Bubbling up from underground, the spring bursts into life as it reaches the surface. Feeding crystalline water into a quick-moving thin stream, it joins a larger creek flowing towards the sea and into a protected cove. An osprey swoops down for a taste before disappearing towards a leaden, overcast sky.
At the same time, a light sailing boat, called a shallop, manoeuvres into the inlet. The cove is protected by two spits of dense forest protruding from either side. These slivers of land on the claw-shaped Gurnet Point shield the small body of water from an enormous bay beyond.
Pale men in dark clothing row their small wooden boat across to the golden shore. The sandy beach changes to hardier soil that morphs into a substantial hill. Just beyond, thick pine and oak forests are full of wild cherry, chestnut and Sassafras trees. Even further inland lie fields of wild cranberries.
Eerily, the land is cleared, as if ready for sowing crops – yet there is no one in sight. Surely, the men muse, it is providence that such an optimum location has appeared after being 66 days at sea. What they don’t know is that, four years ago, a European disease wiped out nearly all the coastal natives, including the inhabitants of this village, Patuxet.
From a “hide” of beachplum and bayberry bushes, someone peers onto the scene below. A man wearing clothing of animal skin observes the position of a wooden galleon out in the larger bay and sees the foreigners descend into the shallop. He watches as they cautiously manoeuvre towards shore.
The man, a spy, will report back to Massasoit, leader of the Wômpanôak. Could these foreigners be the advance party of an armed invasion? The tribe must be ready for any outcome.
However, the men aboard the Mayflower are different from the soldiers, trappers and explorers who came before. The 102 passengers on board are Separatists who have fled England with their families.
Crucially, while on the ship, every male passenger has signed a treaty agreeing to respect the governance of those in authority and to work together for the common good. The significance of this treaty, which became known as the Mayflower Compact, is now credited with being the model of the US constitution.
The landing of the Mayflower – 9 November 1620 – is the basis of upcoming quatercentenary commemorations (now largely postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic).
Plymouth 400 focuses on the people who made this life changing and dangerous voyage, the signing of the Mayflower Compact and the first harvest festival. And, during 2021, the commemoration will now also honour the contribution and enormous sacrifice of the native people, while also co-ordinating events with England and the Netherlands for the first time.
The 400-year commemorations
A key difference with this 400-year observance will be the emphasis on catastrophic truths. Only half of the Saints and Strangers (Protestant Separatists and secular colonists) survived that first winter. Arriving late in the season and constructing only basic shelters, many died from exposure, exhaustion, or disease.
As you might expect, the indigenous people in this tale fare far worse.
“The Wômpanôak knew this disease came from overseas but did not understand the science,” explains Plimoth Plantation’s indigenous cultural programs manager, Kerri Helme. They may have sought the intervention of Manitouôk, their animist god. But, in little more than 50 years, this 12,000-year-old civilisation nearly disappeared.
In respect of this, a Wômpanôak Ancestors Walk is taking place in May 2021. Participants will pay homage to the original 69 villages of the Wômpanôak Nation as they stride through Plymouth carrying placards, which also honour Massasoit and his son, Metacomet. The day will conclude with a drum ceremony and reception. A Plymouth 400 Remembrance Ceremony is also planned for 23 April 2021, to show gratitude for the contributions and sacrifices of both the Wômpanôak nation and the Pilgrims.
A rich history
Anyone visiting Plymouth, Massachusetts, should make time to explore the Plimoth Plantation, just a 10-minute drive from town. This living museum is a recreation of what 17th-century Plymouth would likely have been like. Spread over 120 acres, it tells both the indigenous and colonial story.
Located on the banks of the Eel River, the Plimoth Plantation comprises a visitor’s centre, an interpreted Wômpanôak Homesite, the Nye Barn (with domestic farm animals) and an English Village. At the village, historical interpreters speak, act and dress as 17th-century folk, interacting with visitors in character. You’ll also learn the story of Tisquantum, an indigenous Wômpanôak who spoke English and lived with the Pilgrims in Patuxet.
“The local tribes were involved in creating as authentic a Wômpanôak homesite as possible,” says Kerri. “The early people had no domestic animals so the land would not have been degraded. They would have been surrounded by old growth forests full of enormous trees and incredible wildlife.”
There’s more to discover in town. First, visit the oldest surviving Pilgrim property in town, the Jabez Howland House on 33 Sandwich Street. Next, walk over to the waterfront and follow the paved trail along Town Brook to the historic Plimoth Grist Mill, which is still operating today. Cross the street to the entrance of the town burial ground and ascend the hill to see the location of the Fort. Nearby is the National Monument to the Founding Fathers, with dazzling views of the bay. Be sure to pop into the Pilgrim Museum on Court Street to see a variety of well-crafted displays with fascinating artefacts.
You can also choose a more strenuous yet scenic trek: the Plymouth Town Trail circumvents the two Great Ponds, while the surrounding hills offer spectacular vistas of the blanket of forest below.
Be sure to fan out and explore other parts of Cape Cod; wild beaches, incredible woodland and ancient towns like Sandwich and Barnstable abound. You may even stumble across an Indian burial ground, such as the one I spotted off the 6A to Provincetown.
The Official Maritime Salute to the 400th Anniversary will be a waterfront event in Plymouth taking place from 25 to 27 July 2021, with an extra day added to kick off proceedings. It’s also an opportunity to see the newly refurbished Mayflower II (replica of the Mayflower), which will be berthed there.
Other celebrations planned include the Swim for Life, which took place on 12 September 2020 in Provincetown. Located on the tip of Cape Cod, this is significant as the location of the pilgrims’ first landing.
And then there’s the 2020 Thanksgiving Illuminations Annual Event, scheduled for 20-25 November. It’s being held in celebration of the first harvest festival and in honour of the first governor, William Bradford, who is attributed with saying, “As one small candle may light a thousand.”
With the anniversary so intrinsically and profoundly connected to England, 2021 looks set to be the perfect time to make your own pilgrimage to the New World.
America As You Like It has a five-night package to Massachusetts from £925 per person, including return flights to Boston on Virgin Atlantic, one night at the Four Seasons One Dalton Street Boston and four nights at the Best Western Plus Cold Spring in Plymouth, plus five days’ car hire.
British nationals can find out if they are Mayflower descendants through the New England Historic Genealogical Society.