Off Beat: We need a bigger table — Mayflower descendants number 20M

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter



If Caleb Johnson and his fellow Mayflower descendants ever wanted to get together for Thanksgiving, they’d have a lot tougher time of it than their Pilgrim ancestors had when they came together almost 400 years ago.

Not a lot of places will seat 20 million people for dinner.

Johnson, a Vancouver author and researcher, was featured a few days ago in a Columbian story about Mayflower history. But before his presentation at Sunset Elementary School, Johnson also shared some family perspective that will be timely until the turkey leftovers are gone.

Johnson said his parents discovered they were Mayflower descendants while doing some genealogical research when he was in about the fifth grade.

“It did not interest me much then, and as a family we did not make anything special of it beyond celebrating Thanksgiving like most any other family,” he said.

Being a Mayflower descendant is nothing unusual, he continued. The only thing that’s unusual is actually knowing about it.

“Estimates peg the number of Mayflower descendants at probably close to 20 million people living today,” he said.

Depending on how old you are now, you have to count back about 13, 14 or 15 generations to get to your ancestors who were alive in 1620.

“Everyone has roughly 32,000 ancestors in generation 15 alone,” Johnson said. “That’s a lot of chances to find a Mayflower ancestor.”

All in the families

The gene pool gets even wider and deeper when you consider all the Plymouth colonists. While President Barack Obama is not descended from a Mayflower passenger, Johnson said, he is descended from Samuel Hinckley, an early settler of Plymouth Colony.

“It is very typical to be descended from multiple Mayflower passengers,” said Johnson, and he can trace his family tree back to 13 of them. “Having as many as 13 is definitely rare. I’ve only met a few people with an equal or greater number than myself. Most people have just a few.”

On the other hand, “Having only one is equally quite rare; normally, if you have one, then you have several. Because the population of Plymouth Colony was relatively small for the first couple of decades, it was quite common for the children or grandchildren of one Mayflower passenger to marry the children or grandchildren of another.”

Johnson said he hears from distant cousins almost every day through his website (, the Mayflower Society, and other links: “But these are 10th to 14th cousins; enormously distant.”

Still, Johnson said, he does have Mayflower ancestors in common with George and Barbara Bush, Alan Shepard, Alec Baldwin, Humphrey Bogart, Dick Van Dyke, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Gere, Christopher Reeve, Sarah Palin, Dan Quayle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Ulysses S. Grant, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.

Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.

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