My Ancestors Didn’t Come Over on the Mayflower. They Were Just Standing There When It Docked

Will Rogers? J. J. Swartz? Owen Davis? Anonymous?

mayflower01Dear Quote Investigator: The enormously popular American humorist Will Rogers had some ancestors who were Cherokee Indians, and apparently one of his jokes was about his forebears and the early European colonists who arrived on the Mayflower. Are you familiar with this quip? Was it really spoken by Rogers?

Quote Investigator: Yes. The first instance of the jest ascribed to Rogers located by QI was published in 1926 in “The Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas. The comedian gave a performance in the city and stated that he had recently obtained a passport to permit travel to Europe which entailed providing proof of his U.S. birth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“I never had my Americanism doubted before. My mother and my father both were part Cherokee Indian. Of course my people didn’t come over on the Mayflower but we were there to meet the folks when they landed,” he proclaimed.

Rogers employed the joke multiple times before his death in 1935 although the phrasing varied. Yet, the earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before 1926 in 1914. A journal called “The Native American” reported on an exhibit from Nez Perce Indians of agricultural goods, baskets, bead-work, and other items that included a sign presenting an instance of the joke without attribution. The traveling display was shown in a larger exposition held in Portland, Washington. The slang term “chesty” in the following passage meant conceited: 2

Another card reads: “Some people are ‘chesty’ because their ancestors came over in the Mayflower. But remember, the ancestors of the Indians were on the reception committee when the Mayflower arrived.” The Indians’ exhibit attracts much attention from the thousands of visitors at the exposition. It is in charge of J.J. Swartz.

It was possible that Rogers created the quip before 1914, and the sign was derived from his line. Alternatively, the joke was already in circulation when Rogers adopted and popularized it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1927 a newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina printed an instance and credited Rogers: 3

Will Rogers, who is proud of his Cherokee blood, admits that his ancestors did not come over on the Mayflower, but he points out: “They were waiting for the guys when they landed.”

In 1930 “Time” magazine printed an article that reviewed recently released movies. Will Rogers was the star of a comedy titled “So This Is London”, and the article noted that Owen Davis was credited with writing the dialog. Nevertheless, the journalist thought Rogers probably constructed some of his own lines: 4

My parents were Cherokee Indians. Of course, our people don’t claim to have come over on the Mayflower or anything like that, but we met ’em at the dock when they landed.”

My parents were Cherokee Indians. Of course, our people don’t claim to have come over on the Mayflower or anything like that, but we met ’em at the dock when they landed.

In 1932 a profile of Rogers was published in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. A more elaborate instance of the jest with a second punchline was printed in the article: 5

Over his grandparents Will Rogers waxes mildly enthusiastic.
“Course their folks way back didn’t come over on the Mayflower—they were just standing there when it docked. As a matter of fact, the biggest mistake my ancestors made was lettin’ them land.”

In 1935 “The Morning Oregonian” of Portland, Oregon stated that the remark was one of the better-known quips from Rogers, and the newspaper called it a classic: 6

“My ancestors,” he said, “did not come over in the Mayflower. (Pause.) They met the boat.”

In 1936 the acclaimed poet Carl Sandburg published a book length poem titled “The People, Yes”. Sandburg included the remark and clearly credited Rogers though he did not use Rogers’ name: 7

“My ancestors,” said the Cherokee-blooded Oklahoman, “didn’t come over in the Mayflower but we was there to meet the boat.”

In conclusion, this quip was circulating without attribution by 1914, and Will Rogers did employ it by 1926. QI does not know if Rogers crafted the joke or simply popularized it. Future researchers may be able to push these dates further back and provide additional insights.

Image Notes: Painting titled “Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor” by William Halsall circa 1882 via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Will Rogers from United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1926 November 5, Dallas Morning News, Will Rogers in His Annual Dallas Appearance is Found More Comic than Philosophic by John Rosenfield Jr., Quote Page 9, Column 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1914 December 5, The Native American: Devoted to Indian Education, Volume 15, Number 41, Article Title: Lapwai, Idaho, Article Author: Nez Perce Indian, Quote Page 553, Column 1, Published by United States Indian Training School, Phoenix, Arizona. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1927 March 6, Greensboro Sunday Record (Greensboro Record), Echoes of the News, Quote Page 4A, Column 7, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1930 June 16, Time, Article title: “Cinema: The New Pictures Jun. 16, 1930”, Published by Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive)
  5. 1932 September 11, Richmond Times Dispatch, Witty Millionaire Will Rogers Has Big Influence in Nation: Highlights and Sidelights of Many-Sided Life of Cowboy Humorist Recorded by William H. Deppermann, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1935 August 22, Morning Oregonian (Oregonian), Story of Will Roger’s Life Full of Humorist’s Homespun Epigram by Michel Mok (New York Post), Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1990 (Copyright 1936), The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg, Section 30, Quote Page 58, A Harvest/HBJ Book: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans)