Passenger list engraved on the Forefathers Memorial, Plymouth, MA. Photo © Maura Mackowski, 2014.
How Do I Find My Pilgrim Ancestors?
The General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) is the recognized authority on the Mayflower "lines," the descendants of the 51 men, women, and children among the 102 who set sail from England, survived the first terrible winter in Plymouth, and are known to have left offpsring. The GSMD publishes a series of books as part of its Five Generation Projects that give the births, deaths, and marriages of all known descendants down to the 5th or 6th generation (including the pilgrim as Generation 1.) This covers the period between 1620 and in some cases into the early 1800s. If you can trace your ancestry back to an individual documented in one of the GSMD "Silver Books" or "Pink Books" (works in progress), you have found yourself a Pilgrim. Caveat: sometimes information previously accepted is proven to be erroneous, or data previously rejected is now considered acceptable, so the GSMD periodically revises and reissues these books. Always use the latest edition. Also, do not be afraid to submit new data or even new people.
The old advice "start with yourself and work your way back" is quite true here. Using government records (birth, marriage, and death certificates), augmented by state and federal censuses, land records, will & probate documents, Revolutionary & Civil War pension documents, draft records, voters lists, and any number of other government-issued sources, reconstruct the generations of your family in reverse. That means yourself, your parents, your grandparents, and so on, until you link up with someone in a Silver or Pink Book.
When you get stuck, and it will happen, turn to secondary sources for ideas. This would include genealogical journals such as the New England Historical and Genealogical Register and the Mayflower Descendant via the NEHGS and the Mayflower Quarterly of the GSMD (see Links section.) Family groups dedicated to Mayflower pilgrims (again, see Links) often compile and post information that can at least get you started. State genealogical or history societies often put databases and other factual resources online for free or low-cost download. Newspaper ads and announcements can sometimes be your only source for a death or marriage date, and there are online sources for old newspapers dating to colonial times.
Further down the list in terms of reliability are published family histories. You can borrow them (sometimes) via Interlibrary Loan at your own public library or perhaps you live near a genealogy library or your state or university library has some. Internet Archive (see Links) has some as well as town histories of the 1800s. Of lowest reliability is personal genealogy "research" posted on the Internet. No matter how fancy the site looks, read the contents with a gigantic grain of salt, because some of them have people swimming to Plymouth to give birth here years before the Mayflower arrived, or marrying their own parents, or being buried years before they die. Most cite no sources or use sources not accepted by any established lineage society. Outright fantasy and garbage is posted daily, then reposted, typically without crediting the source, until achieving monster status.
When in doubt, ask a genealogist, librarian, historian, your state's Mayflower Society, or someone involved in a reputable lineage society or genealogical organization what to do, or try out some of the links here. Each of these is either directly related to Mayflower Pilgrim history or offers bonafide data for downloading, or both.
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