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Mayflower Society Guards Door : For Some It’s an Ego Trip; for Others, Pride in Heritage

Times Staff Writer

Hanging on a wall in the national headquarters of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants is the Jan. 18, 1910, application for membership signed by President William Howard Taft.

Following his name is “Occupation: President of the United States. Address: White House, Washington, D.C.” On the second page of the application President Taft traced his lineage back to Francis Cooke, who came over on the Mayflower.

Two months ago an official of the Society of Mayflower Descendants stamped “Rejected” across the glass frame holding the historic document.

For 75 years Taft was held in high esteem by the group but was unceremoniously dropped from the rolls when the society’s historian general, Barbara Merrick, 50, discovered the 27th President in fact had no Pilgrim in his past.

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In taking a closer look at Taft’s genealogy, Merrick found that he was a direct descendant of Experience Mitchell, who had been married to Francis Cooke’s daughter, Jane. But genealogists had missed the fact that Mitchell had been married twice. And, it was discovered his daughter, Sarah, Taft’s ancestor, was Mitchell’s daughter by his second wife and had no connection with the Mayflower Pilgrims.

Merrick refers to her find as “this difficult problem.”

“Mrs. Merrick is some detective. She’s tough but thorough in trying to maintain the integrity of the society,” the organization’s secretary, Barbara Nessralla, 26, said. “Hundreds of people were wiped out, erased from membership rolls along with President Taft when that error was discovered.

“People take this very seriously. It was a devastating blow to those who lost their membership. Sparks flew. One lady came in shaking so bad to protest the decision we thought she was going to have a heart attack.”

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There are more than 23,000 current dues-paying members of the Mayflower Society, who trace their ancestry back to 23 Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth in December, 1620, and from whom descendants can be proven.

The society’s headquarters at 4 Winslow St. is a block up the hill from Plymouth Rock.

Arriving on the Mayflower were 104 men, women and children, over half of whom died the first winter in the New World.

Members of the Mayflower Society live in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, France, Italy, Sweden, Holland, England and Australia. Massachusetts, with more than 2,200 members, boasts more than any other state. Each state has a Mayflower Society organization.

“California with more than 1,800 known descendants of Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower and are members of the society has the second largest membership,” reported Thomas W. Cooper, 67, of Whittier, retired executive with Baker Oil Tools, who is governor of the society in California.

Descendants include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mormons and members of other faiths. They come from all walks of life, rich, middle class and poor, teachers, preachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, truck drivers, postmen, businessmen and women, secretaries, police officers, pilots, librarians . . . .

There are black members, an airline stewardess whose mother is Japanese, Indians who trace their ancestry to both the Pilgrims and the Indians who greeted the Pilgrims on arrival in this country.

“These are exciting times for the society. It appears we are on the verge of adding another Pilgrim to the names of the 23 with known descendants,” explained Merrick, standing by a stack of the organization’s bible, the 34-volume George Ernst Bowman “Mayflower Descendants” published from 1899 to 1937. The books trace Mayflower descendants to the year 1800.

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She told how a year and a half ago a letter arrived at the society’s headquarters in Plymouth from two sisters who live in Holland, Johanna Maria Wassenaar-Koet and Maria Catharina Van Der Voort-Koet. They wrote:

“We believe we can document our line back to Moses Fletcher on the Mayflower.” They included numerous records of documentation going back to Fletcher.

Since then Jeremy Bangs of the Leyden, Holland Pilgrim Document Center and Dixon A. Barr, dean of Eastern Kentucky University and chairman of the society’s genealogical review panel, have been authenticating the presentation.

They have learned that Fletcher sailed to America leaving his wife and children behind in Holland. He died a few months after his arrival in Plymouth.

Merrick noted that it would be the first name added to the list of Mayflower Pilgrims with descendants in 50 years. Those who had progeny include John Alden, Gov. William Bradford and Miles Standish.

In her library-office in Plymouth containing hundreds of volumes of vital records from New England, Merrick spends her time processing applications sent to her from society historians in every state.

“The initial verification is done at the local level, then sent to me for final seal of approval,” she said. “Last year I received 1,860 applications from state historians and approved 1,136.

“We have members in Congress, governors of states, judges, business leaders. But it makes no difference to me what an applicant’s station in life is as long as the genealogy is correct.”

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Documentation includes birth, marriage and death certificates, wills, deeds, county, city and town records, family Bibles.

Some submit an application for membership for the not-yet-born child of pregnant mothers. “They want the child or grandchild to be a Mayflower descendant from the very first day of life,” Merrick said.

Stuck to a bulletin board in her office is a Funny Stuff cartoon showing three cartoon characters bending over with laughter and the punch line: “Your ancestors came over on what?” Next to the cartoon is the front page of the Oct. 18, 1984 New York Post with the banner: “Mayflower Madam Arrested.”

Society secretary Nessralla said the woman accused of operating a Manhattan call girl service claimed to be a descendant of a Mayflower Pilgrim but was not a member of the society.

Dues vary state to state, $17 a year in California. In most states there are four to six society events each year. In Massachusetts there is an annual barbecue each June in Plymouth.

Every state society has a major function around Thanksgiving at which time the Mayflower compact is read and as the names of each of the 23 Mayflower Pilgrims with progeny are announced, descendants rise to be recognized.

California has 16 colonies (chapters) of Mayflower descendants, eight in Southern California with 150 members of the Los Angeles colony. Cooper, the society’s California governor, belongs to the 80-member San Gabriel Valley colony. A quarterly bulletin, The California Mayflower, is sent to all California members.

The scholarly Mayflower Quarterly issued by the General Society is mailed to every member. The national organization was founded in 1897; the California Mayflower descendants group was organized 10 years later.

Edith Thomas, 60, of Fremont has been historian of the Society of Mayflower Descendants in California since 1970. Her husband Dr. Robert L. Thomas, also a member, served as 20th governor general of the national organization 1975-78.

“We have enrolled 4,500 descendants in California during the last 78 years. I’m proud to say I have done the papers for more than half of them during my tenure,” said the historian, a retired high school art teacher.

The California headquarters of the Mayflower Descendants in the Financial Building, 405 14th St., Oakland, 94612 has a comprehensive library of resource material of benefit to anyone trying to trace his or her lineage to the Mayflower Pilgrims.


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