Come Thanksgiving, Gregory West Drake thinks about “the pipe,” a hefty little metal object said to have crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower, been smoked by Myles Standish in the Plymouth colony, and subsequently passed down through a long line of Standish offspring. It eventually showed up on Martha’s Vineyard in the possession of Standish Bradford Gorham, a New York advertising executive, retired to a waterfront house on Lake Tashmoo where young Greg learned to water ski. Eventually Gorham gifted the pipe to Greg’s mother, Helen West Drake, daughter of Capt. Ellsworth Luce West, Martha’s Vineyard’s last mariner to sail the seas in pursuit of whales. According to a yellowed newspaper clipping from the New York Sun dated Saturday, Dec. 24, 1938, Standish Gorham, the advertising executive of Lake Tashmoo, was the seventh great-grandson of Myles Standish.
The article by Helen Burr Smith wrote of the pipe’s travels: “This valuable relic was lent by Jabez Austin Gorham and exhibited at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Ga., in 1895. In 1904 it was lent and exhibited at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The following quotation is from a letter to Jabez Austin Gorham from the director of the Massachusetts Historic Exhibit. ‘The Massachusetts Commissioners desire me to express to you their grateful appreciation for your cooperation in loaning this valuable relic for the adornment of the Massachusetts Building at the World’s Fair. It added greatly to the Historical Exhibit and attracted much attention from visitors.’”
Flash-forward to the 21st century, when Greg brought the pipe to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in its little wooden traveling case, with the inscription, “This Pipe was owned by Capt. Miles Standish in 1620.”
On Nov. 26, 2007, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum wrote a letter, signed by Jill Bouck: The pipe did not come from England, and it was unlikely to have been smoked by Standish.
“This pipe would not be something that an English gentleman would have brought from England to America in the 17th century. The most common English pipes were of clay or wood at that time. A small number of metal pipes were made in Europe for trade with the native people in this country, but again, they were a bit fancier.”
The letter continued to explain that the pipe certainly is very old — very similar to those made in the late 1600s by Native Americans. The pipe is also similar to others that have been found in New England and on the East Coast. Based on museum research and evidence, the letter reads, “It seems likely that your ancestor acquired this pipe in New England. Possibly he received it from a Native American he met here. It may have been a gesture of goodwill or another type of encounter.” Because of the unique nature of the pipe, or of the encounter, the pipe was saved and treasured as a souvenir of that experience.
No one able to shed light on the pipe’s “acquired” pedigree is alive today. But such family legends abound, according to A. Bowdoin Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.
How common are such stories?
“Those stories are widespread,” said Van Riper. Family legends tend to fall into three categories of veracity, the historian points out: true stories, well-established by historical research; flat-out made-up tales; and at times a mix of both.
“In some cases,” points out the librarian, “those connections are legitimate: John Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Daniel Webster really did visit the Vineyard before the Civil War.” Herman Melville really did sail on a whaling ship commanded by Capt. Valentine Pease Jr. of Edgartown, and some people really do have swords that were presented to their ancestors by General Grant or the Marquis de Lafayette, Van Riper said.
In other cases, some connections are embellished, according to Van Riper. Among the tales where fact could have been knitted together with fantasy is that of Thomas Chase of Vineyard Haven, a privateer — a kind of government-sanctioned pirate — during the Revolutionary War. Established historical facts, according to Van Riper, are that Chase “was captured by the British and thrown into a naval prison, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange and signed onto one of the ships in John Paul Jones’ squadron.”
But a fanciful part of Chase’s tale endures today, according to Van Riper: “a persistent legend that Jones had stopped in Vineyard Haven before the war, met Chase (then a teenage boy), and recognized him in the prison.” We don’t know that the part isn’t true, but there’s no solid documentation other than “it’s a story told for generations in the Chase family.”
There are cases where “almost certainly, the connections are just flat-out made up,” said Van Riper, “either because the people doing so want a more exciting history for their family or their community, or because they were trying to entertain the grandkids, and figured, ‘What could it hurt?’ Over time these tales can start to be taken seriously, and, like a game of telephone, can, in the course of getting repeated, take on the appearance of truth.” And then the internet’s ability to multiply statements just makes that phenomen more intense, Van Riper explained.
“Family stories that X object came over on the Mayflower, or Y ancestor hung out with a great man (or great woman) from history, can be difficult to prove or disprove,” points out Van Riper. Generally, disproving these stories is easier. Van Riper said we know (mostly) who was on the Mayflower, and if your ancestor wasn’t, chances are their stuff (your heirloom) probably wasn’t either. We know that certain kinds of goods categorically weren’t on the Mayflower, so if family legend says that “great-grandma’s spinning wheel” was among them, we can say (with certainty) that no spinning wheels came on the Mayflower.
But if it’s an artifact that’s from the right period, owned by the direct descendant of somebody who was on the Mayflower, all Van Riper can say is, “The odds are long, but it’s not impossible.” People who grew up hearing these stories are attached to them, and so are very, very rarely invested in finding out what the truth is.
“The provenance of Greg’s pipe — while not the story passed down to him — is important,” Van Riper said. “Although the pipe Greg has in his possession may not have traveled on the Mayflower, the treasure has been judged to be a centuries-old artifact crafted by early Native Americans.”