November 21, 2012

The Ghosts At My Thanksgiving Table. ~ Laurence Overmire

Thanksgiving for me isn’t about turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy and watching football on TV.

Sure, I’ve had many a traditional Thanksgiving in the past, but not anymore, not since I discovered what the holiday was really about—at least for me. It is about family, but not in the way you might think. My parents are gone now. So when I gather ’round my dinner table, it’s not the living who attend, it’s the ghosts of ages past.

You see my ancestors were there—at what has become known as the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in the fall of 1621. My 10th great grandfather was William Bradford, the Governor of the Colony, who no doubt had a hand in organizing the whole affair. It was his manuscript “Of Plymouth Plantation” that has become one of the primary sources for later historians to understand the history of that time.

My grandmother Lillian Tifft Overmire was very aware that she was a descendant of Gov. Bradford’s. It was a matter of family pride. Her great uncle Capt. Axel Hayford Reed, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics at Missionary Ridge during the Civil War, had written a family history documenting the descent from Gov. Bradford, which was published in 1915.

What my grandmother didn’t know, however, was that she was also descended from several other members of that perilous Mayflower voyage to what would eventually become The United States of America: Richard Warren, Francis Cooke, Isaac and Mary Allerton and their daughter Mary.

She didn’t know because that information had been lost over the centuries. Not surprising, really. Families don’t communicate about so many important things. We get caught up in the trials of everyday living. Who cares about the past? Think about all those old family photos you have stored in the trunk in the attic that you can no longer identify.

No, we just don’t take the time, do we? And it’s a shame, really. People lose touch with who they are. Those family lineages get lost in the shuffle and aren’t transmitted from one generation to the next. But eventually, one of the descendants comes along and wants to know. What is the truth of who we are?

In our family, that descendant was me. I wanted to know. So I began to research. That was about twenty years ago when the Internet was just getting started and researchers all over the world began to easily share information.

I started knowing very little other than that I was descended from Gov. Bradford, but then I traced line after line going back in time, sometimes very far back in time. It was an odyssey that continues to this day. You learn an awful lot about yourself and the world when you venture on such a quest.

I’m still discovering new lines of ancient ancestors and uncovering stories of who these people were and what their lives were like.

Thanksgiving represents one such story for me.

Richard Warren, also a 10th great grandfather of mine, is not as well known as some of the other Mayflower passengers, but he was another prominent leader of the colony, respected for his integrity and wisdom. He later became Assistant Governor.

Francis Cooke was a woolcomber. He was also in attendance that first Thanksgiving.

His wife Hester remained behind in Holland when he made the Mayflower journey. She would later join him at Plymouth in 1623.

Mary Norris Allerton, a 10th great grandmother of mine, had died the previous February about a month after giving birth to a stillborn son. That first winter was brutal. As Bradford reported many lacked “houses and other comforts.” Some had contracted scurvy, pneumonia and other diseases. Only half the company— about fifty people out of more than 100—survived, half of them children and only four of them adult women.

Mary’s husband Isaac and her daughter Mary, also my ancestors, did survive, but it must have been a bittersweet time for them that fall as their friends and Indian neighbors gathered to celebrate the harvest.

The Indians, in fact, were crucial to the success of the colony. Without the help of Squanto, who taught the pilgrims how to procure food, it is doubtful the pilgrims would have survived at all.

The amazing part of my story, however, is not only that I discovered I had several ancestors among the pilgrims, but it appears I had ancestors among the Indians as well. Native American lineages are not easily proven from a genealogical standpoint, but there are two lines in my grandmother’s tree that indicate we had ancestors among the Wampanoag Tribe, including the Sachem (Chief) Iyannough, who had befriended the English newcomers and was present at the feast.

The feast itself must have indeed been a time of deep and meaningful thanks giving, especially for the English who had come through so much with the help of their Indian friends. It must have been a truly joyous occasion, one of the rare instances in American history when First Nations and the European colonials came together in peace, and yes, even love.

The sad and tragic part of the story is what happened in the ensuing years, when the friendly relations between the Indians and whites turned sour. At one point, Myles Standish and his men took up arms in pursuit of the Indians. Chief Iyannough fled into a swamp and died of illness.

If I had never traced my genealogy, that story might have little effect on me, but now that I know, it breaks my heart. I weep for my grandfather. I weep for them all.

In 1636-7, the Pequot War erupted with a brutality that had never been seen before on the American continent. The Europeans had brought with them a new kind of warfare, a whole different mentality that sought not merely the subjugation of one’s enemies, but their utter extermination.

The colonists surrounded a Pequot village burned it to the ground and shot those who tried to escape. Gov. Bradford wrote, “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave praise thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.”

Bradford’s account sounds particularly callous to our modern ears, especially aware as we are now of the horrific treatment the Native Americans would receive at the hands of our government throughout our history. There is no God that I know that would ever approve of the senseless killing and annihilation of one’s fellow human beings.

Let’s face it, our ancestors were flawed people. Only in our mythologies do we put them on pedestals to worship and adore. The reality is that they were real people, just like you and me.

There comes a time, if you look long enough and hard enough, that you have to forgive them: your parents, your grandparents, your many, many times great grandmothers and grandfathers. And you have to forgive yourself, too. For they are a part of you, for better and for worse.

That doesn’t mean we don’t love them. We do love them. We love them all.

We are all evolving, aren’t we? Hopefully, we are becoming better people than those ancient generations that preceded us. We know better now, don’t we?

We know that love and peace are the way to a better world. We know that getting along with one another, celebrating our common humanity, appreciating our differences, that’s what will move us forward, especially in these troubling times.

And when I think of Thanksgiving, that’s what I remember. I remember my grandfathers and grandmothers, Indians and colonists, celebrating together. There was so much promise in that gathering and so much hope.

That’s the world to which I commit myself today: a world at peace with itself.

Every day we walk on this Earth is a gift. All of those ancestors who came before us gave us this opportunity. We can right the wrongs of the past in the way we live our lives. We can heal the wounds. We can minimize the suffering of all our brothers and sisters in need.

If there’s one thing genealogy teaches you, after all, it is that we are all one family. No matter what our color, our religion, our political ideology, we are one. That’s worth celebrating.

Happy Thanksgiving. To you and your own ghosts who join you at the table.


1) Loewen, James W., Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, [NY: Touchstone, Simon & Schuster, 1996]

2) Overmire, Laurence, The Ancestry of Overmire, Tifft, Richardson, Bradford, Reed, RootsWeb World Connect Project, 2012.

3) Wikipedia, Of Plymouth Plantation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Of_Plymouth_Plantation

Laurence Overmire has had a multi-faceted career as poet, author, actor, educator, and genealogist. He is the author of The One Idea That Saves The World: A Call to Conscience and A Call to Action. He is an advocate for peace, justice, human and animal rights, and the environment. Find out more at: www.TheOneIdeaThatSavesTheWorld.com and on Facebook.



Editor: Malin Bergman

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