BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — When William Bradford arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620, he probably didn’t think that 400 years later, thousands of people could trace their existence back to the Plymouth Colony’s second governor.
On June 12, 61 of his descendants gathered at the Ruie Bradford Gothke Farm in Whitehouse for the 100th William Spencer Bradford Family Reunion.
Ruie and Herbert Gothke farmed 60 acres of land that Herbert’s father, Ferdinand, had bought at the corner of Stiles and Heller roads. Fred Gothke still farms the land. His sisters, Becke Gothke Hickman and Janell Neumeyer – along with her husband James – built their homes on that land.
Sitting under a tent outside the Neumeyer’s home last week, the family celebrated with a potluck, white elephant gift exchange and the distribution of books detailing the family tree since the Mayflower landed
“As a family, we should be proud of our history,” said Becke, who teamed up with Gay Nell Jones to compile the family genealogy in 2011 and again this year. The 500-plus-page book follows the family tree of Gov. Bradford’s son William down through the youngest family members – the three young sons of Chrissy Gothke Graven and Bryce Graven.
A century ago, the first family reunion was held on the Providence Township property of William Spencer Bradford, who moved from Hancock County in the mid-1800s.
“It started as a birthday party, not a reunion, but when it was done, William Spencer said, ‘This was nice, let’s do it again next year,’” explained Lyle “Lucky” Stiles, Becke’s first cousin.
When William Spencer Bradford died in 1931, the farm was sold and the family reunion moved to White-house Park, the Pythian Castle and then, for the past 20 years, to the Stiles Road farm
“This property is where Ruie lived and farmed,” explained Gay, who isn’t related by blood but wanted to compile the history on behalf of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her daughter, Renee, married Fred Gothke.
While the current book’s history begins in 1620, the Bradford family can be traced back to 1575 in England, as explained in a 1950 “blue book” by Effie May Bradford Griffiths.
Some of Effie’s relatives made the trek for the reunion for the first time in decades.
“Effie went to England to do research,” said Marsha Bailey. Her daughter, Christine Bailey, remembers reading Effie’s account of one of Gov. Bradford’s relatives, John Bradford, who was burned at the stake in 1555 when he refused to have his child christened in the Catholic Church. In all, Queen Mary of England, daughter of King Henry VIII, had over 300 people executed for their unwillingness to accept her faith, Christine explained.
William Bradford was born in 1589 and was raised first by his grandfather and then his uncles. He became a Separatist, known for a “love of civil and religious liberty and firmness in adhering to what they believed to be the teachings of the Bible,” according to Effie’s history.
Persecuted from all sides, the group moved to Holland in 1608, when William was 17. At 23, he married 16-year-old Dorothy May, and in September 1620, they were among the 102 passengers to set sail for Plymouth Colony aboard the Mayflower. Dorothy died shortly after their arrival in December 1620, after falling off the boat as it was moored offshore. By the spring, more than half of the pilgrims perished from illness and harsh weather, including the first governor, so William was named as his replacement.
During Gov. Bradford’s 30 years as leader, he married three times and had 15 children, while also keeping notes, earning him the nickname “the Father of American history.” He wrote about the first Thanksgiving with the natives, along with details of the colonists and how they worked to survive. He also spoke Dutch, French, Latin and Greek, and in old age, he studied Hebrew.
Those who are descendants of Gov. Bradford can become members of the Mayflower Society, which, like the Daughters of the American Revolution, is a prestigious organization, said Gay, who offers to provide documentation for membership.
“If it comes up in conversation, I don’t like to mention it – it’s like I’m bragging,” said Cathy Hackathorn, a South Carolina family member attending her first reunion. “But it’s something to be proud of.”
Christine agrees, adding that as a child, that blue book and the family history inspired her to learn more about history – even bringing a family tree to school for a class project.
“Plymouth is on my bucket list,” Christine said, noting that the Plymouth Plantation has many of the early settlement’s original buildings and Gov. Bradford’s grave on-site. “I tried reading a copy of William Bradford’s diary, but it’s difficult because it’s in old English.”
Gay, who has a Ph.D. in history and media, started doing genealogical research on her own family after retiring from her work as a professor at Bowling Green State University. She had five books of her own family history complete when she joined Becke’s quest to update the Bradford lineage in 2011 and again this year.
“There’s a picture in there of our great-grandfather, William Spencer Bradford, who had 14 children,” Becke said.
Compiling accurate records takes time, but even amateur genealogists can find plenty of information on Ancestry.com, in cemeteries, in obituaries and in the thousands of family histories kept in libraries in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Using Roots Magic, a software program, helped organize the Bradford information into a family tree and book format.
Still, research can be a challenge, Becke noted, especially when the deceased might be listed as “baby girl” or illegible handwriting inadvertently changed name spellings. Becke encouraged all of the relatives to provide details on births, deaths and changes in addresses to keep the information accurate.
“Sometimes it’s just a name, other times there are stories. A lot of times, the obituaries have the best stories,” Gay said. As she leafed through the book, she reflected on how having written documentation solidifies links with the past that can be lost or forgotten.
“It really makes you appreciate your heritage,” she said.