Thanksgiving holds special meaning for Fort Mill attorney

Prosecutor Ouida Dest has evidence of her descendancy from Mayflower Pilgrim

FORT MILL -- Ouida Swann Dest and her family are celebrating today with turkey, ham, collards, dressing and sweet potato casserole like thousands of other Carolina families.

But this year's Thanksgiving gathering at Dest's Baxter Village home is slightly different.

For the first time, the family has documented evidence of their direct descendancy from the Mayflower Pilgrims. And confirmation of that branch of the family tree deepens a mystery over two artifacts that have been handed down through 15 generations--a tablecloth and a bedspread that might have been at the first Thanksgiving 387 years ago at Plymouth, Mass.

As a child, Dest had delighted in family lore about her ancestors arriving on the Mayflower.

But as an adult, she became a little more skeptical.

"When I was a little girl, the Pilgrims' story was always special, almost magical," said Dest, who works as a prosecutor in York County. "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?'"

In 2003, Dest hired a Boston genealogist to help locate birth certificates, wills, deeds, census records and death certificates --enough to fill a 6-inch file. She finally has traced her bloodline to one of the 102 original Pilgrims. Her documentation has recently been accepted by the National Registry of the Mayflower Society.

Dest, 42, is descended from Mary Chilton, reportedly the first female to come ashore at Plymouth Rock.

"It's only taken us 15 generations to get the paperwork done," joked Dest, who is hosting dinner at 5 p.m. for 11 family members. "But I primarily did this for my 7-year-old daughter, Hunter. It's not like we're bluebloods or anything, but it's kind of neat to finally have proof of what I've heard all my life."

But back to the family artifacts. One is a linen tablecloth with fleur-de-lis designs that is 9 feet wide by 15 feet long. The other is an ornate bedspread with the date 1612 embroidered along one side.

In each of the 15 generations of the Carolina branch of the Mary Chilton clan, there has been a designated keeper of the Mayflower linens. For much of the 20th century, it was Dest's great-grandmother, Agnes Chilton Hunter Lawton (1893-1990).

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

Steve Leake of York remembers visiting his great aunt in the 1960s in her pre-Civil War home. Lawton was blind in her last years but alert, and delighted her grandchildren by identifying them by their voices. "She was a wonderful storyteller who would bring the tablecloth to school to unfold it before the students and tell about the first Thanksgiving," Leake said.

Historians say it's entirely possible that the linens belonged to Chilton, but evidence is hard to come by -- there are no family snapshots from the 1620s.

Textiles from the Mayflower do still exist -- the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass., has a linen napkin from Amsterdam that arrived with the Pilgrims. And the date 1612 on the bedspread is significant, too. The Chiltons were living in Leiden, Holland, at that time, and dates were sometimes embroidered onto linen when it was made. 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 American University history professor Andrew Lewis. "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."

Peggy Baker, director of Pilgrim Hall Museum, said that personal possessions aboard the Mayflower were minimal.

"It was maybe two changes of clothes, a couple pairs of socks, a blanket and whatever tools you needed to stay alive that first year when nearly half the Pilgrims died, including both of Mary Chilton's parents," Baker said. "Could Mary's mother have brought a linen tablecloth to the New World? Certainly, and it would have been willed to Mary. But beyond that, no one can really say ... ."

Dest says her likely next step is 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."

Dest said what she's learned about the experience is that Thanksgiving is more about family than history. And today, her family will likely spend more time watching football games and catching up than discussing their colonial heritage.

"If the linens really came over on the Mayflower, that adds some romance to the story," she said. "But even if we find that they came from J.C. Penney in the 1920s, it's a still a pretty good family tale."