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Mayflower, Day by Day - Monday, 21 December 1620

21 Dec 2020 3:05 AM | Soule (Administrator)

At anchor in harbour; Discovery party reaches Plymouth

Clear weather.

The discovery party, having made necessary repairs to the shallop, took soundings in the harbour “and found it a very good harbour for our shipping.”  Philbrick continues the story (Mayflower, p. 75): “They ventured on land, but nowhere in either Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation … is there any mention of a Pilgrim stepping on a rock.  Like Cape Cod to the southeast, the shore of Plymouth Bay is nondescript and sandy.  But at the foot of a high hill, just to the north of a brook, was a rock that must have been impossible to miss.  More than twice as big as the mangled chunk of stone that is revered today as Plymouth Rock, this two-hundred-ton granite boulder loomed above the low shoreline like a recumbent elephant.  … At half tide and above, a small boat could have sailed right up alongside the rock.  For these explorers, who were suffering from chills and coughs after several weeks of wading up and down the frigid flats of Cape Cod, the ease of access offered by the rock must have been difficult to resist.”

Today’s first landing at Plymouth was enshrined as Forefathers’ Day, although the earlier celebrations miscalculated the difference between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars and added eleven days instead of ten, and thus observed the landing a day later until the middle of the nineteenth century.  By 1769, Plymouth inhabitants had created an Old Colony Club; meeting annually on the (erroneous, it turns out) anniversary of the Pilgrims' landing, club members ate a meal that supposedly re-enacted the plain foodways of the Forefathers and toasted ancestors and contemporaries. Quickly, members settled into a yearly ritual that added a military parade followed by an address celebrating the ideals and suffering of the small band.  Just as quickly, the Old Colony Club disbanded; by 1773, the majority of members were Loyalists, and the few “patriots” among them left.  It thus is highly ironic (if not comical) that nineteenth century orators have associated the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.  John Seelye’s expansive (with 700 pages of text, it is not for the faint of heart -- it took me two months to plough through it) Memory's Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998) notes that commemorations of the landing started about one hundred and fifty years after the original, and these events most often imagined or, perhaps, re-imagined the Pilgrims in the light of the present: during the American Revolution, the Pilgrims were the original secessionists, while fifty years later they became the paradigm of anti-seccesionists, and not long afterwards they were distinguished from the Puritans to avoid being tarred with the brush of being persecutors, and then fifty years after that they were strongly pro-immigration or anti-immigration, depending on who was talking.  Various theologians claimed the rock to defend doctrines ebbing or emerging: Congregationalists, new and old, on the one hand, Unitarians on the other, debated the Separatists' beliefs -- and thereby defended their own theological legitimacy.  I have been alternately amused and horrified by the duelling signs on the two churches across Leiden Street from each other in Plymouth, both of which claim, or, since the demise of one of the congregations, claimed to be the Church of the Pilgrims.  What the Pilgrims themselves would have thought about the United States and its founding documents, the cataclysm of the War Between the States, or the political activism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is anyone’s guess, as they seem to have been remade in different images by every speaker, depending on whether the speaker’s goal is to praise or to attack the Pilgrims.  James W. Baker’s fascinating new book, Plymouth Rock’s Own Story (Plymouth: Pilgrim Society, 2020) distinguishes between the story of the physical rock itself (and its “travels,” remarkable for a multi-ton large boulder) and the story of the story of the rock, or the meaning that has been attached to it.  Unlike Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims are not completely mute, but also unlike the Rock, they have proven to be completely malleable.

Bradford continued, “We marched also into the land, and found divers cornfields, and little running brooks, a place very good for situation.”  The presence of several freshwater springs close to the shore was a very important consideration: by now the passengers were forced to ration their beer, and one of the reasons why the Provincetown area was deemed unsuitable was because the water had to be lugged up and down dunes and hills, and its sufficiency was unknown (particularly in summer).  The fact that the land had already been cleared was also a benefit, although it was also recognised that there were no recent Native settlements anywhere in evidence.  Samuel de Champlain’s map of 1613 dots the harbour with wigwams (some with cute plumes of smoke coming out of them), and shows fields of corn, beans and squash growing all around.  The bay was filled with bluefish and striped bass, and the lobsters, it was said, were so numerous that the Indians plucked them from the shallows of the harbour by hand.  The human habitation came to an end from 1616 to 1619 because of an epidemic; the disease returned the following decade, when Roger Williams wrote, “I have seen a poor house left alone in the wild woods … all being fled, the living not able to bury the dead.  So terrible is the apprehension of an infectious disease, that not only persons, but the houses and the whole town, take flight.”  There were no native dwellings in Plymouth in the winter of 1620, “a very sad spectacle to behold,” Bradford wrote.  The explorers found not only no inhabitants, but no sign of recent occupation.  Other than the “encounter” of last Friday morning, and occasional distant sightings of what they thought were Indians, the group had not been able to establish (despite their best efforts) any contact, friendly or otherwise, with anyone.  This emptiness was seen as an instance of God’s dreadful providence, blessing, and sovereignty.

Where the party spent the night is unknown (whether on the mainland or back at Clark’s Island), but, being gone for a week, it was clearly time to return.

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