“They chose John Carver, a
gentleman of singular piety, rare humility … and well approved amongst them as their Governor for that first year.”
– from Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Every family has its lore, and from the time I knew my maiden name was Carver, I also knew about the most famous person in my ancestral past. We were descendents of John Carver, who not only came to America on the Mayflower in 1620, but also was the first governor of the Pilgrim settlement in Plymouth, Mass.
My, I was proud. Every Thanksgiving of my school-age years I repeated the story of my noble past, as did my children a generation later.
So, when I learned about another area resident with a Mayflower connection, I understood her excitement. But before I called to see if there might be a connection between us, I decided to check a few facts.
You see, she had spent years documenting her genealogy and securing the necessary credentials for membership in the General Society of Mayflower Descendents, while I had either been too lazy to go the legal route or too trusting of my family’s word to bother. Now it was time to be sure. Thus, with the help of the Internet, Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 book Mayflower, and a family tome called, “Carver Genealogy,” I went to work.
My pride rose as I read John Carver’s résumé: Wealthy London merchant, chief figure in securing the Mayflower and arranging the voyage to America, generous contributor of supplies for the journey, chosen leader while on board the ship and first governor of the Plymouth Colony in America.
Naturally, I found all this interesting, but what I really wanted to know was his personal information. What about his family, especially his children?
Details are sketchy, but it appears John Carver was born in Nottingham, England, in 1576, and married Marie de Lannoy when he was 30 years old. John and Marie had one child, a girl who died either at birth or in infancy. Sadly, Marie also died.
John then moved to Holland, where he joined a Puritan congregation who had fled religious persecution in England, and married Katherine, his second wife. In1617, Katherine gave birth to John’s second child, another girl, who also died in infancy.
For the next three years John and Katherine prepared for the journey to America and, in September, 1620, boarded the Mayflower for that historic trip.
However, following their arrival in Plymouth, Carver would not survive to the end of his one-year term as governor. Early in 1621, after working in the fields on an unusually hot day, he came home to rest, lapsed into a coma, and died a few days later. In another five weeks, a brokenhearted Katherine, perhaps weakened by her own toil, was laid to rest beside her husband. According to mayflowerhistory.com, “John Carver is not known to have had any surviving children.”
I wept, not only for this sad tale but for my burst ancestral bubble. Did this mean generations of Carvers have been living a lie? Hoping the often-errant Internet could be wrong again, I turned to that old family tome to see what my distant cousin, Margaret Carver, had to say.
She began with “the question common to every Carver we have met: Are we descended from John Carver, the first governor of Plymouth?”
Obviously, as she had learned from her meticulous research, the answer is, “no.”
Maybe I just couldn’t accept what was obvious to everyone else, but I wasn’t done yet. Although John’s was the first Carver name to be recorded in America, I knew that a Robert Carver arrived a few boatloads later and settled first in Plymouth and then in nearby Bradford, Mass., where members of my documented family live to this day. Quite likely it was Robert who planted the first seed of our American family tree. Just as likely, considering the timing and circumstances of their arrivals, Robert, John and, by extension, my family could very well be related.
But if that reasoning doesn’t hold authentic Mayflower-descendant water, I can always turn to my grandmother’s genealogy because, according to her “family lore,” we are also descendants of Myles Standish, another Mayflower passenger who had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood – and “four were sons.”
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)