11 Famous Mayflower Descendants

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In 1621, the English settlers who came to North America on the Mayflower and established the colony at Plymouth, Massachusetts, held a harvest feast after a successful first growing season in the New World. We usually consider this the “first Thanksgiving,” even if the settlers didn’t call it that (to the Puritan Pilgrims, a thanksgiving would have been a religious holiday, while the harvest feast was more secular), and it didn’t look much like our idea of the holiday (the original feast was three days long, and was held sometime in between September 21 and November 11).

Aside from giving us an excuse to gorge on turkey while the Lions play, the Pilgrims and other Mayflower passengers also helped to populate the New World with some famous folks. Here are just a few of the famous Americans with Mayflower passengers in their family trees.

1. John Adams (and John Quincy Adams)

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The second President of the United States (and his son, the sixth president) was descended on his mother’s side from Mayflower crewman John Alden. Alden was a cooper on the ship, and was responsible for maintaining its barrels on the 1620 voyage that brought the Pilgrims over. Instead of returning to Europe with the ship, he decided to stay at Plymouth and try his luck in the colony. He was one of the signers of the Mayflower Compact (the first governing document of Plymouth Colony) and its last surviving male signer.

2. George H.W. Bush (and George W. Bush)

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The 41st and 43rd presidents can trace their lineage back to at least four Pilgrims, including Francis Cooke, one of the settlers tasked with laying out the boundaries of Plymouth’s land grants and roads. George W. is related to a fifth Pilgrim, Henry Samson, through his mother Barbara.

3. James A. Garfield

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President Garfield’s Mayflower ancestor was John Billington, who boarded the Mayflower not to escape religious persecution, but to avoid paying his debts in England. Billington clashed frequently with Plymouth’s leadership and was implicated in a plot to overthrow them in the colony’s early years. Later, he got into an argument with a new arrival in the colony and shot the man with a musket. The wound became infected and the man died, leading to Billington being arrested, tried, and executed for the first recorded homicide committed by a settler in the New World.

4., 5. & 6. Julia Child, Clint Eastwood, and Thomas Pynchon

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The chef, the actor/director, and the novelist are all descended from William Bradford, who served as the governor of Plymouth Colony. Bradford was elected to his position less than a year after the Mayflower landed, when the original governor, John Carver, collapsed while working in the fields. Bradford would remain in office for most of his life, and record much of what we know about Plymouth’s early history in two books that cover the details of colonial life over 20-plus years.

7. Bing Crosby

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On his father’s side, the crooner was descended from William Brewster, who was Plymouth’s first religious leader, advisor to Governor Bradford, and father to four oddly-named children: Patience, Fear, Love, and Wrestling.

8. Marilyn Monroe

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The former Norma Jeane Mortenson had a few Pilgrims in her family line, including John Alden. Aside from making barrels and being the ancestor of a sex symbol and two presidents, Alden worked as an assistant to Governor Bradford and sometimes served as acting governor. He was also reportedly the first male passenger on the Mayflower to set foot on shore.

9. Alan Shepard

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The first American in space seems to have had adventure in his blood. One of his ancestors was Richard Warren, a non-Pilgrim passenger who participated in the colonists’ early searches of the Massachusetts coast for a good place to settle. One of these scouting trips led to the first encounter the Plymouth settlers had with Native Americans.

10. Georgia O’Keeffe

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The painter descended on her mother’s side from Edward Fuller, a Pilgrim who died, along with his wife, shortly after the colony was established and before the harvest festival was held.

11. The Baldwin Brothers

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Alec, Stephen, Billy, and Danny are descended from John Howland, whom the Bushes are also related to. Howland was an indentured servant to Governor John Carver and almost didn’t make it to Plymouth. On the voyage across the Atlantic, he fell overboard, but was rescued by the Mayflower’s crew. Once he was back on dry land, Howland lived into his 80s—a notable feat for the era—and outlived all but one other male Mayflower passenger.

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November 11, 2013 - 7:11pm
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