I was very thrilled to discover I was descended from Pilgrims. Then I learned their sad story, and someone even tried to convince me I shouldn't be able to really say I'm descended from Pilgrims. I'll explain it all below and then you can decide.
James Chilton was born in England, probably in the year 1556. He was, as far as we can tell, the oldest passenger on board the Mayflower. But I'm getting ahead of my story, or rather, his story.
James and his wife had ten children, three of whom died young. They lived in Sandwich, Kent, in the year 1609, when his wife (whose name has been lost to history) was charged with the crime of attending the illegal secret burial ceremony of a child. The church of England had banned ceremonies that were not performed according to their rules, and this was apparently one such ceremony. To escape prosecution and/or further persecution for their beliefs, the family left England and settled temporarily in Holland, along with a group of English separatists.
We know their life in Holland was not entirely peaceful, because James and his oldest daughter, Isabella (the daughter I trace my lineage through), were bystanders who were caught in a riot in 1619. James was injured badly enough to require the services of a doctor, and a written police record of the incident was filed.
The following year, James, his wife, and their youngest daughter, Mary (then 11 or 12 years old) sailed on the Mayflower. The older children were then adults and therefore living on their own, no longer part of their father's household. At the time of the sailing, Isabella was already a mother, and the daughter I'm descended from was already born. Isabella's married name was Chandler, and she and her family came to America on a later boat. This is why some say I can't say I am descended from Pilgrims.
The boat dropped anchor off the shore of present-day Massachusetts and some of the men set out in a smaller boat to explore the land. Due to the weather, they were unable to actually start building a settlement on land until March, so they lived on the Mayflower for the winter. It's not known if James Chilton was part of one of the groups that went exploring. These men faced the harsh conditions head on, jumping into the surf to toe the boat onto the beach, sleeping in their wet clothes around a campfire with only a coat to keep warm. Exposed to the snow and cold, wet rain and frost.
The passengers wrote up and signed the Mayflower Compact on November 11, 1620, to establish a temporary self-government. This document, which described their purpose: "for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith," was signed by James Chilton and the rest of the free male passengers. But the harsh conditions were already taking their toll, for James died on December 8, 1620, while the Mayflower was anchored off Princetown Harbor. Five other passengers died that same month, and half of the passengers died that first winter. Mrs. Chilton was among those who died later that winter, leaving Mary all alone in the New World at the age of 12. Tradition holds that Mary was the first to set foot on Plimoth Rock, though that is more of a tradition or legend than proven fact.
So James' story is a sad one, but he accomplished a great deal. He stood up for his beliefs and risked his life so his descendants could live in freedom in America. He brought them up to know the Lord and serve Him. Apparently, only 2 of his daughters came to America, but between them they had 11 children who carried on the family's faith, if not the name.
James and his family paved the way for many more boatloads of people to come after them. They made it possible, and risked their lives and gave up their homes to do it.