Janesville family traces connections to Mayflower
JANESVILLE--Thanksgiving means so much more than turkey and football to Mary Masterson.
When she sits down to a table full of food Thursday, she will remember “the starving time” at what is now Plymouth, Mass.
She will think about her ancestors—Edward Fuller and his wife, Ann—who left behind their beloved England for the sanctuary of a strange country only to die in the first year.
She also will feel a blood connection to some of our nation's first immigrants.
Mary's ancestors were among the Pilgrims who sailed aboard the merchant ship Mayflower to make landfall at what is now Cape Cod in November 1620.
Every time the Janesville woman reads about the determined people seeking religious and political freedom, she wonders how they endured without shelter and medical care and with few provisions.
Of the 102 Mayflower passengers, some 50 died from starvation, scurvy and disease by summer 1621.
Mary recently tracked her ancestors back 12 generations to Plymouth Colony. Her son, Ryan Masterson, and her husband, Rich Masterson, also got involved in the research.
Their combined work over two years resulted in Mary and Ryan being accepted into the Society of Mayflower Descendants in Plymouth in March.
“I feel an integral part of history,” Mary said. “It feels special to jump through all the hoops and actually prove our connection.”
The Mastersons used a family Bible, original birth, death and marriage records and the U.S. Census to document their family tree.
Interestingly, Rich and Ryan, both teachers, taught about American colonial history with an emphasis on the contributions of the Pilgrims and Puritans to the creation of the United States.
“What we did not know is that the very key characters we taught about were related to Ryan on his mother's side,” Rich said.
Rich is retired from teaching U.S. history in Janesville.
Ryan teaches advanced placement U.S. history at Janesville Craig High School.
“I share the stories of my ancestors with the students,” Ryan said. “It makes history more real to them.”
He became passionate about genealogy research after his two daughters got curious about their ethnic backgrounds.
“I've always had an interest in history, probably largely because of my dad,” he said. “Now, my children have an interest in it.”
Suffering terrible seasickness, the Pilgrims sailed 66 days before reaching land. Even before setting foot in the New World, they agreed to establish a new democratic government. Forty-one men signed the famous Mayflower Compact, the first written framework of government established in what is now the United States.
“America's struggle for independence was more than 150 years away, but the seeds of self-government were sown by the small band of Pilgrims,” Rich said.
Mary and Ryan are related to 10 of the 41 signers, including Edward and Samuel Fuller, Miles Standish and William Bradford.
When spring came, Native Americans known as the Wampanoag helped the weak and suffering immigrants get a foothold in the New World. By autumn 1621, the Pilgrims harvested crops and gave thanks.
“They invited neighboring tribes and celebrated for three days by eating wild turkey, deer, duck, vegetables from their gardens and wild berries,” Rich said. “Four married women and five teenage girls prepared the meal for more than 100 people.”
The gathering is now remembered as the first Thanksgiving.
Mary and Rich have visited the first Pilgrim settlements in the East. They also have stood at Plymouth's memorial tomb, honoring those who died after the first brutal winter.
“I find it so significant that a group of simple people sacrificed everything to find freedom of religion,” Rich said.
“Today, we take so much for granted. Even though the Pilgrims experienced so much loss, they reached out and thanked God. I am thankful that we live in a country built on remarkable people who sacrificed so much.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.