It’s not every day a history site in the United States gets to celebrate a 400th anniversary. (for perspective, 2026 marks the 250th birthday of the US) This year was supposed to be the big 400th commemoration of Plymouth, Massachusetts and the Pilgrims, the second permanent English settlement in what is now the United States (after Jamestown, Virginia 1607). Then the pandemic came and stole most if not all of the large events that were planned.
The Pilgrims loom large in America’s historical consciousness. Their story has become a foundation stone of our nation’s origin story. Obviously, Plymouth’s association with a national holiday has something to do with its notoriety. Love it or loathe it, the Pilgrim story is part of America’s past.
A fascinating article in the November/December 2020 issue of Yankee magazine asks the question, Do the Pilgrims Still Matter? The Pilgrim story has been simplified and commercialized (to some degree) and interpreted in many ways over the years. The Pilgrims have been cast in the role of everything from shining saints to brave adventurers and even villains (they did carry disease). Anniversary commemorations are rooted in time and must navigate the shifting attitudes and changing perceptions of the day. The article mentions an old photograph of the Mayflower II reproduction ship arriving in Plymouth harbor in 1957, with thousands on shore cheering. The ship was recently refurbished and restored and event organizers were hoping for another crowd of thousands to welcome it back to Plymouth. Would thousands have showed up this year had a large event taken place?
The article describes the 300th celebration in 1920 with its pageant of 1400 actors, a script written by Robert Frost, and music contributed by the country’s top composers. Apparently Plymouth Rock even got a speaking role. Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge (who would become Vice President the following year and then President) gave a speech filled with lofty rhetoric. We don’t really do pageants in the 21st century. And today some people get a bit uncomfortable with several of the key storylines of the complex narrative: religion and multiculturalism. Because no matter how you spin the story, the Pilgrims were seeking freedom of worship and there was a clash of cultures despite the peaceful depiction of a thanksgiving meal. Yet Plymouth remains an important story that we need to discuss – going beyond a local history story, enduring as a national story. Depending upon which historians you read, the Pilgrim narrative has had major impact on American history in various ways.
Plimoth Plantation, a recreated Pilgrim town, was founded in 1947 to tell the story of both the Pilgrims and their native neighbors, the Wampanoags. It has remained dedicated to that mission. This past summer, the governing organization announced a new name: It is now the Plimoth Patuxet Museums (Patuxet is the Wampanoag name for the Plymouth area). I last visited several years ago and below is a post I wrote about the visit. I highly recommend a visit if you plan a trip to the Plymouth area.
Both Plymouth and Jamestown are complicated stories of cultural exchange and attempts at cultural understanding. The interpretations of them have changed and that’s a good thing. More about my thoughts on changing history.