A Thanksgiving Story

A Thanksgiving Story

A genealogical journey to Plymouth.

“You come from good stock.” This phrase was commonly used in my family as my mother, Genevieve Ellis (North) Mahlbacher, used the term to compliment a quick recovery from illness or something remarkable I or my brother had done. She never expanded on the statement, so I didn’t know what it meant. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’d like to share my story and the surprises uncovered as I researched my genealogy over the last three years.

When my mother, Genevieve, passed away in 1999, my brother, Jon, and I divided her worldly possessions. Among them was “The Illinois Quest of Asahel North and John McCollister, Sr.,” (“The Quest”) which was originally published in 1991 and updated in 1997 by a distant cousin. The Quest contains hand-written notes of both men’s journeys West, first-hand family memories and ancestral pedigree charts.

I began informally researching my ancestry in 2015. I remembered “The Quest,” retrieved the two-inch-thick-bound document from a basement cabinet and spent the next two years looking for clues as time permitted. One day, I focused on several pedigree charts and notes I’d passed over many times. The charts outlined generation after generation where I found Peter Swallow, a Revolutionary War soldier, and names of six Civil War soldiers. I learned my grandfather was a WWI war hero who fought in France under Blackjack Pershing and was wounded saving his machine gun battalion under German attack. I found more names I didn’t recognize: Wales, Brittel, Griswold, Sabin, Witter, Partridge, Collier and Brewster. I put my finger on the name, “Elizabeth Wales” and traced the different names to William Brewster at the top of the pedigree chart. Then, I saw it: “Mayflower arrive Cape Cod/Plymouth November 21, 1620.” After catching my breath, I slid my finger back down the page to the junction point where Wales, a Brewster descendant, married Marcus North in 1850. Holy smokes! I realized that Marcus North, my two-time great grandfather, married into a Mayflower family line … Could it be? “The” Mayflower”? 1620? Really?

With more extensive research online, at the library and physically researching family records in White Hall, Ill., I confirmed that, in fact, William Brewster born 1566 was The Elder William Brewster ­ the same Calvinist religious leader that, with William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish ­ led the Pilgrims from Plymouth, England on the Mayflower to the new world. With this information, I dove into the Pilgrim experience to discover Elder Brewster’s past: marriage to Mary Smythe; birth of children Jonathan, Patience, Fear, Love and Wrestling; flight from King James’ persecution to Holland in 1608; and evolution into the role as religious of the Mayflower Colony in 1620. I discovered that I am descended from William’s son, Love Brewster and his wife, Sarah Collier.

Just when I thought all the surprises were uncovered, there was one more. The first year in the new world was fraught with famine and disease, and 50 percent of the 102 passengers and 30 crew died. Indigenous Indians assisted the fledgling group and a friendship began. Squanto, a Patuxet Indian imprisoned for several years by the British, spoke English. He taught the Pilgrims about the soil and how to grow corn and make nets to catch eel, cod and bass.

As I read of the events before, during and after the Plymouth landing, I was struck at the point where they had to decide whether to stay and be persecuted for their beliefs or board the Mayflower (which was rickety and leaky), leave their families, and head to a new world with unknown risks. I realized that without Squanto, there was a high probability that all the Pilgrims would have perished very quickly.

To give thanks for the first successful harvest, 90 Native Americans and the remaining 50 Pilgrims celebrated together. Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins and Susanna White were the remaining wives who survived the first year. Together, with another wife named Mary Brewster, the women prepared the first Thanksgiving dinner. When I first discovered this reference, I corroborated it with several books about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. And, there she was … referenced along with the other living wives. This was surprise number 3! There was the Mayflower connection, I’m Elder William Brewster’s descendant, and his wife cooked the dinner? Poof — mind blown!

Mary Brewster died in 1627 and William died in 1644 at 80 years old. Elder William Brewster is my nine-time great grandfather. Love Brewster was born in 1611 in Leiden Holland and died in 1650. My lineage continued through Love’s son, William Brewster and his wife Lydia Partridge and on through their son, Benjamin and his wife, Elizabeth Witter.

I thought this was an important story to tell because we’ve all learned about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving meal. We believe the Pilgrims had turkey at the first Thanksgiving, so we enjoy it today. Several references mentioned that turkey was just too hard to catch, so the Indians encouraged more eel which was in abundance. I realized that the Mayflower passengers were real people who lived real lives. They were afraid, proud, and hopeful; experienced great success and crushing loss; and suffered through blinding New England winters with insufficient housing, food, clothing and medical care. In the end, they took great risk and bore a tremendous struggle for what they believed. We enjoy our freedoms today because of these brave and courageous people: people I’m proud to call my relatives who passed along this good stock.

Lauren Kirby resides in Centreville.