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Voyage from Leiden

Bikes outside a Leiden pub

by Melissa Cicci

My mother’s family always knew they had descended from a Mayflower pilgrim. In fact, my maternal aunt has conducted extensive and thoughtful research to document and authenticate a direct line. Perhaps tellingly for our family, George Soule's name is not among the more familiar of the Mayflower travelers, whose descendants would go on to become presidents, senators and barons of industry. Instead, our ancestor was a young, single man whose passage on the Mayflower all but foretold our family’s future – determined hard work, stoicism, and no urgency to seek glory or fame.

George Soule was barely out of his teens when he sailed toward an uncertain future in North America. From our perspective, we’d always thought he’d sailed from England. But in more recent years, we came to understand that many of the pilgrims who’d sailed on the Mayflower began their journey, not in England, but from across the North Sea, in Leiden, Holland.

Pilgrim stories are ubiquitous, and have been told in far richer ways than I’ll attempt here. But what is important for me to share is a full understanding of who I am – what makes me up – that I came to appreciate for the first time in my 50s. And it was a first visit to Leiden that brought that insight.

As a child and throughout most of my adult life, I’ve identified with the eastern European/Caucasus ancestry of my father’s family. As a 2nd generation American, I heard the language of my immigrant grandparents, and I looked the part. Dark eyes, dark hair, decidedly not Northern European-looking. I didn’t fully appreciate the other half, the English half. Growing up, it didn’t seem as exotic as the other. But a visit to Leiden earlier this year made clear that I am the product of some of the earliest (17th century) and most recent (20th century) immigrants to America. Pretty cool.

In early April, another tour director and I led a group of travelers on a Dutch waterways journey. For seven nights, we lived aboard a restored canal barge, and explored some of Holland's storied villages and cities: Amsterdam, Haarlem, The Hague, Delft and Gouda. Our stop in Leiden was brief; just a few hours to take in its cobbled streets, glimpse the University, and visit the American Pilgrim Museum, run by an American expatriate pilgrim scholar, Dr. Jeremy Bangs. The museum is really just a small 17th-century house. None of the Mayflower pilgrims likely lived here, but Dr. Bangs has assembled an eccentric collection of books and assorted artifacts of the era. More importantly, he tells stories and shares an intimate knowledge of the pilgrims whose story includes Leiden.

I quietly drew Dr. Bangs aside after his informal presentation to the group. I was hestitant to declare myself a Mayflower descendant. Aren’t we all? And to ask him about George. Part of me thought, "well maybe we were wrong all along. George wasn’t on the Mayflower, and he surely was never in Leiden."

Dr. Bangs answered as if he were talking about an old acquaintance. Yes, he knew George. And yes, he was on the Mayflower. He was just a young man, unmarried, so his name does not appear on the Leiden census circa 1620. But his name does appear in several accounts of the time. Dr. Bangs felt fairly certain that, in fact, George began his journey in Leiden.

It was a brief exchange, and I soon had to gather our group and head back to the barge, to travel on toward The Hague. I’ll go back to Leiden, to spend more time in its quiet streets and its canal-side cafes, and explore the almshouses built for the poor.

Oh yes, there was a quick stop at a pub for a cold Heineken on our way back to the barge. I was in Holland, after all.

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