By Jane Fletcher Fiske, FASG
The following paper is by the 2009 recipient of the Katharine Fox Little Distinguished Mayflower Scholarship Award. Jane Fiske was honored at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the SMDPA in Essington, PA for her “Discovering, Recording, Compiling, Preserving, Publishing, And Facilitating the Same by Others, of Genealogy and History of the Pilgrims.” Her paper was not presented verbatim, although all issues were covered. It is posted here for those who could not attend the meeting.
I am so tremendously honored by this award! My first thought when Stacy called me a few months ago to tell me about it was, “but I’m not a Mayflower descendant”! I believe I tried to ask him tactfully if he realized that, and he explained that eligibility wasn’t a qualification for the award. Although I’ve done a lot of research on Mayflower people, I’ve always keenly felt that I was an outsider treading on somebody else’s ground, and well aware that there were Mayflower experts who knew much more than I did. It’s lovely, therefore, to know that you consider the genealogical work I’ve done valuable to Mayflower scholarship. My friend the late Ruth Ann Sherman, who worked on behalf of both the Mayflower Society and the Rhode Island Genealogical Society, had no ancestry of her own in Rhode Island, but she used to say that she tried to “shed light where it was needed,” and that’s what all good genealogists should try to do. Thank you!
Figuring out what to talk to you about today was another matter altogether. After years of being scared silly of public speaking, I finally discovered, well after the age of fifty, that it is actually fun to talk about something you really understand, trying to teach other people about it and share your interest. However, a talk about research in Rhode Island, or New England Town Records, or court records, didn’t seem quite appropriate to this occasion. I suggested to Stacy that he or you, or someone, tell me what to talk about, but I got no help there either. Luncheon talks are always tricky, because anybody who has eaten well has a tendency to nod off afterwards, and it can be a challenge to hold the attention of an audience, however polite that audience might mean to be.
On my own for a topic, I kept gravitating towards my one real connection to the Mayflower Society – the 5Gs books and publishing. This is particularly appropriate as 2009 is the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Five-Generation Project (although the first book wasn’t actually published until 1975). I did much of the research and all the computer work on the two Samson 5th generation books, but in addition to that I’ve reviewed several other books and have reformatted and indexed several more. In the process of this, I’ve come to appreciate the enormous effort that many different people over the last couple of generations have put into this project, and still are. I’ve also realized that many of the authors working on the project are a little bit lost trying to get their research into finished form. There is also a sense that some new objectives are needed, not only to give authors technical help, but to develop a new vision for the future that puts some flesh on those bare bones genealogies. We need to pay more attention to the many people in the generations stretching between us and those remote Mayflower ancestors.
Thanks to the Five Gs books, anyone today who wants to join the Society can find out fairly easily if he or she is eligible, but that was definitely not the case 40 years ago, when I moved with my husband and sons to Massachusetts and began enthusiastically to immerse myself in New England research.
I should probably explain that I’d be a member of the Mayflower Society if I could be. However, a full half of my ancestry, on my father’s side, is fairly recent English; my grandparents grew up and married in London and came over in 1867 right after their marriage. That situation has given me a lot of practice in tracing English ancestors, something I’m still actively doing. Of the other half of my ancestry, on my mother’s side, about an eighth consists of Palatine German with a little Dutch and Scottish, so the percentage of ancestry through which a Mayflower line might come is fairly small. Some of my ancestors actually were in the right place at the right time, though, and I’m descended from “the wrong Howland,” Henry, whose brother John came on the Mayflower, and some other early Plymouth Colony families. I just might have a Mayflower ancestor I can’t identify: Stephen Gifford of Dartmouth, around 1700, married a woman named Mary, whose maiden name is not known. Stephen Gifford had several siblings and every one of them married a Mayflower descendant, so it’s quite likely he did too. However, I’ve never been able to find record of his marriage or of Mary’s maiden name. Among their children were daughters named Priscilla and Keziah, and I’ve searched early families in the area for those names in combination but have never been able to come up with even a probable identity for Mary. That’s as close as I can get to Mayflower ancestry.
My husband’s ancestry is at least seven-eighths New England, all north of Boston; the remaining one-eighth is a German great-grandfather who immigrated to Illinois and married a girl who had been taken west from Vermont in a covered wagon when she was two years old. My mother-in-law, granddaughter of a Maine sea captain, was never interested one bit in genealogy, but she always claimed she had a Mayflower line. However, when I started looking I couldn’t find one. Finally she produced a lineage paper filled out for her for the DAR by a cousin, Ransom Carver, who did have a Mayflower line, and it became obvious that she thought if he descended from a pilgrim she must, too — after all they were cousins — the problem was that he descended through his father, and it was his mother she was related to. Discouraged there, I traced my father-in-law’s family, and discovered a woman named Mercy Hunt who had the right name and was the right age to be a Mayflower descendant born in Plymouth. My husband even got interested in the search for Mercy Hunt, who is buried in Salem, Mass., and we eventually found notes in a Hunt manuscript at NEHGS that proved she was born in Concord, not the Plymouth lady at all. That ended my mother-in-law’s hopes, but she had to deal with a next-door neighbor who was a proud member of the Mayflower Society in Greenwich, Conn. There’s a funny story there. That neighbor was a staunch lady of aristocratic southern extraction who flaunted the fact that she was a Mayflower descendant and even used stationery that advertised her membership. When my parents-in-law first moved to Greenwich, about 1960, she wrote a note on that stationery, to object to my mother-in-law’s hanging laundry outside to dry. Later they became good friends and our children were invited to use the neighbor’s swimming pool when we visited. It’s an amusing story, but it does point up one of the problems Mayflower people face – it’s easy to be considered snobbish by the rest of the world, and once in a great while they deserve it.
Seriously, I do realize that each State Society is autonomous, and Pennsylvania shouldn’t be blamed for the sins of Connecticut. Of all the state societies, I think yours stands out for its interest in and support of scholarship, and when I asked Judy Swan, she agreed.
We lived in upstate New York when our children were growing up, and all my genealogical notes were kept in one box that I trotted out maybe once a year. However, after we moved to Massachusetts in 1970, the kids were in high school and I had a lot of time to myself, so I threw myself into New England genealogy, taking courses at NEHGS [explain abbreviation – used to be New England, then HistGen, Negs in west now] and digging into records in town halls and court houses. Eventually I began to want to branch out and do research for other people – I’ve always had a strong entrepreneurial streak anyway, and here was something I knew how to do that quite a lot of people wanted done for them and were actually willing to pay me for doing. I’d never heard of Joseph Campbell then (the distinguished scholar who taught at Sarah Lawrence and is known for his work with myths), but I was just doing what Campbell called “following your bliss,” and having a wonderful time doing it.
I was asked several times to help document a Mayflower line, but I guess I was lucky in that no one ever approached me and asked me to find them a Mayflower line – that’s one of the situations many researchers dread. It’s discouraging to be asked to find anything specific, whether it’s a Revolutionary War ancestor or a line to the Mayflower. The motive in such cases is almost always to enable that client to join a hereditary society, and to most researchers that feels all wrong. In your own or someone else’s ancestry, it’s much more fun just to do the research and see what interesting things turn up.
One of my first clients was a dear woman in Texas who wanted me to trace her New England ancestors. I did, and found what looked to be a line to the Aldens, but couldn’t prove it — it could have been a case of the name’s the same. The 5Gs project was just getting off the ground then, and none of the records I could find was decisive. Anyway, the woman was delighted just to know of the possibility, and I did find her a lot of other ancestors that made her happy. Later in the same kind of general search for a Connecticut man, I found an Ellis line that took him back to the Mayflower although I can’t now recall the family – the Soules I think. He and his brother were extremely pleased and I helped them with their application papers for the Mayflower Society. They were so grateful to me they sent me a Texas fruitcake every Christmas for quite a long time.
Looking back for examples in the preparation of this talk, I realize that over the past 25 or 30 years I’ve used my research skills to help several people join the Mayflower Society. Just a few years ago I had the tremendous satisfaction of being able to organize application papers for a woman whose 100th birthday was fast approaching. Her son thought he had the line right, and he wanted to surprise her with it as a birthday present — he just needed some help finding and citing sources. His mother had grown up in Fall River and thought of herself as “a little Irish mill girl,” so it did come as a great surprise to her to receive notice of her membership in the Massachusetts Mayflower Society – the Historian General waived a rule or two to enable her son to present her with it.
One woman was convinced she was being discriminated against because her name was very Polish or Slavic sounding. When I dug into that situation I discovered that the Historian General just needed one more bit of proof. I located an affidavit made years and years ago by a great-aunt, and then her papers were accepted. She made me feel as though I’d accomplished a miracle, and sent me a lovely Crystal glass heart paperweight, which I treasure; she also called me up, tearfully, to ask me if I’d help her sons join if they ever had any trouble. I’ve never heard from them, so I guess they either didn’t want to join or were accepted through her papers.
Anyway, it’s clear to me that there are many people who desperately want to belong to the Society of Mayflower Descendants. Often the state historians and/or the Historian General are deluged with copies of paperwork, but missing just one key bit of evidence, and it’s important to realize that they don’t have the time or sometimes the expertise to read the fine print. It’s often difficult to make them see the logic of a collateral, or “sideways” search, where, say, you can’t prove that one individual was a descendant, but you can prove that he or she was a sibling of someone whose line has been proven – sometimes the last child got left out of the family Bible, or something like that. Sometimes children were left out of wills. One case I cracked involved reading all the documents in a very early probate file in Bristol County, and on one small accounting paper I found an amount listed as paid to “Mother Winslow.” That gave us the link we needed to prove the man’s wife was a Winslow, and it was accepted by the Society. It doesn’t always follow that a member of the Mayflower Society who is filling the important office of Historian is a really skilled researcher — their job is to evaluate evidence and approve papers — and those of us whose real delight is digging around in old documents can sometimes be of help. I’m never happier than when up to my neck in old records, a pig in mud.
As I followed my bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, most of the things I’ve accomplished in genealogy came along and dropped into my lap. I never applied for a job at NEHGS, but I was drafted, first for writing the article on Rhode Island research that got me elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists (told story: man who had contracted to write it hadn’t delivered) — Susie Robinson asked me to explain what FASG is [honorary, never more than 50, Ruth Ann Sherman’s “fat and sassy genealogist”], and then a couple of years later to be consulting editor of the Register when Ed Hanson, who had been editor, left to go to the Mass. Historical Society. Ed’s young assistant, Don Nielsen, was taking over as editor, but it was felt that he lacked experience that I could provide. Don didn’t particularly want help (“I wish it didn’t have to be anybody, but if it does have to be somebody I’m glad it’s you”), so although we worked well together, he hedged his bets by applying to law school, and of course he was accepted and left a year later, and at that point I was offered the full editorship. That was in 1986 and I had about fifteen happy years working there, on the Register and then also as Director of Publications, doing hands-on production of books and the beginning years of the CD-ROMs.
NEHGS was not immune from political intrigue, and in 2001, I left that organization quite abruptly, a convoluted tale some of you may know —I won’t bore you with details. I had been working literally ALL the time, including evenings and weekends, not only editing the Register, but focusing on getting Torrey’s Marriages before 1690 onto a CD ROM. It was like trying to come to a dead stop after going 100 miles an hour, and the decompression problems were terrible. Edie Thomas, Chairman of the Five-Generations Project, called me up and asked me if I’d like to do a 5Gs book. My first inclination was, good heavens, I don’t know that much about Mayflower genealogy, and I really am not a lineage society person. However, Edie was very persistent, and finally I agreed to work on the fifth generation Henry Samson book – actually it turned out to be two volumes rather than just one. Suddenly all the energy that had been going into Torrey’s Marriages was directed towards tracing Henry Samson’s descendants. I was up to my ears in Mayflower families.
I’m really very, very grateful to Edie. She threw me a lifeline at a difficult moment, and became a dear friend. I really didn’t know what I was doing in the beginning. I knew I didn’t really like the way most of the 5Gs books were done, but I hadn’t worked out just how I’d do this one differently. Edie gave me carte blanche, and NO guidance. She just said she wanted an award-winning book and it was up to me to do it. She called to check up on me regularly and we had some wonderful conversations about everything from cats to politics, but she was unfailing in her encouragement on the book. The fact that I changed format in the book several times before finally settling on something definite didn’t seem to alarm her at all, and she always seemed to approve of my changes.
In the end, I did the best I could with the Samsons. In the beginning Bob Wakefield, that expert on Plymouth genealogy, was a life-saver whenever I needed help, but he died before the first book was finished. Actually, I don’t think I would have had the courage to make the format changes I did if he had still been in the picture, because he, like Bob and Ruth Ann Sherman, was a firm believer in bare-bones genealogy, and more and more I came to disagree with that. I got rid of abbreviations and spelled out complete sentences. I overhauled the referencing system, putting brief references in the text (Alicia Williams was already doing this with the Aldens), which made it possible to sort out and simplify the list of sources given in the “References” section at the end of each sketch. The idea was to make the text flow, to read more easily, to seem less like a textbook and more appealing. Those were straightforward format changes, but just as important, perhaps, was the fact that I included every bit of human interest material I could find, along with actual and sometimes lengthy quotes from the documents —wills and deeds, etc. — that were cited to prove a line. The Plymouth County Court Records proved to be a gold mine.
It is amazing how far a Mayflower family got in five generations, and the different kinds of lives the descendants at that point were living. Many of them had migrated out of Massachusetts at that point, so much of the research was in Maine, New York, even Ohio and here in Pennsylvania. There were still a lot of farmers, but there were also a lot of doctors and ministers, and sea captains. There was even a Maine sea captain turned bad who was executed for piracy in the Mediterranean. I couldn’t just stop with the fifth generation when there was good material available in the same source for the sixth.
Edie was pleased with the way the Samsons turned out, despite the fact that I’d departed from silver book conventions. She agreed with me that some new standards were needed, and with her blessing I was working on some guidelines for 5Gs authors when she died. Judy Swan, who currently is both Governor General and co-chairman of the 5Gs project – with Muriel Cushing – asked me to continue with that, so despite the fact that I don’t feel as though I have any right to tell Mayflower workers what to do, my changes are now being recommended to 5Gs authors – were in fact, sent out by Judy last week.
I’m not in favor of making changes in something without understanding the reasons. It’s always a good idea to look back and see why something has been done the way it has been for a long time. It is easy to understand that there were good and valid reasons for the way the earliest 5Gs silver books were set up. The purpose was to prove, with solid research, as many lines from each Pilgrim as could be traced, to the fifth generation, and to publish that information with the references. The idea was to make it easier to identify descendants who would then join the Society.
Bob Sherman, under whose chairmanship of the 5Gs Project the first two volumes were published, and his wife Ruth Ann Wilder Sherman, were my mentors in the early years in New England, as well as dear friends. We met one day when all three of us were rooting around in the dusty, messy basement of the Bristol County Court House in Taunton, where the early court records were then kept. I was working on my Thomas Cooke of Rhode Island book and they were working on William White. We had a common interest in the Rhode Island Genealogical Society, but I heard a lot about their Mayflower work. Ruth Ann was editor of the Mayflower Quarterly at that time, as well as helping Bob with the 5Gs books.
When the 5Gs project was started, typewriters were still the way to go At that time there were two ways to publish: the old traditional method whereby you had the book typeset in actual lead type by a typesetter, then the printer used the typeset pages; or the newer “offset” printing method where you produced the pages on a typewriter just the way you wanted them to look, and then a printer would photograph them and print from the photos – that was and still is, called “camera-ready.” In 1986 when I became editor of the Register, we were still typing up each issue and sending it to a typesetter in Vermont, who actually set the type and returned galley proofs to us for correction. We usually went through two sets of galleys for each issue. It was enormously time-consuming and expensive, and nearly prohibitive for book production. The Sandwich Vital Records, by Caroline Kardell and Russell Lovell, were actually typeset, because the person then in charge of publication at NEHGS did not understand offset printing, and he’d promised Caroline and Russell that it would be typeset. It cost a mint.
Computers came to the rescue after that. We were able to save a lot of both time and money when we were finally able to switch over to camera-ready copy done on a computer. It took some time, however, to buy the computers, and learn how to use them, before we had the capability of printing pages that looked like typeset print. The first computer printers could not do the whole job, and in 1987 when I published Thomas Cooke of Rhode Island, I had to use a daisy-wheel printer that would not let me change to italics in the middle of a line, so all titles are underlined. As soon as laser printers solved that problem, though, it was possible to do a very professional job.
The 5Gs project would not have been practical in the old days of typesetting. It started out using camera-ready copy made on a typewriter. I remember Ruth Ann Sherman typing on what was called “blue-line” paper. That was a specially coated smooth paper that had faint blue lines to mark margins, and you typed inside of those lines. The printer would take those pages and photograph them; the blue lines and any marks you’d made on it with a special blue editing pencil would not show up. The finished book, however, still looked as though it had been typed.
The idea was to get as much bare-bones information into as few pages as possible, and that set the format for the silver books for a long time afterwards. Abbreviations saved not only keystrokes but paper. Today our computers have the option of proportional printing, and it doesn’t matter if there are more letters in a line because so much more will fit. We used to have to use upper case letters to make titles stand out, and underlines where printers used italics. Now we can italicize titles the way they should be, and use bold face for emphasis. The resulting books — produced entirely on computers right up to the point where the printer takes charge — look every bit as good as books that were typeset in the old days, and they are much, much less expensive. I’m not sure you can even find a typesetter today if you want one. The technology over the past 20 years has moved at a fantastic rate. In fact, even camera-ready copy is now going out the window. The newest wrinkle is to send a disk to the printer, who will work directly from that. The same disk can be used to put the material on the internet. A case in point is your own Newsletter, which looks terrific. NEHGS announced just the other day that they are making the Register available on line, three weeks before the printed version comes out, and if you are a member you may opt for the online version rather than to receive a printed copy in the mail.
There are always people who want to stick with tradition rather than move with new technology. We had a classic example at NEHGS, with the Charlestown, Mass., Vital Records, which were compiled by my good friend Roger Joslin. The first volume was done in 1984, using the typewriter to make camera-ready pages, as I described. Roger didn’t get the second volume done for over ten years, and by that time it was possible to make it look typeset, but Roger wanted it to match the first volume, so even though he used a computer, he insisted on using Courier typeface (which is one of two old typewriter typefaces, and non-proportional). The result was a book that was much longer than it needed to be, with long lines squeezed in – the whole thing looks less than professional. (The information is all there, though, and it’s a tremendously valuable work.) The same is true of the 5Gs books that preserved the old typewriter look; it’s no detraction from their value, but they could have looked so much better. People get attached to old formats and it’s hard to make them see the advantages of change. Sometimes, too, it’s a matter of learning the necessary computer skills. The learning curve from typewriter to Microsoft Word can be steep, but once you’ve got it the possibilities are endless.
Coming to the 5Gs project in 2001, I certainly had no previous attachments to format. To the contrary, I was quite critical of the fact that the books were still being turned out in Courier and looked as if they’d been done on a typewriter. With Edie’s blessing, I was eager to make the Samson books look good, so I took full advantage of proportional type. I tried to make the book read well; by using complete sentences and getting rid of unnecessary abbreviations like postal codes for the states. I put titles in italics, as they should be, rather than in caps. I made the children’s sections a point size smaller than the main sketches, and the list of references smaller still. The result, I think, is a book that looks a bit more finished and permanent than a book that looks like a typed report. It looks the way a typeset book did 20 to 25 years ago.
It seems to me that the original goals of the 5Gs project, as Lucy Mary Kellogg, the Shermans, Bob Wakefield, and others envisioned them, have pretty much been fulfilled — largely due to Edie Thomas’s efforts, but certainly to the work of many people. So what’s next? I know that Judy Swan wants to continue work to the 6th generation, and that makes a lot of sense. The early 1800s can be a very difficult period to research; families were on the move and there are not many good state vital records.
There are people who advocate putting it all on the internet. you could talk for a long time just about the pros and cons of internet publishing, and I certainly think that it has its place in presenting information – it’s great for newsletters and data bases. However, there are still good reasons to publish certain kinds of genealogical books. Descendants include many people who aren’t interested in genealogy for its own sake and probably would never bother to look it up on the net, but who enjoy having something to look at and show their children. Websites need webmasters or someone who can keep them up to date, and one person’s dedication can last just so long.
On the other hand, a printed genealogy is fixed in time, a product of the expertise and talents, even the personality of the individual who compiled and published it. There are researchers like me who just have to write; a discovery is something that must be shared. I get tremendous satisfaction out of putting a book together, from the research to all the fiddling on the computer to make it look the way I want it. Most of us who do write know that we’re doing it for people we’ve never met, or for people who haven’t been born yet. I am very touched by the fact that I get thank-you notes from people who have just discovered my Thomas Cooke Book, after 21 years; a whole new generation has come along to enjoy it. They thank me for all the work I did on their ancestors, even though they must know that the Cooks were my own ancestors, too, and that I did it out of a deep instinct for the search. Pleasing others is a great dividend, but it wasn’t the main concern.
To some extent, by putting the bare-bones information out there, the 5Gs books may have hurt the chances for more thorough genealogical books on the Pilgrims and their descendants. My own theory is that the Mayflower Pilgrims have been too famous. Probably everyone living today in this country learned about them in grade school, and our parents and grandparents did too. As a result they were stereotypes for us long before we had a chance to really understand what they were all about and to see their individuality. There was that unfortunate logo that appeared on all the Massachusetts Turnpike signs for years – a Pilgrim hat with an arrow through it. It was changed eventually because of new sensitivity towards Native Americans, but it might just as well have been descendants of the Pilgrims who objected. Standard Thanksgiving advertising usually shows what? Pilgrims and turkeys. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about John and Priscilla Alden, entitled The Courtship of Miles Standish. How many people’s ideas about John Alden today stop short with that fictitious story?
Add to that situation – Pilgrims as stereotypes – the fact that far too many people who joined the Mayflower Society in past years did so for its snob value, and even today the motive is often social — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — and you have a deplorable situation with regard to the possibilities for good genealogical research. Genealogists love mystery, and problems that need solving, but on the surface there don’t appear to be that many mysteries about the Pilgrims left to solve.
Actually, there are lots of things we don’t know about our Pilgrim ancestors, and more information is being discovered all the time. English origins for Richard Warren, Henry Samson, and Stephen Hopkins, among others, have been found in the last couple of decades and published in genealogical journals. The work both in discoveries and historical interpretation being done by Jeremy Bangs is phenomenal, the sort of gift that pops up maybe once in a century, if that often. In Jeremy’s case, the problem is finding support for his research. He’s having difficulty finding a publisher for his very scholarly and wonderful book on the Pilgrims in Leiden, and I think that the root of this problem is the stereotypical views held by most people outside of the world of the Mayflower Society. Historians tend to look down their noses at genealogists anyway, and academic publishers eager for titles that will grab the attention of the public and sell lots of copies don’t believe that the Pilgrims are that interesting.
It isn’t necessarily the responsibility of the Mayflower Society and the 5Gs to do it, but the Mayflower Pilgrims deserve the same kind of treatment as other ancestors about whom we might write a book. The challenge of discovery may be missing because of prior coverage, but there is still plenty of room for definitive books on particular families, developing the English background, and following the generations down the years, using maps and illustrations. Years ago there were at least two 5Gs researchers who wanted to go in that direction and at the time they were discouraged by the Society. One was Betty White, who worked for years and years on the Howlands, and refused to let her discoveries be published as bare-bones. Feelings ran very high, and Betty ended up going with Picton Press, as you probably know. The last two volumes of her work have just been published, in blue covers rather than silver. The other researcher was Esther Barnes, prime researcher for the Aldens. I met Esther just about the time her disagreements with the Society were coming to a head, and she too had spent many years researching and wanted everything she’d found included in the books. Unlike Betty White, Esther stuck with the Mayflower Society and Alicia Williams was persuaded to edit her work and do the computer work necessary to get it to press. Three volumes of Alden silver books have been published, with another to come. They incorporate a lot of information you don’t find in a bare-bones genealogy, and Alicia actually initiated some of the new referencing methods I used in Samson and have put into Guidelines.
I’d like to see all the Silver Books reformatted according to the new Guidelines, as reprinting becomes necessary. If there are interested workers to do it, the books could be expanded to include not only newly-discovered data, but more information and quotes. You use the same sources you would anyway – vital records, church records, cemetery records, court records, town histories, whatever – but you include the interesting bits. Sometimes doing that will give you insight into a connection you might otherwise have missed, say a geographical one, or having to do with occupation. Quite a few well-known characters [Mercy Otis Warren, for one] are hidden in the old bare-bones format, and there are many other people whose less prominent lives deserve recognition.
I have notes on the first four generations of Henry Samson, but the inventory of that book is still pretty large so there won’t be reason to reprint it for some time. Perhaps descendants of specific families could be persuaded to put time and/or money into the effort for their particular ancestor. It may be heresy, but I think some individualization, with different bindings, might be a step up. The Silver Books on a shelf make an impressive showing, but maybe it’s time to start a second series that has a slightly different look. Learning how to use the computer effectively has been a barrier for many people, but that situation is improving rapidly. So-called “coffee table books” still sell, and so would definitive and attractive editions of genealogies. I can actually envision a book as a valued art form in the world of the internet that we’re going into.
There’s no reason why the 5Gs Project can’t continue to publish good books and also find a way to put bare-bones material on the internet (as long as everything is referenced). The problem with any internet site is that it’s only as good as the person who looks after it. What’s needed is someone who will post references and keep the site up to date. We’ve all had the frustrations of clicking on a link, only to be told that that page is no longer available. There is so much absolute garbage on the net that the average genealogical researcher needs guidance in order to evaluate which sites are reliable. One of the mistakes it’s easy to make is that you can now find all you need on the net. There’s certainly a lot there, much of it in sources that are not easy to find — the U.K. is ahead of us there in putting documents and manuscript catalogues on line. Here in the U.S. there seems to be a great push to put old things on line, published books that are out of copyright, etc., but any thorough search still has to include digging in libraries and court houses. And beware of compiled genealogy of the net! Electronic publishing is wonderful, but it can never be better then the human hands that guide it, or the mind behind those hands.
There is a tremendous sorting and sifting process going on with genealogical publishing today, and it isn’t going to be settled any time soon. My husband and I spent 13 years getting the cumulative index to the NEHG Register finished and in print in four fat volumes that were published in 1994; the whole thing could be done much faster with today’s technology. A year later the Society brought out a CD ROM of the Register, using that index, and within ten more years the volumes of the printed index had been sold off and remaindered at low prices; you can’t buy one today except through a used book store. The index that was put on the CD ROM was used as the basis for the on-line index when they put the Register on the Society’s website, NewEnglandAncestors.org. It all sounds like progress, but John and I know one thing that was never publicly acknowledged: the person representing the Society in the negotiations with the CD ROM people allowed them to drop all the thousands of maiden name entries that we had painstakingly added. That means that there is significant information in the printed version that will not be found in the online version, but most people don’t realize it. So much for progress. Books are not dead yet.
I’m happy that over the years I’ve done things to help advance Mayflower scholarship, although sometimes there were different goals in mind. It took Edie Thomas to get me specifically interested, to make me look beyond my stereotype of Plimoth Plantation, and to see that Henry Samson and the other Pilgrims were just as interesting as individuals as any other group of early colonists. Once into a project, you lose track of which ancestors are whose — I feel quite related to the Samsons now.
The Five Generation Project has been called the Crown Jewel of the Society. It is nearly complete in what it set out to do, but there are new challenges. The books need to be upgraded, and research continued to further generations. More thorough coverage is needed to flesh out the bare-bones of the generations in between 1620 and, say, 1800, to make those people in between more than just links to a Mayflower ancestor. As the silver books evolve from their bare-bones beginnings, to better crafted, more carefully referenced, and more readable volumes, they will become more valuable to everyone, not just to descendants who want to join the Society. The distinction between published books and what can and should be put on the internet will become clearer as time goes on — it’s important not to get stuck in any specific format, but to move with technological change. The most important thing is to ensure that the Project continues to produce the most reliable scholarship available on Mayflower people, in whatever form it may be found.
I want to say Thank You again, for honoring me today and for giving me the opportunity to talk about this important publishing project.