April 2, 2020

A Big Year for New England History

Rehoboth Ramblings

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This year marks the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower and the arrival of English pilgrims in Massachusetts. In September, the Mayflower II, the reproduction of the ship that arrived in 1620, will sail from its home in Plymouth harbor to Provincetown, where the pilgrims first landed on Nov. 11, 1620. There will be a reenactment of the signing of the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown on Sept. 13.

The pilgrims moved on after a few weeks, seeking a better harbor. They landed in Plymouth on Dec. 16, a grim time of year to be looking for a new home in the New England wilderness. The rest is history and this history will be commemorated with many activities both in Massachusetts and elsewhere, even Plymouth, England, the departure port for the Mayflower.

Another, more unusual, ship called the Mayflower is in the works, an automated “roboship” that will journey from Plymouth, England to our Plymouth in the fall. I found this info in the January issue of the IEEE Spectrum, an engineering publication for “the technology insider”. I am actually a technology outsider, but I will read anything lying on the kitchen table at breakfast. The gist of the article is easy enough to grasp, if not the technical stuff.

This futuristic trimaran ship, which is described as looking like “a seagoing version of the Battlestar Galatica,” will be fully automated, so it will be not only lacking pilgrims but crew as well. If all goes as planned, it’s supposed to make the sea voyage in 12 days, unlike the 60 days it took its namesake in the fall of 1620. Well, this is all very interesting and I wish them luck. I wonder what the original voyagers on the Mayflower would think of it.

We associate the pilgrims with Thanksgiving, but that event happened in the fall (most likely early autumn, not November) of 1621, so that will be 400 years next year. This meeting between the surviving pilgrims (about half died during the first awful winter) and the native Wampanoags in a peaceful gathering has become something of a national myth. But our present day custom of celebrating Thanksgiving dates only to the mid-19th century.

This topic and more is the subject of a very worthwhile and timely new book, “This Land Is Their Land: the Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving” by David Silverman, a professor at George Washington University. Prof. Silverman is all in favor of setting aside a day for a thanksgiving feast, but he explains how the original event has been oversimplified and misunderstood over the years and centuries. 

In this absorbing study of the turbulent early years in the English colony, the Wampanoags and other native people, especially their leaders, are presented as individuals every bit as complicated, intelligent, and shrewd as their European counterparts. Tisquantum (Squanto) is an especially complex character.

Prof. Silverman gives a clear account of the disturbing events leading up to the bloody King Philip’s war and its devastating consequence for the native people. This is a fully researched work of early American history that can be appreciated by the general reader. It will be especially interesting to those in southern New England, who will recognize all the place names, including Rehoboth, and be able to picture where everything happened.

For recent works about the pilgrims’ voyage, it’s hard to beat Nathaniel Philbrick’s book “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War” and the excellent TV program “Pilgrims”, directed by Ric Burns (it was on PBS as part of “The American Experience” about four years ago). Both this book, and many more on the subject, as well as the DVD are available at the Blanding Library and you can also stream “Pilgrims” on Amazon Prime.

One of the key differences between the 400th anniversary of the pilgrims’ arrival and previous commemorations will be the role that current members of the Wampanoag and other tribes will have in the events. The New York Times weighed in on Jan. 22 with an article “Native Americans Get a Stronger Voice in the Mayflower Story”. It’s about time. In Plymouth, events will include a Wampanoag Ancestors Walk and a conference on indigenous history.

Here are the two main websites where you can learn all about the many activities going on in Provincetown and Plymouth this year:

https://www.plymouth400inc.org/

https://provincetown400.com/

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