Revolutionary War Ancestors’ Life Stories Are in Old Newspapers

So many Americans have fought and died to found and preserve our nation’s freedom.

It often comes as a surprise to genealogists to discover that newspapers reported—in detail—about the lives of the men who fought in the American Revolutionary War.

Estimates are that 92,000 Americans and French troops fought 314,000 British troops, Hessian troops and loyalists. Of that number 25,000 Americans died in the war and an estimated 25,000 more were wounded.

Once again David beat Goliath.

Our ancestors fought and won their independence from Britain…and we want to know their stories.

Militia lists, bounty land warrants and town monuments document their names, but it is often in newspapers that we find their personal stories.

Newspapers tell us about their life before, during and after the Revolutionary War.

obituary for Isaac Van Wart, Barre Gazette newspaper article 31 July 1840

Barre Gazette (Barre, Massachusetts), 31 July 1840, page 2

Newspapers tell us gripping Revolutionary War stories like this one of Isaac Bassett and the men in his regiment who were told “not to fire on the enemy till they could see the [whites] of their eyes…”

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article about the Battle of Bunker Hill, Boston Centinel newspaper article 5 August 1818

Boston Centinel (Boston, Massachusetts), 5 August 1818, page 1

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These words have been passed down to us for over 200 years.

Newspapers let us personalize these stories to our own families.

And newspapers can tell us the unexpected details of their lives. Like this obituary of John Peters, who died at age 100 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1832.

And newspapers can tell us the unexpected details of their lives. Like this obituary of John Peters, who died at age 100 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1832.

obituary for John Peters, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 1 May 1832

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 1 May 1832, page 2

With a name like John Peters it would be easy to assume that he was born in America or England, causing us to spend years looking for his birthplace in those countries.

Searching through the usual Revolutionary War records we might not ever find it mentioned that “He was born in Portugal near Lisbon” or that he immigrated “to this country shortly after the earthquake in 1755,” but his newspaper obituary provides this information.

Wow—that was an unexpected genealogy find.

This patriot’s 1800s obituary is filled with details about his life, his character and his service to the nation. From throwing tea into Boston Harbor to fighting in many of the most famous Revolutionary War battles – these are exactly the details we need to understand who he was and what he was like—and the information pointing us to where he was born.

As we think about Memorial Day, July 4th and documenting the lives of our ancestors, it is essential that we uncover every newspaper article—every fact and every clue—so that we can accurately record their information and preserve and permanently pass down their stories for future generations.

Onward.

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Researching Your Pilgrim Ancestry from Mayflower Ship Passengers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post—just in time for Thanksgiving—Mary searches old newspapers to trace ancestry all the way back to the Pilgrims, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on board the Mayflower in 1620 for a fresh start in the New World.

Although endlessly rewarding, it is true that tracing ancestry is a time-consuming process requiring much patience—especially if one wishes to connect to the Mayflower passengers, those 102 Pilgrims who sailed from Leiden, Holland, in September 1620 bound for the New World—anchoring off Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in November 1620.

Painting: Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882

Painting: Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, William Halsall, 1882. Credit: Pilgrim Hall Museum & Wikipedia.

Tragically, only half the Plymouth Rock settlers survived their first winter in the New World—and if any are your progenitors, you could conceivably be required to compile from 12-18 generations of documentary evidence to trace your Pilgrim ancestry and prove you are a descendant. Fortunately, there are many ways to research the Mayflower voyage and the Pilgrims, even if you can’t visit Leiden or Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts (although please put these stops on your genealogical travel shortlist).

I traveled to Leiden, Holland, several years ago to conduct first-hand research on my Mayflower Pilgrim ancestry, and found this Dutch marriage record for future Mayflower ship passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris from 1611.

marriage certificate for future Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris, 1611

Marriage certificate for future Mayflower passengers Isaac Allerton and Mary Norris, 1611, from the collection of Mary Harrell-Sesniak

However, as I say, you don’t need to travel to research your Mayflower Pilgrim ancestry—you can do it from the comfort of your own home, relying on your computer and the Internet, using several helpful websites and having access to online historical newspapers.

Common genealogical advice suggests that you start your family history research with yourself and work backwards to prove ancestry. However, with Mayflower genealogy research, you might want to work “down the research ladder,” instead of up, as it could very well save you a few steps.

Approved List of Mayflower Ship Passengers

Start at the top of your family tree by looking for surnames matching Mayflower passengers, shown on the accepted list of eligible ancestors compiled by Pilgrim lineage societies, most notably the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (www.themayflowersociety.com/).

John Alden Bartholomew Allerton Isaac Allerton
Mary (Norris) Allerton Mary Allerton Remember Allerton
Elinor Billington Francis Billington John Billington
William Bradford Love Brewster Mary Brewster
William Brewster Peter Browne James Chilton
Mrs. James Chilton Mary Chilton Francis Cooke
John Cooke Edward Doty Francis Eaton
Samuel Eaton Sarah Eaton Moses Fletcher
Edward Fuller Mrs. Edward Fuller Samuel Fuller
Samuel Fuller (son of Edward) Constance Hopkins Elizabeth (Fisher) Hopkins
Giles Hopkins Stephen Hopkins John Howland
Richard More Priscilla Mullins William Mullins
Degory Priest Joseph Rogers Thomas Rogers
Henry Samson George Soule Myles Standish
Elizabeth Tilley John Tilley Joan (Hurst) Tilley
Richard Warren Peregrine White Resolved White
Susanna White William White Edward Winslow

Publications by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants

And if that surname research strategy fails, research Mayflower descendants to the fifth generation to try and find a match to your family. Many publications exist, including the famous pink or gray Pilgrim lineage books published by the General Society of Mayflower Descendants—many of which are available at libraries. As accepted references, these Society publications allow you to bypass submitting proofs for any Mayflower descendant they’ve already established.

photo of publications from the General Society of Mayflower Descendants

Credit: from the library of Mary Harrell-Sesniak

The silver books trace the first five generations of Mayflower descendants.

The smaller pink books are Mayflower Families in Progress (MFIP), and are produced as new information becomes available.

Newspaper Evidence for Peregrine (or Peregrin) White and His Descendants

An extraordinary amount of newspaper articles and obituaries mentioning Mayflower ancestry exist in GenealogyBank’s historical newspaper archives.

Although not my Mayflower ancestor, I’m fascinated by Peregrine White. He was the son of William and Susanna White, who crossed the ocean on the Mayflower with his older brother Resolved. Susanna was pregnant with Peregrine during the Atlantic crossing, and he became the first Plymouth Colony baby of English ancestry when he was born on 20 November 1620 on board the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peregrine_White.)

After William White died—as so many did, during the Colony’s first winter—Susanna married widower Edward Winslow, of whom much is written. After reaching manhood, Peregrine married Sarah Bassett, and if you are one of their descendants, you have a multitude of cousins.

One of your relatives is their grandson George Young (1689-1771), son of their daughter Sarah White (1663-1755) and Thomas Young (1663-1732).

George Young’s lineage was noted in this 1771 obituary.

death notice for George Young, Boston Post-Boy newspaper article 13 May 1771

Boston Post-Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 May 1771, page 3

Being such a small colony of settlers, the Mayflower Pilgrim’s children intermarried. As reported in this 1821 newspaper article, John Alden was a descendant of his grandfather by the same name—and also of Peregrine White, via his grandmother. He is thought to have married twice, first to Lydia Lazell and later to Rebecca Weston, although neither of his wives are mentioned in this obituary. Note how many of John Alden’s descendants were living when he died at the ripe old age of 103.

obituary for John Alden, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 12 April 1821

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 12 April 1821, page 3

Elder James White, who founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Battle Creek, Michigan, was another direct descendant of the Mayflower Pilgrims. His religious affiliation and his Mayflower ancestry were reported in this 1881 newspaper obituary.

obituary for Elder James White, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 9 August 1881

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 9 August 1881, page 1

Reporting Trend in Pilgrim Descendants’ Obituaries

Do you notice a trend in these obituaries? The importance of being a descendant of a Mayflower passenger tends to overshadow all other aspects of an individual’s life!

For example, Ellen Gould Harmon was the spouse of Elder James White—and her obituary from 1915 makes more notice of his roots than her own.

obituary for Ellen White, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 17 July 1915

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 17 July 1915, page 1

Are You My Mayflower Cousin?

Although I have not located Peregrine White ancestry in my own family tree, if you trace to any of the following Mayflower passengers, then you and I are cousins:

  • William Brewster and Mary (maiden name unknown)
  • Giles Hopkins and Catherine Whelden
  • Stephen Hopkins and Mary (maiden name unknown)
  • John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley
photo of the gravesite of Giles Hopkins

Photo: Grave of Giles Hopkins, Cove Burying Ground (Eastham, Massachusetts). Credit: Mary Harrell-Sesniak.

We are in good company. By 1909, one writer’s conservative estimate calculated that by the 10th generation, any of the Mayflower ship passengers could have had at least 3,500,000 descendants! Since most Mayflower descendants are now of the 13th, 14th, 15th or 16th generation, that number has skyrocketed.

The rising number of Mayflower Pilgrim descendants is reported in this 1909 newspaper article.

article about descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 18 December 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 18 December 1909, page 8

If you think you are a Mayflower ship passenger descendant, this article from the New England Historic Genealogical Society may be of interest:

“The Society of Mayflower Descendants: Who they are, where to find them, how to apply”

http://www.americanancestors.org/the-society-of-mayflower-descendants-pt1/

For tips on how to research your Mayflower genealogy using GenealogyBank visit: http://blog.genealogybank.com/tag/mayflower

Have you traced your ancestry back to one of the Mayflower ship passengers? If so, please tell us about it in the comments section. We’d love to know who your Mayflower ancestors are.