Shirley Waldera likes to think she has a little more appreciation for Thanksgiving than the average American.
"I think I do, being a descendant" of a man who was at the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621.
A Martinez resident, Waldera said she spent the better part of 30 years researching her family genealogy and discovered she is a direct descendent of John Howland, one of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower's 1620 voyage from England that ended at Plymouth Rock.
"When you think back of everything our ancestors in the past had to do in order for us to be where we are today, it's just amazing," Waldera said.
During her research to prove her relation to Howland to be a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendents, Waldera said she discovered she's lucky to be here.
Howland was swept overboard and nearly drowned in a violent storm during the two-month cross-Atlantic journey, according to historical accounts provided by The Pilgrim John Howland Society. He held onto some trailing halyards until he was pulled back aboard.
"One little thing could have changed everything. That's why I always talk about John Howland falling off, " Waldera said. "It makes you think what could have happened. Just a little turn in history and you wouldn't be here."
If Howland had not been hauled back aboard by shipmates, Waldera and many others might have been erased.
Other descendants of Howland include actor Humphrey Bogart, presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George and George W. Bush; poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and U.S. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., according to the Pilgrim John Howland Society.
Paul Bumpus, a Howland descendent and a verifying genealogist with the Mayflower Society, a national organization that requires proof of a person's Mayflower relation, said there are more than 75,000 Mayflower Society members nationwide.
He said 325 were registered society members in Georgia at the end of 2004. Many people, he said, have no idea who their forefathers were.
"We get a lot of these kinds of questions, how many descendents there are," Bumpus said. "It's certainly up in the high millions."
Waldera said it took her nearly a decade to prove her relation to Howland to get her Mayflower Society certificate.
Even in the beginning of her genealogy research, though, she said she somehow knew her family line would lead her to the Mayflower.
"I just had a feeling that was always going to happen for some reason," Waldera said.
An old photo of her great-great-grandparents is a reminder of the last piece of evidence it took to connect her to Howland. She needed, and ultimately found, proof of the couple's marriage.
The day she located it in an old handwritten book was a great day for her.
"I was so excited I couldn't stand it," Waldera said.
Because Howland married Elizabeth Tilley, who made the Mayflower journey with her parents, Waldera said the Tilleys are her second and third connections to the historic ship.
When her family gathers together at Thanksgiving, Waldera said she takes the opportunity to share family history with them.
"Thanksgiving last year, I gave them a lot of history," Waldera said. "I try to do that every Thanksgiving, give them more history of something."
Despite all her travels during the genealogical research, Waldera said she's got one more trip to make - to Howland's home, which is the only Mayflower passenger's home still standing. Waldera's two sons are already Mayflower Society members, but her 8-year-old granddaughter is still waiting; members must be 12 or older.
"She's so excited. When she's 12, she's going to become a member. I want to take her when I make this trip (to Howland's home)," Waldera said. "She likes hearing all the history."
Waldera had heard stories of her family history and came to realize, through writing letters and now using the Internet, a lot of those stories were true. She encourages anyone else curious about their family stories to research and find out the history behind them.
"You can find what you are looking for."
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