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."
She did think it was interesting when she met the governor from Michigan, who was a Protestant minister. "He told me he had a cousin that lived in Salt Lake, and, in fact, it was his cousin Boyd and his wife, Donna, who helped him with his research. I asked him what his cousin's last name was, and he said, 'Packer.' We all know him as Boyd K. Packer; he just calls him cousin Boyd."
But, she adds, "it is a privilege and an honor to belong to this hereditary society. All it is, is about family."
That's what life is about, she says. "It's about family, about relationships. It's not about things, things, things; it's about love."
Lee has a couple of 6-inch-thick family history books, one on the Walker family, another on the Dilworth family. When she's looking for a little "light reading" at night, that's what she picks up. "I want to learn all about these people, so that I will know them when I see them," she says.
Each night, she also plans out her agenda for the next day. "I write it all down on a bill envelope. I heard a multimillionaire talk once about not wasting paper, so I recycle my old bill envelopes."
If she doesn't get everything done, she moves it along to the next day.
Her day's agenda may include a daily walk, or taking doughnuts to all the neighborhood children (or clementines to the boy who has diabetes). It may include visiting with young women. She served for five years on the General Board of the Young Women organization, "and I just love young women."
What her agenda doesn't include is any "pity days. I have a happy, wonderful life. I don't want to waste any time crying 'why me' or thinking about what's wrong. I don't have pity days. I plan my agenda and go forth."
For that attitude, she gives a lot of credit to her mother. "She always told me to carry my burdens lightly." But she also draws inspiration from her earlier progenitors. She looks at what the Pilgrims did and what the pioneers did. "They had to be so strong. They displayed such courage, integrity and bravery. Whenever I feel down and out, I think of them." And she thinks of her children and grandchildren, too. "None of them are going to have an excuse to drop out on my account."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company