SHERIDAN — Tracing one’s lineage to the Mayflower can produce at least 2,048 possible ancestors to investigate if the line goes back 12 generations. Going one generation further ups that number to 4,096.
The family tree becomes more than a sapling or even that big oak in the park. It becomes the Australian “Monkira Monster,” a Coolibah tree with limbs that span 239 feet. Combing through all those buds and branches is not a sunny affair — think holing up in a library to search through thick volumes for names that may or may not lead somewhere — but it is rewarding.
“When you find something like this, it really cheers you up,” Kim Ostermyer said.
Ostermyer would know. He manages The Wyoming Room at Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library and has seen many people make the discovery of their Pilgrim heritage. He has also traced his own lineage to the Mayflower and back another 50 years to 1575. He is a descendant of three of the 102 Pilgrims who made that hope-driven, disaster-filled voyage from England.
William and Susanna (Jackson) White had their son, Resolved, in 1615 and had their second son, Peregrine, while anchored in Provincetown Harbor before disembarking to explore what would become Plymouth Colony. Ostermyer traces his line to the Whites through Peregrine.
William White died during the harsh winter of 1621, months after the Mayflower landed in November 1620. In fact, of the 102 who sailed, only 51 survived, including four of 18 women who made the voyage.
Just days ago, years after his original research, Ostermyer also discovered a line to Mayflower passenger Edward Doty.
“I think of it as a big kitchen stove with multiple pots going everywhere,” Ostermyer said. “You can put it on simmer, let things percolate, and sometimes by chance something will happen.”
Tracing the tree
The reasons for tracing lineage are myriad.
For Ostermyer, it became part of his grieving process after his grandfather died in 2001. He began to ponder stories about his family migrating from Nebraska to Wyoming and to wonder about the family who came before — who they were, how they lived, why they moved from one place to another.
He did much of his research in the British Isles section in the basement of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. It was hard research, he said, often pursued by pushing his baby son’s stroller around the stacks until he fell asleep so he could dig through another book or five.
In the mid-1970s, Louise Palm was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Colonial Dames 17th Century, so genealogy was not new to her. However, when a friend suggested she try tracing her lineage to the Mayflower, Palm “poo-pooed” the idea.
Later that year, Palm traveled to Washington, D.C., for a DAR Continental Congress. She poked around the DAR library and followed some leads.
“Several times I thought I found a line back to the Mayflower, but it would branch off and I’d be back to square one,” Palm said.
In the mid-90s, she found the branches that led to the trunk: Hope and Desire Howland, daughters of John Howland and Elizabeth Tilly, both Mayflower passengers.
A Pilgrim’s progress
On June 27, 1995, Palm became an official member of the Mayflower Society — a difficult process.
“You must prove your documentation to be an official Mayflower descendant,” Palm said. “That took me probably six to eight years.”
Documentation includes proof of birth, marriage and death dates and locations for each generation going back to the Mayflower. It’s tedious but addicting.
“It just keeps branching out, just like a tree,” Palm said.
For Palm, the search was so addicting she just kept going. If the Mayflower represents the trunk of the tree, she dug into the tangled roots, finding her way back to Roman Emperor Charlemagne, circa 800 A.D., and then to the Merovingian Dynasty that ruled much of modern-day France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria starting around 450 A.D. She found more than 200 colonial ancestors along the way, too.
Palm is now a member of more than 35 heritage societies and has served in leadership at the state and national level for several of them.
Ostermyer never joined the Mayflower Society. For him, tracing his Pilgrim’s progress was an excuse to open dusty books, learn long-forgotten stories and revel in the fact he could draw a 12-foot tall wall chart for his family tree if he really wanted.