While the world’s attention will be on Plimoth Colony come 2020 – its 400th anniversary – let’s not forget that the Pilgrims first landed in Provincetown on Cape Cod. That’s worth celebrating too.
Had the shoals off Chatham not proved so intimidating, the Pilgrims actually might have settled there before discovering either Provincetown or Plymouth.
Today, there is a 55-mile trail across what is now the Outer and Lower Cape that you can travel to trace the explorations and experiences of the Pilgrims.
Developed by Ron Nickerson and Bonnie Raine and sponsored by the Chatham 300th Committee, it takes you from the Chatham Lighthouse and Atwood House and Museum to the Nickerson family estate, First Encounter Beach in Eastham,
then on to Corn Hill and Pilgrim Springs before reaching Provincetown.
It was on dunes overlooking what today is First Encounter Beach that a small party of Pilgrims led by Miles Standish first “encountered” members of the Nauset tribe. A tablet by the beach marks the location where they surprised each other. Arrows flew and shots were fired, but no one reportedly was harmed.
“Indians! Indians!” warned one of Standish’s party as he came running out of the woods toward the beach, according to author Stephen Harrigan in American History Magazine.
A detailed description of that not-so-cordial first encounter can be found in Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth 1622.
“By their noise we could not guess that they were less than thirty or forty, though some thought that they were many more. Yet in the dark of the morning we could not so well discern them among the trees, as they could see us by our fireside. We took up eighteen of their arrows which we have sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brass, others with harts’ horn, and others with eagles’ claws.
Many more no doubt were shot, for these we found were almost covered with leaves; yet, by the especial providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us though many came close by us and on every side of us, and some coats which hung up in our barricade were shot through and through.
“So after we had given God thanks for our deliverance, we took our shallop and went on our journey, and called this place, The First Encounter.”
“Sometimes people forget that there were people living here, working here, building community here for 150 years before there was a United States of America,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “A big part of this commemoration is a chance to reflect on our beginnings, and the trials and the opportunities that came with that.”
The Pilgrim Trail begins in Chatham and the same treacherous sand bars and rips that have caused scores of shipwrecks over the centuries.
When the Pilgrims left England, they were not headed to New England, but to the Virginia colonies. Their nine-week journey, however, found them passing far north. They sighted Cape Cod just as early winter was arriving.
Buffeted by bitter winds, the Mayflower turned south heading toward what today is Nantucket Sound, passing right by where the Chatham Lighthouse and Coast Guard station stand today.
But destiny was determined as they encountered the rips.
Trying more than once to navigate them, the ship’s captain – fearful of hitting the shoals – chose to reverse course and head back north along the Atlantic coastline.
If the Pilgrims hadn’t turned around right there and then, the 132 people aboard may not have survived. At the very least, they would not have made their first landfall in Provincetown on Cape Cod Bay nor eventually reach “Plimoth.”
Stand right there by the Chatham Lighthouse today and imagine the Mayflower caught and lost to the rips. It surely could have happened. History records up to 5,000 shipwrecks off the Cape Cod coast.
The lighthouse, of course, didn’t exist when the Pilgrims arrived. But its history is formidable. Almost 200 years ago, President Thomas Jefferson appointed the first keeper of a lard-burning lighthouse to safely guide ships past Chatham. Congress appropriated a total of $7,000 for the station, which opened with two fixed white lights. Two octagonal wooden towers, each 40 feet tall and about 70 feet apart from each other, were erected on moveable wooden skids about 70 feet apart. A small dwelling house was also built, with only one bedroom.
An interesting historical note: Cape Cod’s lineage could have been French instead of English. Before the Pilgrims, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain guided his vessel past Harding’s Beach and into Stage Harbor in October of 1606. Native Americans, who had been here for at least 10,000 years, paddled out in their canoes and greeted Champlain hospitably.
However, weeks of uneasy contact erupted into a fatal skirmish under circumstances that are still unclear. Three of the Frenchmen were killed and one fatally wounded. Many more Monomoyick were killed by French musket shot. Eventually Champlain weighed anchor, giving up any ideas of making Chatham a French foundation of state, and leaving the way clear for the English.
On November 11, 1620 the Mayflower circled around the tip of Provincetown and docked in Provincetown Harbor. The Pilgrims’ first steps are commemorated with a plaque and a small park located in the middle of the rotary at the end of Commercial Street, appropriately called Pilgrims’ First Landing Park.
Once they did make landfall in Provincetown, the Pilgrims spent a perilous month – from mid- November to mid-December – before heading to Plymouth.
After 66 days at sea on a ship built for goods and supplies, its passengers couldn’t wait to come ashore. They had slept in the same clothes for the entire voyage; most were suffering respiratory ailments; the ship’s water was contaminated.
Imagine, though, a place with no friends to meet them, no knowledge of the natives living there, or the potential of wild animals. What they did know immediately was the harshness of the wind and cold.
On November 11, the passengers signed the Mayflower Compact right at Provincetown Harbor, giving them the right to establish a temporary government before hopefully receiving the approval of the king. Recall that they had planned to join an already established Virginia colony.
On the first day, passengers went ashore to gather wood, fortuitously finding junipers, whose aroma would fumigate the Mayflower. On the second day, they worshiped on the Sabbath and then went onshore to reassemble a shallop, a light sailboat with a flat bottom that could navigate shallow waters. Children played outdoors while the women washed clothes.
That first day must have been a glorious occasion, but the Cape’s notoriously cold and windy winter was settling in. The Pilgrims soon would strike out west across the bay, hopefully to discover safer harbor.
Today, you can experience the settlers’ life at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
The granite tower soars 252 feet above Provincetown and provides soaring 360-views of the Cape and beyond. Erected in 1910, its first stone was laid by then President Theodore Roosevelt.
You can walk up the granite tower’s 166 steps and 60 ramps. About 10 million visitors already have in the last century.
If you do climb 252 feet to the top, you will be amply rewarded with a newly-enhanced panoramic, 360-degree view across the tip of Cape Cod.
Make sure to visit the adjacent museum which features an entire gallery dedicated to the Mayflower colonists, including the list of passengers and the words of the Mayflower Compact
Earlier this year, it was announced that the monument and museum will be partnering with the Bassetlaw District Council in Scrooby, England, where several Mayflower Pilgrims were from, including William Brewster, who was senior elder and leader of the colony. The partnership’s goal is to strengthen ties, both cultural and educational, between the two regions in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in Provincetown Harbor in 1620.
Over the coming weeks, three expeditions occurred. With armor and muskets, they explored the strange new world, relying only on rudimentary charts developed years earlier by Samuel de Champlain.
During the first two discoveries, evidence of native Americans were encountered, but the settlers never actually encountered them. On the third and last discovery, however, a group led by Myles Standish, spied natives along the beach apparently cutting up a small whale.
A great way to begin Thanksgiving Day is to drive to First Encounter Beach in Eastham and stand precisely where Standish and his compatriots weathered arrows while shooting their muskets.
Imagine wearing helmets and armor, while carrying their muskets, ranging back and forth through unexplored thickets and marshes, from the bay side to the ocean, wondering every minute whether they would be attacked and killed.
As it turned out, there were about 4,000 Native Americans living on the Cape at that time, but they migrated from summer encampments by the coasts to inland areas during the harsh winter months.
When the Pilgrims discovered what today is Corn Hill in Truro, the Native American encampment was abandoned. However, they found kettles of dried corn left behind, as well as fields that had been harvested.
That discovered corn was a godsend to the settlers, although the Wampanoag probably were distressed to find it missing the following spring.
Those Native Americans were especially good fisherman, dependent on the Pamet River and Black Fish Creek that crossed the entire Cape (and was named presumably for the pilot whales that swam in its waters).
They also were excellent farmers, cultivating corn, squash and beans. They enjoyed a productive, laid-back lifestyle that included clam bakes and games similar to our football.
Strong and attractive people, they carved beads from shells and lived in circular homes with raised wooden beds and a central fire pit.
(While not along the Pilgrim Trail, you can visit the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum in Mashpee to experience a similar residence. It’s one of oldest remaining homesteads in Mashpee, built in 1793 by the great grandson of missionary Richard Bourne. Through the door of the Museum the history and culture of the Wampanoag from the Stone Age to the present is carefully detailed through a range of exhibits).
Today, there’s a plaque at the base of Corn Hill by a cottage at Corn Hill Cottages commemorating the Pilgrim’s arrival there.
Pilgrim Heights and Springs
Across the Cape toward the Atlantic, another group of Pilgrims discovered springs of fresh water while tracking several Native Americans they had seen from afar. Today, you can visit Pilgrim Heights and Pilgrim Spring and take a short walk to that precise location, overlooking the water and imagine that 66-day voyage from England.
The site today is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore and is easy to find right off of Route 6 with clear signage.
The path leads to a site representative of where the Pilgrims drank their first fresh water in New England. This short loop trail winds through the recovering pine and oak forest, and passes a marker which commemorates the Pilgrim’s initial exploration
Departing for Plymouth
From early November when the Mayflower passengers and crew arrived until they departed for Plymouth, the weather was constantly cold, windy and rainy – often turning to sleet and snow. One journal account talked of wet clothing freezing to bodies like armor in six inches of snow.
Virtually everyone was sick, and half the settlers would die over the winter – even once they reached and settled Plymouth.
Back in the winter of 1620, imagine rounding into Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic to discover the verdant forests of pine, oak, sassafras and birch; the thousands of water birds and whales everywhere – more sightings than probably in Greenland, which already was a major whaling center.
Imagine too the Mayflower anchored off the harbor and passengers plus crew had to wade through the icy waters to shore since their shallop had not yet been reassembled.
Imagine a journey that began when their famous ship was blown off course to encounter Chatham, all the way to Provincetown.