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Descendant of Mayflower Pilgrims serves as Utah group's governor

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 24 2010 7:00 a.m. MST

The New England Pilgrims and the Mormon Pioneers have a lot in common. Both groups left their homes in search of religious freedom. Both groups suffered hardships and made untold sacrifices for their faith.

So, it doesn't surprise Diana Walker Lee one bit that her Mormon pioneer ancestors are descended from Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. "The Pilgrims came to this country 390 years ago for religious reasons," she says. Their descendants were ministers in Connecticut, fought in the Revolutionary War. So when some of them came in contact with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it doesn't surprise her that they were attracted to the message it offered. "They joined the church in 1832," she says, so they were with it from the very early days.

Her great-grandfather, William Holmes Walker, in fact, lived with Joseph Smith for three years as a child. "Joseph sent his father on a mission, and then took the three children into his home while their father was gone."

William started across the Plains with the first pioneer company, was called to serve in the Mormon Battalion and then settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Her father's Dilworth ancestors were also among the early pioneers, and Lee was always proud of those connections.

But she knew early on that the family had come to America in this country's infancy. "My family was always interested in genealogy, and my dad would take us on family trips to New England, where he knew we had progenitors. I knew I had an ancestor that went to Harvard two years after it was founded. I knew I had ancestors that fought in the Revolutionary War."

But it wasn't until Lee's family was grown and after her husband, Dr. Richard Ernest Lee, died 14 years ago, that she got serious about documenting that early family history.

She started with the Daughters of the American Revolution because she knew she could trace that connection. "Then I thought if I went back that far, maybe I could go back even farther." It took her about 2½ years to document that she is a 10th-generation descendant of John Alden, who sailed on the Mayflower as a cooper. She has since found connections to several other Pilgrim families. "But I just started at the front of the alphabet," and Alden was the name she joined the Mayflower Society under.

Lee currently serves as the Governor of the Utah Chapter of the society, a three-year assignment.

The General Society of Mayflower Descendants, to use its full name, was founded in Plymouth, Mass., in 1897. There are currently 28,250 members, with chapters in all 50 states.

The Utah Chapter was formed in 1948, with 28 charter members (among them were George Albert Smith, Reed Smoot and Reva Beck Bosone). The Utah Chapter currently has 210 paid members.

Lee knows there are more Utah citizens who could join. "A lot of people tell me they are descended from Pilgrims," she says, but they haven't gone through the formal documenting process. It does take time and effort, she says, to come up with all the birth and marriage certificates and other records. But there are lots of resources available.

"The church's Family History Library has 16 volumes documenting the four to five generations immediately after the Pilgrims. So if you can get that far, the rest of the work is done for you," Lee says.

She naturally encourages people to do the research and join the society. It's a wonderful organization of camaraderie. It's all about education and preserving history," she says. "There's nothing uppity, uppity about it. It's not elitist." In the spirit of the "brave souls who sailed the Mayflower to the shores of Plymouth in 1620," the society "celebrates the ideals of religious freedom and democracy."

Lee has made a lot of "national friends" through the society, "but we're all just normal workers on the planet who happen to have this connection."

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