous neighbors, celebrated their survival and freedom with a three-day feast. The event was documented in the journal of one of its earliest governors, William Bradford, as well as another colonist.
Recently I learned that one of my ancestors, Francis Eaton, was one of those 102 passengers on the Mayflower. By all accounts, he was a highly talented carpenter, an exceedingly valuable skill in 1620. He was my ninth-great grandfather.
My brother is the genealogist of my family. He discovered one ancestor was killed by the British during the Revolutionary War, qualifying us as members of the Sons of the American Revolution. For this year’s Veterans Day, that group met in the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, which is rich in historic artifacts. The museum’s volunteer staff provided a highly educational and entertaining tour.
My brother’s continued research brought us into eligibility for membership in the Society of Mayflower Descendants, which accepted us after studying our documentation. The Mayflower Society once had a reputation for exclusivity and elitism. Yet there are estimates that tens of millions of Americans may be related to the 31 original Mayflower passengers who had children.
The society does act to protect its name. After the city of Bangor announced an Indigenous Peoples Day holiday, protesters calling themselves a Mayflower society briefly made the local news. The Maine Society’s governor made sure that the media understood the difference between the protest group and the real Mayflower Society, which has been meeting since 1897.
I was excited to attend my first meeting, an annual Thanksgiving celebration. Remembering when I had joined other organizations, as I drove to the event I memorized a 60-second speech so that I could share something about myself. However, when the time came for new members to be introduced, there were so many of us that we were simply asked to stand. Perhaps 150 people attended the banquet, sharing stories of their heritage and their interest in genealogy.
The Maine chapter of the Mayflower Society currently has over a thousand members, making it the sixth largest chapter in the country. According to the chapter’s historian, there are 57 open files from people who are in the process of compiling an application. I was amazed at how chipper the historian seemed, considering the research workload that her job entails. Another officer maintains an active, open Facebook page. The society’s recent activities include an interpretive historic (costumed role play) museum tour, and participation in citizenship naturalization ceremonies.
The banquet I attended featured a historical keynote speaker, a recitation of the Compact, the awarding of college scholarships, a roll call of the Mayflower families, and fun conversation with (very) distant “cousins” – a thought-provoking and entirely pleasant group of people.
As we approach the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the Plymouth colony in 2020, one may ask about the place of heritage-based organizations in today’s society. After all, history also records our mistakes, tragedies and disgraces.
I am lucky that portions of my family identity are clearly documented and worthy of celebration. But I believe that all of us can claim many identities. They may be specific, such as a relative whose memory you choose to honor. Or they may be more general, such as a culture that you believe to be part of you and which you treasure.
In either case, these are opportunities to celebrate the best of humanity. I encourage seekers to recognize events illuminating the goodness in our nature, the achievements which prove our potential, and the hopes that inspire us to make our society more mature.
In my case, this Thanksgiving gave me an opportunity to celebrate those courageous and strong men and women who struggled for freedom, held tight to their families, labored constantly for their survival, bonded together as a community, and created a new society.
Mark D. Grover is a resident of Gray. Your comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org