25 percent of Americans believe they have Pilgrim ancestry

Scripps Howard News Service
Published Thursday, November 25, 1999

Poll results


Scripps Howard News Service

Here are the percentages of Americans, broken down by various groups, who say "yes" to the question: "Do you think your family may be descended from one of the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower?"

Entire Nation 25 percent

Men 26

Women 24

18-24 36

25-44 24

45-64 20

65 or older 28

Northeast 21

South 27

Midwest 25

West 24

Lives in Major City 19

Lives in Small City 31

Lives in Suburb 18

Lives in Rural Area 31

Protestant 25

Roman Catholic 21

Jewish 12

No Religious Preference 26

Attended church recently 28

Not been to church recently 23

Not A High School Graduate 28

Graduated High School 30

Attended Some College 25

College Graduate 22

Post Graduate Studies 20

White 28

Black 17

Hispanic 14

Asian 6

Married With Children 25

Married, No Children 26

Single With Children 21

Single, No Children 30

(Source: A scientific telephone survey of 1,015 adult residents of the United States conducted Sept. 22 through Oct. 11 by Scripps Howard News Service and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.)

A quarter of all Americans have Pilgrim dreams -- a belief that their ancestors may have walked the Mayflower's wooden decks and survived to celebrate that first Thanksgiving at Massachusetts' Plymouth Colony in 1621.

"So many of us have a family tradition, a belief that they are descended from the Pilgrims," said Caroline Kardell, historian for the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. "Sometimes the oral tradition is right, and sometimes it is wrong."

A survey of 1,015 adults in the United States conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University found that 25 percent answered "yes" when asked: "Do you think your family may be descended from one of the Pilgrims who came to America on the Mayflower?"

The latest estimates provided by the Mayflower society suggest that there are 35 million descendents worldwide of the 26 men who survived the harsh conditions of the Pilgrims' first Massachusetts winter. But the survey suggests that nearly twice this number in the U.S. believe they have Pilgrim blood.

"It's hard to say how good these family traditions are," Kardell said. "Many people believe they were descended from (Pilgrim) William White, but that was a very common name back in those days."

The survey found that 96 percent of all adults usually celebrate Thanksgiving, making it the most universal holiday in America's richly diverse culture. Significantly smaller numbers will celebrate Easter, Christmas or the Fourth of July.

Additionally, 56 percent answered "yes" when asked: "Do you think the original Pilgrims were the kind of folks you'd like to have as next door neighbors?" Thirty-one percent believe Pilgrims would be a detriment to the neighborhood; 13 percent were undecided.

But attitudes toward the Pilgrims are intensely political. Conservatives and older people overwhelmingly like the notion of Pilgrim neighbors while young adults and liberals want to live in Pilgrim-free zones.

"That has to do with a very, very common misconception," said Richard Maxwell, former governor general of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants. "Many people think of the Pilgrims of the Mayflower in the same way they think of the Puritans who settled in Massachusetts Bay 10 years later."

The Puritans were stern Calvinists, more inclined to be judgmental of others. Maxwell said it was these people and their descendants -- not the Mayflower Pilgrims -- who were responsible for the Salem witch trials that resulted in the execution of 20 people for suspected sorcery and devil worship in 1692.

"But the group that settled Plymouth were less judgmental. They tended to be more tolerant because they had lived among the Dutch and had suffered so much for their faith," Maxwell said.

The poll found that residents of small towns and rural areas are much more likely to believe that their family tree could be rooted to the Plymouth Colony than are those in major cities and suburbs.

Young adults are more likely to believe they have Pilgrim blood than are older people, probably reflecting the statistical reality that young people have a greater chance of possessing such lineage. A son is twice as likely as his father to be a Mayflower descendant because the son could be descended either through his father's family or his mother's.

But the poll also demonstrated the remarkable depth of the Pilgrim dream to include millions of people of all walks of life. Although the first residents of Plymouth Colony were all devout Protestants, 21 percent of the Roman Catholics in the study said they may have Pilgrim blood.

Although the Pilgrims were all Caucasian, 17 percent of African American poll respondents said they believe they are Mayflower descendants. They could be right because millions of African Americans have white ancestors.

And even though the Pilgrims helped found New England, a quarter of the residents of the South, Midwest and West believe they are descended from those first Yankees.

The survey was conducted Sept. 22 through Oct. 11 by Scripps Howard News Service and the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. Households were selected at random and residents were interviewed by telephone under the supervision of Professor Joe Bernt, director of the Scripps Survey Research Center in Athens, Ohio.

The survey has a margin of error of 4 percent.


(Thomas Hargrove is a reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. Guido H. Stempel III is professor emeritus at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.)

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