The story had been in my family for years: "We're descended from John Alden." The hand-drawn pedigree chart my grandfather left to my father said it was so. A story had also been in my husband's family for years: "Grandma Brownell's father was a full-blooded Indian." In our youth, we never questioned these stories, in fact, we never paid much attention to them. But we gave a nod to John at Thanksgiving, and joked about the Indian.
As my children grew older, I began to wonder about these stories. Where had they come from? Were they true? My curiosity was piqued more about the Indian in my husband's family tree than about John Alden. (After all, we had the chart.) Where was he from? Was he truly "full-blooded"? Where and how had the Native connection entered the family? So I set out to see if it was true. Starting with little information, and with much painstaking effort, I was able to trace that branch of my husband's family back to his third great-grandfather, but only found circumstantial evidence that they could have been Native. The family has proven to be very elusive, even as Natives were back in early New England. Very little, if any documentation exists about New England Natives, since by the late 18th century, most had been killed, sold as slaves, or driven to Canada by the white settlers. Those that remained disavowed their heritage, hiding out in white society. That gave me pause for thought: Had my own ancestors helped decimate those of my husband?
I became more curious about my own roots. Were we really descended from John Alden? Starting with the names on my grandfather's pedigree chart, I researched step-by-step, and built links I could prove. I found a second line of descent from the Aldens that my grandfather had not known about. This is the one I documented, the one that earned me a place in the Society of Mayflower Descendants.
Longing to connect more with my roots, with the ancestors that first set foot on our shores, I've made several trips to Plimoth Plantation, the replica 17th-century village in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The settlers' village is made up of rows of tiny one-room homes, with dirt floors, small firepits, and thatched roofs. Pilgrim re-enactors go about the daily business of living, circa 1620. I marvel that my ancestors were willing to give up so much to come to a wild and barren place they knew nothing about. I can only imagine how much they must have endured and suffered.
Not far from the 1620 village is Hobbamock's home site, the nearby replica of a hypothetical Wampanoag family. Here, real Wampanoags demonstrate what daily life was like for their ancestors. But unlike the Pilgrim re-enactors, who play convincingly at their roles to help immerse visitors in 17th century life, the people at Hobbamock's home site strive to make visitors aware of current Native issues and concerns, as well as how they lived in the past. Knowing how the lives of early New England Natives were destroyed by the whites that invaded their country, I cannot imagine how much they must have endured, how much they must have suffered.
My last visit to Plimoth Plantation was with my husband two years ago, to celebrate Thanksgiving "with the Pilgrims," at the "1620 Harvest Dinner in Old England." We ate foods that would have been typical fare for my ancestors, armed with only a spoon, a knife and a large napkin, just as they would have been. We sat at long tables with strangers, and chatted with the Pilgrim re-enactors, who stayed firmly in their roles: "You're from the New World? I hear they have headless savages there!"
Afterward we headed for the center of Plymouth, where the Mayflower was docked. As we walked the streets toward the park, we heard drums and a speech in the distance. I couldn't make out what was being said except for, "national day of mourning for the American Indian…." I felt a pang of guilt. By the time we reached the park, the crowd had dispersed. We asked someone what was going on. "The Indians are protesting," he said. I wished I had heard the speech.
A few days after we returned home, I found the text of the speech on the Internet. It was sobering to find that there is a whole section of American society that does not celebrate Thanksgiving as a joyful occasion. They mourn the loss of their heritage. I reflected on what my ancestors contributed to that loss, by their very presence, if not by their actions. In my continuing research on my family tree, I found that John Alden, the Pilgrim most of us know best, served on a council of war against the Indians in 1675. With that part of the picture in mind, the Alden connection in my family tree did not seem such a great source of pride.
The elusive family in my husband's family tree settled in New Hampshire. They worked as shoemakers, farmers, and fish mongers. At least two died of alcoholism, and one died from an overdose of chloral — an early form of drug abuse. Did the pain of a Native heritage follow them into the 19th century? Did they spend their lives hiding in white society? I may never know for sure. But I believe they have a story to tell, waiting to be discovered, and I plan to keep searching. I want my children and grandchildren to learn about both sides of the Thanksgiving story, and their connection to each.