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

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