Blood links SC family to first Thanksgiving

FORT MILL, S.C. - As a child, Ouida Swann Dest delighted in the mysterious stories and artifacts that her elders said proved they were decedents of the Mayflower pilgrims - the country's first Thanksgiving family.

 

But she grew cynical as an adult. Now a prosecutor in South Carolina, she said needed documented proof. She also wondered about the linens her family passed down through 15 generations, including an ornate bedspread embroidered with the date 1612 that a historian said could be linked to the Mayflower.

"When I was a little girl, the pilgrims' story was always special, almost magical," she said. "But when I got older, the lawyer in me said 'Now wait a second, if our family is really descended from the Mayflower Pilgrims, where are the documents?'"

The Charlotte Observer reported Thursday that Dest hired a Boston genealogist to help locate birth and death certificates, wills and deeds that filled a six-inch-thick file. They were eventually able to trace her bloodline to Mary Chilton - reportedly the first woman to come ashore at Plymouth Rock, Mass. More than 100 pilgrims aboard the Mayflower arrived in 1620, after a nearly two-month journey from England.

Dest's documentation was recently accepted by the National Registry of the Mayflower.

"It's only taken us 15 generations to get the paper work done," joked Dest, 42. "But I primarily did this for my 7-year-old daughter, Hunter. It's not like we're blue bloods or anything, but it's kind of neat to finally have proof of what I've heard all my life."

But the family still has the other mystery.

The embroidered bedspread, along with a 15-foot by 9-foot linen tablecloth with fleur-de-lis designs, have been passed down to family caretakers for hundreds of years. Dest and her relatives wonder whether the artifacts were at the first Thanksgiving 387 years ago.

For most of the 20th century, Dest's great grandmother Agnes Chilton Hunter Lawton kept the linens before her death in 1990.

"She was very protective," Dest said. "But sometimes over the holidays she would take (out the tablecloth) and tell us how it came over on the Mayflower."

Historians said it's entirely possible the linens belonged to Chilton, though evidence is hard to come by and there are no family photographs from the 1620s.

But the date on the bedspread - 1612 - is significant. The Chiltons were then living in Leiden, Holland, and dates were sometimes embroidered onto linen. The textiles also could have been among a "trunke of Linning" cited in Mary Chilton's will upon her death in 1679.

"A woven linen tablecloth in Plymouth in the early 17th century would have certainly originated in Europe," said Andrew Lewis, a history professor at American University in Washington, D.C. "Woven linen was rare and expensive in America at that time and would have been just the item that a mother would give to her daughter for her dowry or inheritance."

That's not enough for the York County prosecutor.

She said she wants to contact a textile historian to determine if the weave pattern on the linens can be dated to the 17th century.

"You know me, I need the proof," Dest said. "Whatever we find out I'd like to keep that information with the linens for when it's passed to the next generation."