In 1620, a group of 102 passengers on the Mayflower landed in what would later become the United States. Four hundred years later, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants estimates there are some 35 million people descended from those original Pilgrims. Of those, 150,000 of them have joined the society.
For Julianne Thomas of Cedar Rapids, tracking down those ancestors has been a fun and challenging exploration of family history. What she found was that she was descended from the Mayflower on both sides of her family. There are nine passengers on her father’s side and 11 on her mother’s.
“I knew we were connected to the Mayflower, but I didn’t know who,” she said.
The discovery started when a distant cousin on her father’s side of the family sent her brother a genealogy report.
“I come from a very competitive family on my mother’s side,” she said, and the report got one of her aunt’s interested in uncovering their family history. She believed they had a Mayflower connection, too, and wanted to learn more.
Her aunt, Gladys Roby, shared a family document that listed Thomas’s great-grandmother Frances Hill Woodard, as descended from Mayflower passengers. To be accepted by the Mayflower Society, they needed to document each ancestor’s birth, marriage and death, going back to the Mayflower.
“It was really an adventure trying to find what was going on,” she said. “It was fascinating work, and it took us a long time to particularly get to my great grandmother.”
Woodard was the missing link; they couldn’t find documentation of her death. She died in Iowa before death records were kept, Thomas said.
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Thomas started looking for her at the State Historical Center in Des Moines and at the Tama County Historical Society. There, she found a tiny bound pamphlet on cemeteries in Western Benton County. Her great grandmother’s name was listed in the index.
Woodard was buried in Redman Cemetery, a tiny rural pioneer-era cemetery. Thomas and her late husband went and walked through it to find her grave.
“It was truly amazing we could document her date of death by the crude stones that were there,” Thomas said.
Her aunt became her partner in researching their family; the two traveled to Plymouth, Mass., to see where the Mayflower first landed, and also traveled to the United Kingdom to research even further back, as well as to Norway to track down a different branch of their family tree.
Roby died Oct. 26 at age 95, and Thomas said she misses her every day. She hopes documenting their family stories will be a way for future generations — Roby’s children and grandchildren and their descendants — to feel connected to her aunt and those who came before her.
She also hopes we can take lessons from the stories of the past. One of them she’s intent on highlighting this Thanksgiving is that only half the passengers on the Mayflower survived the first year after landing to make it to what has become known as the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. Just four women survived, including Mary Brewster, one of Thomas’s ancestors.
“They waited until times were better to celebrate their Thanksgiving, and I think that’s a great message for this time — I think we should take that as a cautionary lesson for this year,” she said.
With coronavirus case numbers rising, she said she’s skipping a meal with her family to celebrate the holiday by herself.
Thomas, who is now retired, was the first female pediatrician in Cedar Rapids.
She said she feels a connection to her ancestors and the way they lived.
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“I’m a Puritan through and through and through,” she said. “I think the crazy work schedule as a pediatrician, sometimes 60 hours a week, that hard work ethic — I think I’ve always had that work ethic and pioneering spirit.”
Her story is full of breaking barriers. When she wanted to go to medical school, one school she applied to accepted her, but then the admissions office told her they had already admitted their quota of female students, so they’d like her to go elsewhere. She did, graduating from the University of Nebraska before doing pediatric resident training at the University of Iowa. She and her husband, William, moved to Cedar Rapids in 1974.
Her career in Cedar Rapids included helping develop the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Luke’s Hospital and established Camp Tanager’s summer camp for children with diabetes. She was the first female president of the Iowa chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, she helped get legislation passed in Iowa to require insurance companies pay for 48 hours stay in the hospital after giving birth, and she helped develop Iowa’s State Child Health Insurance Program. Thomas and three other fellow female doctors started their own medical practice after learning they were being paid less than their male counterparts. In 2002, she ran for Congress, unsuccessfully challenging Rep. Jim Leach.
“It’s important to tell people it’s OK to be bold. As a woman, it’s OK to dream big,” she said. “I was never quite told that. Mother told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, but when I decided on medicine she thought that was going too far … I was always told you can’t do that because you’re a girl — a high school counselor told me you can have an exotic career for a while and then be what you were meant to be, a wife and a mother.”
She didn’t accept that, and she’s glad she didn’t.
“There’s a pioneering spirit in me that makes me take chances,” she said.
She said she enjoys researching family for some of the same reasons she likes medicine.
“It’s solving the puzzle, trying to put all of it together. I’m very proud of my family history, I think it’s fascinating,” she said. “It’s just interesting to have that connection to history and historical figures and solving the puzzle and how we’re all related.”
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