BELDING — On Thursday, Belding resident George Miller will sit down with his family to enjoy another Thanksgiving feast — just as his forefather Francis Cooke did 390 years ago at the very first Thanksgiving.
Dating back 12 generations, George discovered just more than 16 years ago that his bloodline arrived in America at Plymouth, Mass., aboard the Mayflower in 1620.
He took upon looking up his family history as a hobby about 20 years ago and after a few years of research and a little luck, discovered his ancestors were some of the first to colonize America.
“When I started, I didn’t know anything about my history,” George said. “I knew little stories that my grandparents would tell me and things like that, but not really any details as far as who I descended from.”
General Society of Mayflower Descendants
George applied for membership to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants in 1995 and was accepted after providing documentation that linked him to original pilgrim Francis Cooke, who arrived on the Mayflower.
George said he anticipated discovering a good amount of history when researching his roots, but never dreamed his efforts would link him to someone who arrived on the Mayflower.
“I never thought it would lead all the way to the Mayflower,” he said. “When I was first informed that I descended from Francis Cooke, I could recall his name from learning about him as a child in grade school. History then took on a whole new meaning for me. History came alive, it became personal. History in itself now has a personal touch and personal meaning in my life.”
According to the Mayflower Society’s website, Francis Cooke was one of 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower and one of 41 men who signed the Mayflower Compact in November of 1961. He is also one of the 51 pilgrims to have children, which leaves more than 10 million living descendants.
Recently, as a birthday gift, George helped his father Gaylord Miller, who also resides in Belding, with his acceptance into the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.
“I was thrilled,” Gaylord said. “It’s my lineage. You have that feeling that it gives you a different outlook on Thanksgiving. “If I went out and made the claim, ‘I came from the Mayflower,’ how many people would believe me? This way you have documentation that proves it.”
George said he applied for membership in order to have a record of fact and to be able to share that information with his children and grandchildren.
“I wanted to set the record,” he said. “Not only for me, but for all the generations to come. I have eight grandkids. It’s a matter of record now.”
Thanksgiving more meaningful
Both George and Gaylord said they have never looked at Thanksgiving the same since learning of their heritage.
“Thanksgiving is a story of survival, a story of people who had so much passion to be able to do what they did and be able to believe what they wanted to believe,” George said. “I think Thanksgiving is really about being thankful for what people have gone through and accomplished. Even though our Thanksgiving that took place so many years ago was merely a feast of people getting together, they learned to survive for a common goal. Since that first Thanksgiving we’ve come through many wars and many events and we are here still here today.”
“When people think of Thanksgiving, they think of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.” Gaylord said. “It’s just something else to know that your own heritage was a direct part of that piece of history.”
Gaylord said knowledge of their ancestry was known throughout his family until it disappeared after the death of his grandmother when he was only three weeks old.
“We’ve learned that our great-grandparents and such used to tell stories of having a heritage linked to the Mayflower, but I was never told that story,” he said. “When my grandmother passed away, that knowledge went with her.”
Discovering ancestry no easy task
George said discovering the history of his ancestry was no easy task. It took years of collecting birth certificates, death certificates and affidavit’s accounting for proof of marriages when marriage certificates couldn’t be found.
“You start locating folks, finding out where people lived, and if you’re lucky and things fall into place, it can be fairly quick or it can take years,” he said. “This process began as a hobby, but now it has become my passion.”
George is retired after working 30 years at the Ionia Correctional Facility, but now spends his time continuing to research family histories and is pursing a degree in history.
“I think if history teachers could do one thing to improve history, they need to make it real,” he said. “They need to make kids wonder who they are and where they come from. I just think that if you can make history personal, get to know your family, know where you came from and then start attaching historical events to those family members, you’ll be more interested. Those events then start to have more meaning and purpose.”
Despite having such ties to the original Thanksgiving, George says his family will more than likely refrain from having a traditional dinner.
“We will have a gathering, but we’ll probably do something a little nontraditional,” he said. “The traditional way is great, but I like to think Thanksgiving is about forming our own traditions. We don’t have to practice the same way the pilgrims did, but we do need to get together and be thankful for where we’ve come from.”
One tradition he will partake in, is that in remembrance of his ancestor Francis Cooke.
“There is one tradition where you place three kernels of corn on your plate as a remembrance of the first thanksgiving,” he said. “It’s a tradition that’s been around for a very long time for people who descended from the Mayflower. I’ll always remember where I come from and now hopefully my descendants will always have that knowledge with them as well. “
Name Birth-Death Location
Francis Cooke 1577-1663 Arrived on Mayflower
John Cooke 1606-1675 Arrived on Mayflower
Hester Cooke 1650-1672 Plymouth, Mass.
Thomas Taber 1668-1722 Dartmouth, Mass.
Esther Taber 1709-1780 Dartmouth, Mass.
Thomas Palmer 1730-1787 Dartmouth, Mass.
Julia Ann Palmer 1771-1850 Newburgh, N.Y.
Thomas H.P. Irwin 1811-1906 Newburgh, N.Y.
James S. Irwin 1846-1910 Mecosta Co., Mich.
Sara Lucinda Irwin 1881-1935 Vergennes Twp., Mich.
George Kelsey Miller 1910-1979 Keene Twp., Mich.
Gaylord Lee Miller 1935- Orleans Twp., Mich.
George Irving Miller 1955- Belding, Mich.