10 Famous Descendants of the Mayflower

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When you think of Thanksgiving, chances are you envision turkey and Pilgrims. At that first Thanksgiving table in 1621, the Pilgrims had much for which to be thankful. They were celebrating a good harvest, but they were also thankful to be alive; of the 102 passengers who survived the treacherous voyage from Plymouth, England to Plymouth Harbor aboard the Mayflower the previous fall, more than half had succumbed to disease. As a result, of those 102 Mayflower passengers, only 29 are known to have descendants. The Mayflower Society, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Pilgrim history, estimates 35 million people worldwide, and 10 million in the United States, are descended from those 29 brave souls. Only about 25,000 people have been able to trace their lineage back to those brave voyagers and, in turn, qualify to join The Mayflower Society. However, a surprising number of famous people are counted among those descendants.

There may be as many as 35 million Americans descended from passengers aboard the Mayflower.

The First Thanksgiving; Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, circa 1912

10. Hugh Hefner

The Mayflower Society recognizes the Playboy founder as the descendant of Plymouth Gov. William Bradford. Ironically, another Bradford descendant, Charles Dana Gibson, was responsible for the pin-up of yesteryear — the “Gibson Girl” that became the feminine ideal for beauty during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet another Bradford descendant was actually a brave gender-bender, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man so she could fight with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.


9. Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush

The 41st and 43rd presidents’ lineage can be traced back to at least four Pilgrims, including an indentured servant, John Howland. George W. is also related to a fifth pilgrim through his mother Barbara’s family tree. Seven other presidents also descend from these first settlers — John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Zachary Taylor. Garfield’s claim to Mayflower kinship comes courtesy of John Billington, the first known murderer on Plymouth Colony. In 1630, he was hanged for gunning down fellow passenger John Newcomen. Richard Warren is generally considered the most prolific of Mayflower passengers, having had seven children who, unusually for the times, all survived into adulthood, married and had families of their own. It’s been said his descendants alone could number as many as 14 million and include two presidents — Grant and FDR.


8. Marilyn Monroe

The blonde bombshell has left her mark on pop culture, but 300 years before she shot to fame, her ancestor, John Alden, made his mark — as the first person to set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620. A well-regarded leader of the Colony and ship carpenter by trade, Alden’s ancestors include other legendary creative types, including Orson Welles of War of the Worlds and Citizen Kane fame, funnyman Dick Van Dyke and actor Humphrey Bogart.


7. Dr. Spock

The world may never have known Benjamin Spock if not for his ancestor, John Howland. The pediatrician’s book, Baby and Child Care, has been a guidebook used by parents for decades, and is actually second only to the Bible in terms of sales for more than 50 years. Howland lived into his 80s, rare for the Pilgrims’ era, but he almost didn’t survive the voyage. Howland was washed overboard during a storm and, if not for grabbing a rope used to hoist a sail and holding on for dear life until a sailor rescued him, the pilgrim’s life and progeny would have been cut short.


6. Julia Child

The late chef with the big personality has in her family tree what is arguably the biggest personality of Plymouth Colony — Gov. William Bradford. The first person to give the seal of approval to what would become a national holiday, Thanksgiving, is also regarded as the ancestor of a number of other celebrities, including Clint Eastwood, actor John Lithgow, Superman star Christopher Reeve and an acting family — the Baldwins, which include Alec and Stephen.


5. Richard Gere

The movie star has two claims to Mayflower lineage — the infamous John Billington and often-mentioned William Brewster. Politically active actress Ashley Judd and icons Katherine Hepburn and Bing Crosby also meet The Mayflower Society qualifications regarding their lineage to Brewster.


4. Sarah Palin

John McCain’s 2008 GOP running mate has more than party in common with a politician who did become vice president, Dan Quayle. Both Palin and Quayle are descendants of William Brewster. That said, Quayle and Palin are related to President Hoover as well, given that the 31st Commander in Chief is also an ancestor of Brewster, a colonial leader and preacher. Interestingly, on the other side of the political aisle, Brewster’s legacy also lives on in Howard Dean, the former Democratic presidential contender and six-time governor of Vermont.


3. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Some of the country’s most noted poets can trace their lineage back to those settlers who landed on Plymouth Rock. In fact, both Longfellow of Paul Revere’s Ride fame and his rival (at least in popularity), William Cullen Bryant, were related to the same man — John Alden. A much closer relative to Alden, a son who was also named John, was accused of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials — and lived to write about it. His vivid account is cited frequently and was published in More Wonders of the Invisible World in 1700. Another noted poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, could trace his ancestry to the Mayflower.


2. Alan Shepard

The first American to travel into space had such a sense of adventure in his blood, apparently, as this late astronaut is descended from Richard Warren, arguably among the most prolific Pilgrims. Other pioneering Mayflower descendants in various fields include George Eastman, the brains behind the Kodak camera and film, artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (famous for his “Tiffany” lamps) and even Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader who founded the Latter Day Saint movement and published the Book of Mormon. Perhaps fittingly, his ancestor, John Howland, was a member of the Separatist movement who, 200 years before Smith was to shape a religion, fled England due to religious persecution.


1. Sir Winston Churchill

There has long been debate as to just how Churchill fits on this list, if he fits at all. Widely regarded as among the greatest of wartime leaders and statesmen, the former British Prime Minister’s mother was actually born in America, the daughter of millionaire financier Leonard Walter Jerome. Author Caleb Johnson’s collection of Mayflower research, Mayflower History, contends that Churchill’s ancestors are actually the brothers of Mayflower passenger John Howland. The man who came to America as a servant to the then-governor, John Carver, would later go on to help found the colony and sign the Mayflower Compact. It’s said that Howland’s brothers are also the ancestors of two American leaders, Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.


Written by

Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.