ORLEANS - We all grow up learning about the story of the Pilgrims, the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving. But Way Yin Yuen never could have guessed as a child that his own ancestors played a part in the settlement of America.
Way, a Harwich resident, was raised in Brewster and graduated from Nauset High School in 1996. Growing up, his family operated the Double Dragon Inn on Route 6A in Orleans.
"I've always loved history, New England history," he said. "But I was a Chinese kid in Nauset, you know?"
As a child, Way heard stories from his grandmother about his ancestors, and how one of them, Edward Rawson, penned the first Thanksgiving proclamation. But it wasn't until after he graduated from college that he started exploring just how deep into New England history his family tree extended.
Way gave a presentation at the Centers for Culture and History in Orleans Oct. 7 on his family genealogy and its ties to the first settlers who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower.
While he is three-quarters Chinese, Way's grandmother is a descendant of the Blaisdell family. His great-grandmother, meanwhile, has ties to the Rawsons, a family of knights who date back to 15th century England.
"I knew when I started my research to start there, and then I just went back as far as I could," he said in an interview prior to the presentation. "It goes back to the first people who came to America."
Other historic names factor into Way's ancestry. There's Gov. William Bradford, who signed the Mayflower Compact and intermittently served as governor of Plymouth County for 30 years. John Jenney was a pilgrim who arrived on the ship Little James, and a replica of a grist mill he built currently stands in his memory in Plymouth. There's also the Vassall family, French Huguenots who fled France for England and later fought in the Spanish Armada.
Some of Way's ancestors are threaded even closer into local history. Richard Warren was a part of the first expedition to Cape Cod.
"For me, it's the connection to that history," he said. "You go to school and hear about Thanksgiving. You hear about certain events. But to have records to say 'This ancestor was a loyalist,' or 'This ancestor came over on the Mayflower,' that's pretty remarkable."
Way is also a member of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, as well as the Descendants of Cape Cod and the Islands. Membership to both groups is selective, requiring proof of lineage to each generation (birth, death and marriage records) in order to be accepted.
But for how different Way’s family might seem their ancestors on the surface, he said they share a very important commonality, recalling how his grandfather survived the Japanese occupation following World War II, and how his father’s family came to America from China during the Cultural Revolution.
"They shared the same hope of those Mayflower passengers, the hope of every wave of immigrants to America," he said at the close of the presentation. "That their children can live better than they did."
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com