Posted in FamilySearch Wiki, Research tips, Websites, Worldcat

Pilgrims Rock: Researching Your Plymouth Colony Ancestors

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall 1882

From “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall, 1882

This is a repost from 2012 in honor of the Thanksgiving season:

Did you have an ancestor on the Mayflower? Chances are better than you might think, since “tens of millions” of Pilgrim progeny have resulted from the original 102 passengers  who set sail from Plymouth, England  in September 1620, despite the fact that half of them perished the first winter.  One child was born en route—Oceanus Hopkins, and one passenger died en route—poor William Button, so 102 passengers were on the Mayflower when it entered Cape Cod on November 11th.  They anchored at what is now known as Provincetown Harbor, and for the next six weeks sent exploring parties out from the Mayflower to scout the area. Did you know they originally had planned to settle in Northern Virginia?

Researching ten generations back to a Mayflower ancestor may sound daunting, but fortunately for us Pilgrim-wannabees, research on the first five generations has been underway since 1960.  Although the ambitious project by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (or Mayflower Society) is incomplete, Mayflower Families Through Five Generations and Mayflower Families in Progress are considered the authoritative sources for documenting descendancy. If you know who your Mayflower ancestor is, check this list to see if the Mayflower Society has published a book about him or her, and see links below to obtain the book.

There are plenty of good resources online to help you learn about the Pilgrims.  I enjoyed exploring Caleb Johnson’s, and also discovered a guide for teachers and students created by Duane Cline and hosted on  They both have lots of links to images, maps, and source lists.  Of course, you should visit the General Society of Mayflower Descendants webpage—especially their “Books and Publications” area.

For an organized approach to genealogical research I recommend the Research Wiki on FamilySearch.  Typing “Pilgrims” in the search box will bring up a list of results which includes a link to “Plymouth Colony.”  (Of course, you could type that in directly if you were smart enough to know that is what it was called, which I did not remember.) This brings up a page with loads of information and links to Colony records, including the American Ancestors website, Mayflower Genealogies, Plymouth County records, and other NEHGS records.

American Ancestors is the website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and they have numerous helpful articles relating to early Plymouth Colony settlers, but also a series of articles specifically about Pilgrim research strategies.  “Researching Your Mayflower Ancestors: Part III…” details books about each Mayflower passenger published by the Mayflower Society in their Mayflower Families Through Five Generations  and Mayflower Families in Progress—mentioned previously.  These can be purchased on the Mayflower Society webpage, but they are also available in many libraries. Use Worldcat to locate any of these books in the library nearest to you, or to order them through Inter-library loan.

American Ancestors is a subscription database, but it does have free access to many articles and has a good number of Mayflower articles.  Of particular interest are all the Pilgrim Village Family Sketches (use these to give you a starting point, so you will know which town and county records to search in Massachusetts or other states where they might have migrated), an explanation of  Pre-1636 New England Immigrants: A Comprehensive Index, and the above-mentioned 6-part series on Mayflower research by Alicia Crane Williams:

American Ancestors also hosts the digital version of Robert Anderson’s The Great Migration Begins: Immigrants to New England, 1620-1633, volumes I-III and the later volumes. has volumes I-III.  The Great Migration Study Project, with its goal to document every person who settled in New England between 1620-1640, hosts a website.

Map of Plymouth Colony, Research Wiki on

If you are researching Plymouth Colony and the Pilgrims, you will naturally need to check under the broader topic of Massachusetts genealogy.  This link has a solid list of the essential published collections for early New England colonization and their Family History Library call numbers, as well as links to relevant family history and genealogy websites. It also describes the Card Index to the Massachusetts Archives.  “The Massachusetts Archives is a series of [328] volumes containing documents of Massachusetts from its founding in 1629 to the year 1799.” Eighteen of these volumes are indexed online in the Massachusetts Archives Collection Database, (1629-1799) on the Massachusetts Archives website.

A list of published sources for Mayflower research was compiled by Scott Andrew Bartley for the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants.

Family Associations have been formed for many of the Mayflower passengers, and they are a great resource for connecting to those with a common research interest.

Depiction of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, reproduced by Lanternpress. Not sure if they are the original artists.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to submit an application for membership in the Mayflower Society.  Mostly, I was curious about the process.  I submitted my “review form” with a simple descendancy chart from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins and received a letter inviting me to submit a preliminary application and fees.  Upon receipt of these items I will be sent a worksheet and instructions.  The worksheet is something they complete, and it can often have the first five generations or more.  I assume then my job will be to provide documentation connecting me to the most recent individual on the worksheet. According to the review form they returned, it looks like I would need to prove descendancy from Seth Crane, who died in Milton, Norfolk, Massachusetts 4 Apr 1803. I haven’t decided whether to go through with it because of the cost (initial dues in California are $165 and then $30 per year thereafter), but it would be fun to document the connection, regardless.

And now, for the important stuff…costume ideas!

Happy Thanksgiving!


I am an Accredited Genealogist® professional living in California. I have been researching and teaching since 1988.

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