The Mayflower embarked on its journey across the Atlantic Ocean on September 6th, 1620. At the time, the 102 passengers aboard the ship were known as English Separatists, fleeing religious persecution in England.

These travelers, later deemed pilgrims or "first comers", would go on to establish Plymouth Colony and participate in what is remembered by many as the first ever Thanksgiving. It's actually quite common to be able to trace your heritage back to a Mayflower passenger, and more than a few famous Americans can trace their heritage back to this group.

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The perilous journey

Death and danger was the primary characteristic of this early voyage to the New World. The Mayflower spent 66 days at sea, and was overcrowded because a second ship, the Speedwell was unable to make the journey due to a leaky hull. The already crowded conditions of the Mayflower were made worse by an influx of passengers and equipment from the Speedwell.

The passengers on the Mayflower were families and able bodied men with skills that would be useful to developing a colony in America. The oldest passenger, James Chilton, was 64 years old. There were many young children aboard the Mayflower, but none younger than the aptly named Oceanus Hopkins, who was born while the ship traversed the Atlantic.

41 of the ship's passengers (all men) signed the Mayflower Compact, which was the first governing document of Plymouth Colony, and an early relic of America's democratic development.

Once reaching land in early November of 1620, the pilgrims realized they were vastly unprepared for the hash New England winter. Most of the 102 passengers remained living in the cramped quarters of the ship, which lead to a very high rate of disease and death.

When all was said and done, 45 of the original 102 passengers perished in the first winter.

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The first Thanksgiving

The first winter at Plymouth was unbelievably hard. The Pilgrims hadn't even had a chance to establish a permanent settlement before having to brave the harsh New England winter of 1620. Though nearly half of them died, the ones that survived were able to finally set up Plymouth colony in the spring of 1621, much thanks to the help of local Native Americans.

In the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims held a 3 day feast to celebrate a good harvest, and 90 Native Americans attended as well. Governor William Bradford ordered his men to hunt wild fowl, which included wild turkey, goose and duck. The Native Americans contributed 5 venison to the feast, and of course everyone ate corn - lots and lots of corn.

Read more: 3 Thanksgiving menus from early American history

Pilgrim genealogy

The tale of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving is well known, but something often overlooked is the surprising number of Americans that may be able to trace their heritage back to one of the original Pilgrims of Plymouth colony.

51 of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower went on to produce descendants in the New World. As some of the first Westerners to take up residence in North America, many families in America can trace their family history back between 12 and 16 generations to one of the Mayflower passengers.

The amazing thing is that with so many generations of family, an estimated 35 million people may be able to trace their family lines back to a Pilgrim. That's about 11% of Americans!

There is a General Society of Mayflower Descendants that you can join if you are able to provide proof of your genealogical connection. But there are also specific state Mayflower Descendants in all U.S. states including Washington D.C.

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