Colonial ancestry

1 year ago

In my last column I discussed the differences between the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Pilgrims of Plymouth. Millions of Americans descend from these Protestant settlers and quite often have ancestors from both colonies. You probably do if your ancestors were here in New England in the 17th or 18th century. 

How do you find out more?

The best-known expert on the Puritans who came to what is now Boston is Robert Charles Anderson, who wrote the book “The Winthrop Fleet: Massachusetts Bay Company Immigrants to New England 1629-1630,” published by the New England Historic Genealogical Society in 2012 (Hist Gen). Hist Gen is actively pursuing research on the Great Migration, which is the movement of settlers from Great Britain to New England in the 17th century. 

Anderson’s well-researched and documented book contains genealogical sketches of hundreds of immigrants. Some of these sketches run several pages, others just a few paragraphs, depending on the historical record. I suspect a good-sized library near you will have a copy of this book, or you can try ordering it online. 

It should be noted that other immigrants arrived in this period, as well, and formed other colonies which are not covered in this volume or in my column. Eventually they all became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. 

The Pilgrims, whose numbers were smaller than the other colonies, are the best-known 17th-century immigrants due to the mystique surrounding the Mayflower, their heroic first winter here, and the survival of the tiny band of settlers against overwhelming odds. Descendants of these passengers number in the millions. They have their own lineage society, the Mayflower Society, formerly the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, formed in 1897. The cachet associated with membership boosts the image of the heroism of the valiant little vessel and her brave passengers. 

They have their own website, where you can find a list of those who arrived on the Mayflower and learn more about the society itself. The society issues its own journal, Mayflower Descendant, and has published the so-called Silver Books with the first five generations of descendants from Mayflower passengers. The Mayflower Society boasts its own library in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which is open to researchers.

Tracking your ancestry to any of these early settlers is made easier by the surviving records. Massachusetts was good in recording land transfers, freeman status, and vital records. Depending on your age group, you’re looking at 13-16 generations to reach a Pilgrim ancestor and about the same for a Puritan. 

If you’re here in Maine things can get murky, as there are huge gaps in records in certain parts of the state. The formation of towns and obtaining of statehood all helped mandate the retention of records, but many small towns and settlements had no formal government — and thus record keeping became the responsibility of individual families. But on the plus side there are many dedicated and avid genealogists constantly seeking and publishing records that can help you in your search.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft. Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at