Family Tree Voyage Leads To Mayflower

Local woman traces ties to early colonists


It's 1621. Do you know where your relatives are?

Payson's Virginia Fowler does. They're on the Mayflower.

In fact, this spry 80-year-old has traced a full 13 lines of direct descendants back to the Atlantic Ocean voyage that made Thanksgiving possible.

Impressive? Not to Fowler's three grown children, who have her beat by five. That's the Mayflower line count of her late husband Douglas McPherson Fowler's side of the family.

But here's the real jaw-dropper: Before he died almost 24 years ago, Doug found that both he and Virginia were of the 13th generation in America to descend from the Mayflower's well-remembered Elder William Brewster -- Doug through Brewster's son, Love, and Virginia through Brewster's daughter, Patience.

It was later discovered that both family trees also included Mayflower voyagers Stephen Hopkins and Thomas Paine, as well as early Americans Edward Bangs and William Collier, a "merchant adventurer" who invested heavily in the establishment of the colonies.

In other words, Virginia married a blood relative?

"Yes," she is forced to admit. But lest you get the wrong idea, she quickly adds, "a very, very distant relative."

Fowler modestly says that such sharing of ancestors isn't really so unusual, as there were so few Pilgrims in Plymouth Plantation. "But it was this discovery which got me started on my little hobby."

Little? Don't believe it.

Fowler's initial interest began innocently enough with one family genealogical chart given to her by her husband's brother, followed by the purchase of George F. Willison's 1945 tome, "Saints and Strangers," which she deems "the authority on the Pilgrims."

Today, getting into a conversation with this woman about her connection to America's first families is a dangerous thing. She's been avidly tracing her roots for almost 30 years and more hours than she cares to consider.

In that time, Fowler has amassed a small mountain of hand-penned fold-out charts, reference books, time lines and endless lists of names -- cross-referenced with a tangle of lines and arrows and circles and numeric codes -- all of which she is happy to spread before visitors on the off-off chance they might be able to make head or tail of it.

In any case, it's all documented in the book "Mayflower Births and Deaths," from the files of famous Mayflower historian George Ernest Bowman.

As far as one information-overloaded visitor was able to determine, Doug's family line also includes Mayflower debarkers Richard Bartlett and one family member, and two members of the Thomas Paine family, Peter Browne and Elizabeth Waterman. And add to Virginia's gene-pool contributors, Mayflower shipmates Richard Higgens, John Alden, William Mullins and Thomas Rogers.

"Apparently, our relatives really got around," says Fowler.

While the precise details of the Fowler ancestors' lives range from non-existent to vague, their 21st-Century Payson spokeswoman says that Browne and Rogers died during their first post-voyage winter from what was known as the general sickness --a combination of pneumonia, tuberculosis and scurvy.

In reporting this 378-year-old news, Fowler projects the definite sense that she's talking about dearly beloved, recently departed kinfolk.

And in a way, she is.

"When you've spent as much time as I have researching the lives, families, trials, tribulations and deaths of these people, you do start to feel as if you knew them."

Asked if her offspring share this cross-generational affection, Fowler shakes her head.

"I think they think all this is something to keep me from playing in the street."

Not that she would otherwise have a lot of spare time on her hands. Since moving to Payson from Roselle, Ill., in 1994 to be closer to her daughter, Katherine, Fowler has joined and remained active in the Mogollon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and two quilting organizations, the Shoofly Guild and the Quilting Bees of Payson.

There's no doubt that Fowler is proud of those in her bloodline who "dreamed of the liberties we now enjoy and who dedicated their lives to gaining them," she says. However, she does admit with no small hint of glee that there is one black sheep in her Pilgrim family.

That would be the Mayflower's aforementioned Stephen Hopkins, who was, she says, instrumental in starting a mutiny in 1627, and who is now best remembered as the only man ever hanged for murder in America's first colony.

"That's both the danger and the thrill of genealogy," Fowler says. "You never know what you'll find."

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