Rick Denham’s childhood home in Hallowell is three miles from the site of an outpost in present-day Augusta that historians say sustained the Plymouth Colony, founded by the Pilgrims in 1620.

Years ago, he learned he might have had ancestors aboard the Mayflower, the ship that brought those colonists from Europe to present-day Massachusetts, fleeing religious persecution. Until a few years ago, he wasn’t sure.

Now, he’s proved the link, and he’s more thankful around Thanksgiving, wishing he knew as a child.

“It would have made school so much more interesting this time of year,” said Denham, 68, now retired from a career as a respiratory therapist, living in Midland, Texas. “The more I read about the Pilgrims who came over, the more amazed I get.”

He is one of more than 29,000 members of the Society of Mayflower Descendants, a genealogical membership group with affiliated groups in every state, having joined in 2011.

Nationwide, it has been estimated that there may be more than 30 million Mayflower descendants, a number that would represent about 10 percent of Americans.

Maine’s affiliated society has 1,200 members, said Lane Mabbett of Phippsburg, historian for the Maine Mayflower Society.

Mabbett said he has never thought of estimating the total number of Maine descendants. However, 10 percent of Maine’s population would be about 130,000, and Mabbett said given Maine’s proximity to Plymouth, the state’s concentration of descendants is likely higher than the average state. So 150,000 could be a conservative statewide estimate statewide, Mabbett said.

In Denham’s case, his mother spent years in the 1980s traveling around New England doing research on her family’s lineage, taking copious notes. Denham said then, she mentioned that she found a Mayflower connection. After she died in 2003, he said his brother wanted to put the Mayflower link in her obituary.

Denham told him they couldn’t, because they hadn’t verified it.

“He said, ‘You’re the oldest, you prove it,’ ” Denham said.

So he took her notes and said he spent about six years researching and finally verified a connection to Stephen Hopkins, one of 102 Mayflower passengers and one of 41 signers of the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of the Plymouth Colony.

The passengers arrived in late 1620, finding hardship: Records show that 45 passengers died in the first winter.

But colonists rallied, and in popular American culture, the modern-day Thanksgiving holiday is traced back to a purported, but badly documented 1621 celebration the Pilgrims had, motivated by bountiful crops in the fall.

“They got off the Mayflower that first winter and it must have been such a sad time,” Denham said. “So many people had died. When harvest time rolled around, it must have been such a wonderful time.”

That makes Denham proud, and he’s not the only Hallowell native to discover his ancestry recently. In recent years, he reconnected over Facebook with Diane Mallett, who graduated from Hall-Dale in 1965 and recently moved back to Hallowell from Tennessee in August.

She said Denham’s postings about looking into his lineage motivated her to look into hers. Lo and behold, she found what she thinks is a link to Hopkins as well.

“We are sort of related in a long-distance way,” she said.

For the two, it took moving away to discover their past, even though their native region was influential to the Plymouth Colony’s later success, according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass.

By 1625, Plymouth colonists had established a fur-trading operation in modern-day Maine, which helped them pay debt back to investors. Likely around 1628, they established Cushnoc, a trading post in modern-day Augusta, near Old Fort Western. A rock there commemorates the site today.

“Economically, Maine saved the Pilgrims,” said Mabbett, the Phippsburg historian. “It made the whole venture profitable and there were a lot of Pilgrims scouring around Maine just taking turns running the trading posts.”

Now, Mallett and Denham have a new appreciation for Thanksgiving. Around his west Texas city, he goes to schools this time of year giving presentations on the colony in a Pilgrim suit.

“I love finding out what they had to endure,” he said. “It makes it so much more meaningful.”

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652[email protected]Twitter: @mikeshepherdme

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