Asking a perfect stranger to swab the inside of her cheek and hand over the results isn’t exactly easy.
PLYMOUTH – Asking a perfect stranger to swab the inside of her cheek and hand over the results isn’t exactly easy.
Senior Genealogist at the Newbury Street Press Christopher Child shared this truth with the audience gathered at the Courtyard Marriott Boston Saturday, noting that his research into Mayflower history spirals up DNA helixes that rely upon the kindness of strangers.
“Soliciting DNA from strangers is a little awkward,” he confessed, noting that his requests, even when the subject is willing, have had bizarre outcomes. The Arizona man who agreed wound up in jail for 25 years before the sample was obtained. The twins that OK’d the request died, one after the other, before the samples were sent.
After that, Child said he arrived at the door of one of his willing DNA donors and watched him swab his cheek and hand it over just in case.
The New England Historic Genealogical Society held a seminar Saturday dubbed “New Discoveries in Mayflower Genealogy” that drew more than 140 participants at the Courtyard Marriott Boston. Leading Mayflower scholars held forth on their expertise, sharing surprising discoveries that help decipher who the Mayflower passengers were, who their descendants are, where they lived in England and The Netherlands and what life was like for them.
If Pilgrims had particularly common names, had no children or if they were women, they can be particularly difficult to track, according to the experts. London-based historian and renowned author Sue Allan noted that women were essentially invisible, the property of their husbands, and often not even referenced in historic records. She did, however, demonstrate the fruits of her investigation, which proved revelatory on the lives of these oppressed colonists. Allan zeroed in on the untold story of the women who shipped aboard the Mayflower.
Fellow historian and author Caleb Johnson held forth on his own research into Pilgrim Stephen Hopkins, Peter Browne and several others. U.K.-based genealogist Simon Neal crowned the full-day of lectures with an explanation of how tracking the Pilgrims is done, leading the audience through his intensive researching into the National Archives, Elizabethan Patent Rolls, King’s Bench indictments and other sources he mines for data. Earlier, master scholar, author and director of “The Great Migration Study Project” Robert Charles Anderson had discussed Puritan pedigrees, delving into the genealogical, social, and religious origins and motivations of the Pilgrims. And Child explored the intricacies of tracking the DNA and haplogroups of the Mayflower passengers and their descendants.
For many, the 400th Commemoration of the Mayflower landing in 2020 has highlighted interest in Mayflower and, indeed, Wampanoag ancestry. While DNA from the Pilgrims is no longer available, clearly, their descendants have become keys to unlocking the riddle of the past. Child noted that he uses DNA samples of those who trace their ancestry to particular Pilgrims and then compares them with haplogroups and one another to determine the original DNA of the Pilgrim. Thus, the process travels backwards, as he fills in the branches of people’s genealogical trees using this innovative method. While he hasn’t tracked all of the Mayflower passengers, Child noted that subjects curious to know if they have Mayflower ancestry among the group he has tracked, can find out pretty easily with that cheek swab.
Johnson shared some of his research into various passengers, like Stephen Hopkins, who shipped aboard the square-rigged Sea Venture that shipwrecked in Bermuda during a hurricane. Hopkins narrowly avoided execution for his mutinous behavior before he managed to return to England. Then, records show he climbed aboard the Mayflower with his family. By perusing manorial and tax records, as well as other sources in England, Johnson has pieced together a fascinating portrait of Hopkins’ life and that of his family, as well as other Pilgrims. So fascinating was Hopkins and his exploits that William Shakespeare is believed to have based a character on him in his last play “The Tempest,” which boasts a plot that absolutely draws from the Bermuda shipwreck.
Allan noted that her research into the Mayflower women has revealed an unnerving buy-in from Elizabethan and Jacobean women raised from infancy on the notion that they were not as valuable as men and were to obey their father, brother, and, most importantly, their husband, who was free to assault them. Child marriages were not uncommon and were not illegal, she added, and husbands abusing their wives was equally common. Her research into Pilgrim Susannah Jackson (White) revealed that her aunt in England, Jane Jackson, was being abused by her husband so severely, that her brother, Richard Jackson wrote a letter to brother Robert begging for help to intercede on Jane’s behalf. According to Richard’s letters, Jane’s husband seized any gift given to his wife and beat her regularly. Pastor John Robinson, leader of the English Separatists, had different ideas about women’s roles, expressing more progressive sentiments toward them, Allan said.
Her research has uncovered the fact that the Pilgrim women were born into this Separatist movement and hailed from families that were more progressive, where learning to read and write had become expectations for women in many cases, Allan said.
Only 18 Mayflower passengers were adult women, she added, with only five surviving that first winter. And speculation that Dorothy Bradford may have committed suicide when she was found dead in the water when the Mayflower was at anchor and awaiting the return of her husband and others searching for a landing area, doesn’t hold water, Allan said. The most common cause of death for women in 1620 was drowning, she added. It is far more likely that Dorothy slipped on the icy deck and was pulled down by the layers of woolen skirts she wore, Allan said. Women in those days were constantly carting water around for washing and cooking, and slipping and falling into a water body was a recipe for death due to the heavy woolen clothing these women wore.
Allan stressed that research into the women of the Mayflower is crucial to history because, without it, only half the story is told.
Neal ended the day with a detailed look at how research into Pilgrim origins is conducted. It was clear that Neal’s keen knowledge of Latin and his ability to decipher 17th Century writing were linchpins to this research. Neal’s exhaustive research into Manorial, tax, King’s Bench and other records have unlocked many a mystery about the Pilgrims. His colleagues commended him for his assistance with their own research, as Neal is able to read and decipher what others cannot.
All in all, it was an engrossing and fascinating look at investigations into these 17th Century rebels and how they have helped to shape the present. The New England Historic Genealogical Society is all about this history, tracing ancestors and unearthing the stories of the past.
For more information on the society and upcoming events, visit americanancestors.org. For more information on these experts and their books, visit Allan’s website at mayflowermaid.com, Anderson’s link at vitabrevis.americanancestors.org/author/randerson/, Christopher Child’s link at vitabrevis.americanancestors.org/author/cchild/, Caleb Johnson’s website mayflowerhistory.com and Simon Neal’s website nealresearch.co.uk. Many of their books are available on Amazon.