Image coourtesy of the Library of Congress

There is a statistic floating around that irritates me. The words aren’t always the same, but the factoid is: “Today 10% of all Americans are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower.”

No one ever says where the number came from. That’s enough to make my teeth grind all by itself, but it’s not the main thing that bothers me about the statistic. I’m perfectly prepared to believe it’s true, given the realities of geometric progression and population growth. *

What I don’t understand is why it matters. I’ve never seen a statistic on the number of modern Americans descended from the original Jamestown settlers, the earliest Spanish colonists in the American southwest, or the first Dutch settlers on the Delaware River. (Not to mention the number descended from the refugees from British debtor’s prison who settled colonial Georgia.) ** I don’t want to disrespect the courage or importance of the Plymouth colonists. *** They sailed across the Atlantic in a frighteningly small ship to start new lives in a wilderness. But so did the first Jamestown settlers–and all the rest. The Plymouth colony wasn’t even the first settlement.

So why have the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, and the stories related to them elbowed their way to the front of the line in America’s foundation myths? Why does anyone think it’s meaningful that 10% of Americans today are descended from the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower?

Personally, I blame it on an effective PR campaign.  Of course, American history is not my field, so maybe I’m missing something here. Anyone have a better explanation?

[Rant over.]

* I’m equally prepared to believe someone made it up.
** The numbers may well exist, buried in specialized academic papers or the reports of local genealogical societies, but they don’t show up as an accepted fact in popular history.
*** Okay, I admit it. On a bad day I can work up a little historical indignation about their vision of religious freedom, or more accurately, how it has been transformed in popular history. But that’s a post for another day. And it in no way diminishes their courage or importance.

12 Comments

  1. Lori Leger on May 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    Amen! I guess they had to have something to print in those first American history books. Maybe the ones who wrote them were direct descendants…who cares? My family came from 1600 Germany then France. They left rather than swear allegiance to a throne that wanted them to give up their religious beliefs. After ending up in Nova Scotia, they worked diligently to build a thriving community only to have the crown come in, once again, and deport everyone, but not before separating most of the men from everyone else. Fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, separated from their families and sent out on separate ships to different parts of the east coast, some never to rejoin their loved ones. Do you ever hear about that travesty or hear any of us Cajuns ‘demanding’ compensation? Nope…my ancestors just put their heads down and started working to rebuild what they lost. I think that’s why I resent so badly a government who wants to take my money I work so hard for and give it away to those who won’t work for themselves. It sticks in my craw something fierce.

    And now…I’m done with my rant!

    Great post, PT!

    • Kimberly on June 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Thanksgiving Quiz1. What year was the first Thanksgiving celebration held? 1621, but the ofiacifl proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving wasn’t until 1789.2. In what year did Congress proclaim Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November? 19413. True or False: The pilgrims brought beer with them on the Mayflower.True, cuz the water was generally unsafe and made people sick.4. Which tribe of Indians celebrated the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims?Wampanoag5. Which of the standard utensils we use for eating today (knife, fork, spoon) did the Pilgrims not have at their Thanksgiving feast?Fork6. Which state in the United States consumes the most turkey on Thanksgiving?California7. True or False: 90 million turkeys are sold for Thanksgiving.False8. When cooking a turkey, what is the internal temperature that should be reached to ensure the bird is fully cooked?1659. True or False: Turkeys can run short distances at up to 25 mph.True.10. True or False: Thanksgiving eve is the busiest day of the year at bars, even more so than New Years Eve.Thanksgiving Eve

  2. […] Colony and the events leading to the historic occasion we celebrate today.Price:$5.99Read MoreThe Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving lasted three whole days. Ann McGovern's simple text introduces chil…el="nofollow" target="_blank">The Pilgrims' first Thanksgiving lasted three whole days. Ann […]

  3. TracyPC on May 24, 2012 at 3:24 am

    I have often wondered about the same thing…and I am a Mayflower descendant! I don’t know how the Mayflower descendants won the PR battle, and I wonder when it started?

  4. Janet Littlecrow on May 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Pam brings up some really interesting points here. People have contacted my dad wanting his DNA to to see if he’s a descendant of Henry Payne. That would prove that the original Roanoke colony survivors were absorbed into neighboring tribes, which history books claim were massacred without any evidence to support that racist theory. Indian tribe have always adopted worthy people into their tribes for generations, so why not these well-meaning bedraggled settlers? Racism isn’t human nature & nobody had tried killing all the natives off yet so there was no reason for annimosity. Here in Oklahoma a good share of the population is actually mixed-race native, I’m curious how many Americans nationwide are actually descended from immigrants & natives – I think that might be quite an interesting subject!

    • Debi Irby on May 12, 2013 at 9:59 pm

      Janet,

      Interesting post. I would be curious to know how many native/immigrants have descended down. Part of my heritage is from the first colonists both in Virginia and the NE, however stories have been passed down through generations of my family of being native American to include from the “Trail of Tears”.

  5. Laura@Silkroadgourmet on June 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I blame Harvard and Yale.

    They became the centers of American learning from very early on in our history and wrote history with a New England slant.

  6. Linkinpark on June 11, 2012 at 11:22 am

    1. Most people beleive that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in the Fall of 1621, although it didn’t become a recognized holiday until Abraham Lincoln decreed it so in 1863.2. On October 6, 1941, the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. The Senate, however, amended the resolution establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday, which would take into account those years when November has five Thursdays.3. True! It was considered safer to drink beer than water. (I agree to this day!) 4. Thanks to Squanto, a member of the Pawtuxet tribe, the Pilgrims formed an alliance with the Wampanoag tribe, who celebrated that first Thanksgiving with our European ancestors. It remains one of the closest sole examples of harmony between European colonists in the New World and Native Americans. 5. The Pilgrims did not have forks at their Thanksgiving feast. 6. According to the National Turkey Federation, California consumes the most turkey every year on Thanksgiving. 7. False—88 to 91 PERCENT of Americans consume Turkey on Thanksgiving…but according to the National Turkey Federation, more than 244 million turkeys were raised in 2010, 226 million were consumed in the United States—and of those birds, 46 million of those turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving (that means 736 million pounds in one day!), 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter. Israel actually consumes more turkey per capita than America. 8. When cooking a turkey, it is generally recognized that the internal temperature should reach 165-170 degrees Fahrenheit in the breast, 175-180 degrees in the thigh, and 165 degrees in the center of the stuffing. If you’re my mother-in-law, however, you don’t use a thermometer, because her indication of doneness is to cook the turkey until it is so deathly dry it makes corrugated cardboard look moist and tasty. 9. True and False! Domesticated turkeys cannot fly. Wild turkeys can fly for short distances up to 55 miles per hour and can run 20 miles per hour. 10. True! Thanksgiving Eve is a popular time for people to reunite and also one of the biggest drinking days of the year next to New Years Eve and the Fourth of July.

  7. Daniel on December 5, 2012 at 4:04 am

    I think Laura has the right idea, although I’m not sure if she meant to communicate the significance behind learning institutions, like Harvard and Yale, and the Pilgrims/Puritans. While the Pilgrims and Puritans differed on how they viewed England, their religious outlooks were very similar. As EXTREMELY religious people, they were also a very learned, well-read people who placed a high value on education (especially religious education). These peoples founded institutions like Harvard and Yale to further religious education (which naturally became centers for American learning since they were founded toward the beginning of America). While these universities might unfairly promote New England history, they surely can’t help but focus on their founders. Despite popular, contemporary belief that religion impedes higher learning, religion throughout history has strongly supported, encouraged, and enabled higher learning. Despite this relationship, religion-supported activities haven’t always been the most enlightened (Crusades). Oh well. We were all primitive and backwards-thinking at one point.

  8. George on May 24, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Its important to know your roots, but I don’t consider it a “who cares”. Like you said, good marketing from the Plymouth Rock Chamber of Commerce.

  9. zach on October 30, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    More has to do with the history of these families afterword and the roll they played in the founding of America than anything about the mayflower itself.

    The Mayflower passangers we integral in creating the Massachusetts bay colony. The descendants of the mayflower passangers went on to hold signifigant positions in the colony and many were in a sense members of a new gentry due to the fact that their success in creating the colony meant that they were the ones who reaped the most benefit when that frontier colony became the leading economic and dominant political colony in the north and eventually the entire 13 colonies. In many ways Boston was the driving city toward revolution, it was the most radical, most affluent and least loyal to the crown due to its long history of dispute with London, dating back over a century before the Boston massacre even occurred.

    In the over the top mythologizing that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries looking back at the birth of our nation and with the hyper nationalization that swept the globe at the time, the plymoth colonists, as the founders of most of the boston bramin class, that played such a large role in the revolution became an easy group to mythologize.

    Why not Jamestown? Simply because much fewer of the southern elite families, and fewer revolutionary American folk heroes were descended from that group (many still were, but not AS many). Most of the southern elite were not of the ‘middling sort’ as in Plymouth(neither lavishly wealthy, nor poor) in Britain and were members of the upper stratus of British society, younger sons of wealthy men who took their inheritances to America to build great estates which they could simply not afford in the high cost real estate of their homelands. Also Virginia was more loyal to England for economic reasons than Massachusetts meaning it didn’t receive the same mythologized revolutionary mystique that the founding of that colony did.

    • pamela on October 30, 2015 at 5:56 pm

      A nice summary. Thanks, Zachary.

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.