For Mayflower descendants, Thanksgiving is a family affair

"Saints and sinners" at first Thanksgiving included VIPs and criminals

Like many Americans, George Seal sees Thanksgiving as a day for remembering the family members, past and present, who have helped make possible the life he lives and loves today.

Take one of his ancestors: a 17th-century Englishman who attempted and survived a hazardous Atlantic crossing, helped found and lead a new society in what is now Massachusetts, and wrote a history of his life and times.

Or another, a prickly rogue whom the first man disliked, declared guilty of murder and ordered hanged.

Seal happens to descend from what might very well be the two most dissimilar men who sailed to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620: William Bradford, the second governor of Plymouth Colony, and John Billington, a roughneck who was found guilty of killing a fellow Pilgrim over a grudge.

Both took part in the first Thanksgiving feast, 394 years ago. Seal salutes both men as robust early Americans.

"Even Billington wasn't all bad," says Seal, a charter member of the Society of Mayflower Descendants of the State of Maryland. "Didn't he take the same risks as everyone else? They nearly starved that first winter and thought they were blessed with divine fortune to survive. I admire what they all did."

Few people are more enthusiastic about the third Thursday of November than the men, women and children who belong to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, an association whose 30,000 members have proved a direct line from one or more of the passengers who made the historic voyage.

Headquartered in Plymouth, Mass., not far from the spot where the merchant ship came ashore, the organization boasts chapters in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

(Closer to home, the Society of the Ark and Dove brings together descendants of the two ships that brought the settlers of the Proprietary Province of Maryland in 1634.)

Seal, the Maryland chapter's oldest member at age 96, was 18 when he attended its first meeting in a room at the Lord Baltimore Hotel in 1938. He was there in the same room when the chapter celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2013.

The Maryland group's 324 members, like those across the continent, agree by charter to "transmit the spirit, the purity of purpose and the steadfastness of will of the Pilgrim Fathers to those who shall come after us — an undiminished heritage of liberty and law."

In Maryland, that translates into raising money for scholarships, conducting educational programs, offering genealogy workshops and attending two banquets — one in the spring, the other the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

The November event, a Thanksgiving-style dinner with turkey, cranberries and pumpkin pie, is a dual fest. It's held in honor of the Mayflower Compact, the governing document that the 41 male survivors of the voyage signed on Nov. 11, 1620, to set ground rules for the colony, as well as the first Thanksgiving a year later.

The Pilgrims are believed to have shared that harvest celebration with a party of Wampanoag Indians sometime between Sept. 29 and Nov. 11, 1621.

This year's event drew about 80 people to an inn in Brookeville Sunday to observe several long-standing traditions. Just before the dinner, for example, an emcee read aloud the name of each Mayflower passenger. With each name, the descendants of that Pilgrim stood to be recognized.

Guests also heard a lecture by filmmakers Andrew Cameron Bailey and Connie Baxter Marlow, whose documentary, "The First Fifty Years," explores what they say was the peaceful coexistence of the Plymouth settlers and their Native American neighbors through 1675.

By some estimates, as many as 35 million people can claim to be Mayflower descendants, including figures as divergent as Sarah Palin, Hugh Hefner, Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, Cokie Roberts and George W. Bush.

One reason for the high numbers: Although only 52 passengers survived the first winter, including three adult and four teenage women, many survivors had large families.

"We were a prolific people," says James B. Battles of Rockville, governor of the state chapter.

To become a member of the society, candidates must "verify the birth, marriage and death of each person down the line," says Battles. Battles, 71, descends from James Chilton, the oldest Mayflower passenger.

Society researchers helped by completing the "Silver Books," a genealogy of the first five generations of descendants, years ago. A candidate needs to trace his or her lineage only as far back as someone listed in the volume.

But even that can be tricky, says Caroline Fowler, 74, a Severna Park resident who spent three years as Maryland chapter historian, the officer who vets the paperwork of applicants.

Record-keeping hasn't always been as thorough as it is today. New York state, for example, kept no birth records before 1881, and New York City didn't start until 1910.

"It's generations six through nine that can get a little tough," Fowler says.

That leaves some candidates scouring for secondary evidence — inscribed family Bibles, letters, gravestone rubbings — in lieu of official, definitive documents: birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and wills.

Small wonder those who navigate the process end up feeling personally connected to their ancestors — proud of their feats, fascinated by their personalities, eager to share their histories or clear up myths.

Some have several to choose from. Fowler has six Mayflower forebears, including John Alden, the ship's 21-year-old cooper; William Mullins, a 50-year-old who boarded with his wife, Alice, and two children, and military adviser Myles Standish.

She learned long ago that Mullins, Alice and their son died that first year; that Alden, "a decent, hard-working man," married the Mullinses' lone surviving child, Priscilla; that the couple had 11 children, and that Standish "was apparently a real character, a bit of a hothead."

Fowler and her husband, Jim — he descends from another passenger — have shared the tales with their four children and 14 grandchildren. All are members of chapters where they live.

None in Maryland can outdo Ben Proctor, 74, a Lutherville resident whose grandparents, parents and aunts lived in Plymouth and who lived as a child in nearby Newton, Mass.

Proctor, a retired insurance company executive, recalls many a Thanksgiving dinner at a relative's house near Plymouth Rock, where he and his sister took walks between courses.

Because he has 11 Mayflower ancestors — he rattles their names off alphabetically, from Isaac Allerton through Richard Warren — he spends the Compact Day litany sitting down and getting back up.

"I get a good workout," jokes Proctor, a three-time president of the Maryland chapter.

It's a price he's only too happy to pay to commemorate ancestors he says risked everything to secure the religious freedom they believed was their birthright. He describes himself as a devout Christian.

"I'm proud of what they had to endure, of how strongly they felt in their belief in God, of their desire to be able to worship the way they wanted to," Proctor says.

Family legacy has brought out the historian in Battles. Since learning years ago of the Mayflower link, he has written "Chilton's Challenge," a two-act play about the lives of Chilton and his daughter, Mary, who is said to have been the first Pilgrim to set foot on Plymouth Rock; performed in a DVD version of the play, which the Maryland chapter has donated to dozens of schools in the state, and even visited Leiden, Holland, the city where many Mayflower passengers enjoyed religious sanctuary before making the long voyage to the New World.

His research, he says, confirmed a little-known theory first posited in 2001 by J.C. Kardux and E.F. Van de Bilt, scholars of American history at the University of Leiden.

While many believe the first Thanksgiving was modeled on English and Indian harvest traditions, the pair made a compelling case that a long-standing Dutch practice was also crucial — and Battles agrees.

In 1573, Spanish naval forces launched the Siege of Leiden, a brutal operation that led to the starvation of about half the city's population. When residents burst their own dikes to end the siege in 1574, friendly privateers arrived in boats bearing bread and fish.

Prince William of Orange, forebear of the Dutch royal family, called for a feast. Leiden residents began celebrating "Leidens Ontzet" (the Relief of Leiden) every October — a tradition in which the Pilgrims would have taken part, and one that endures today.

Battles believes they drew on it when planning their Thanksgiving — another fest that marked the end of an ordeal that had killed half the population.

"Virtually no one knows about this, and it's part of our mission to educate," Battles says. He has published an article on the subject in his chapter's newsletter.

He and others still marvel at one aspect of the first Thanksgiving. According to Bradford's log, the seven women survivors prepared the food — wild turkey, deer, dried corn, oysters and more — for more than 200 guests, including 150 Wampanoag Indians, and kept it coming for three full days.

Seal says the fest drew "saints and sinners" alike, including his two mismatched forebears — Bradford the VIP and Billington and his family, the troublemakers.

Bradford served as governor, or chief executive, of the colony, for nearly 29 years. Billington, who was known for irritating Bradford with his constant complaints, was spotted heading into the woods one day in 1630 just before another settler, John Newcomen, was found there in a pool of blood. There were no witnesses.

Seal jokingly suggests Bradford might have framed Billington to get rid of him.

The theory has won few backers. Either way, Seal says, both ancestors survived the voyage, signed the compact and broke bread at the feast, helping to create history and establish a tradition we emulate today.

That, Seal believes, is what matters.

"The Pilgrims had a lot to be thankful for, and I'm glad they celebrated," he says. "After all, they were a pretty stiff bunch. Our Thanksgiving is an outgrowth of that occasion. Let's set aside a few hours and be thankful for what we've got."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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