As the chill of an approaching winter settled in, the native people who lived 400 years ago in what is now the outermost region of Cape Cod were likely spending their days preparing for the change in weather and moving inland to be away from winds coming off the sea.
The men would have been stockpiling meat and catching fish to provide food for their families; the women foraging, gathering nuts and fallen branches as firewood. In the evenings, family members would have been sharpening tools or making mats and pottery — it's not as if they had the distraction of television, Mashpee Wampanoag historian David Weeden said.
“You didn’t really have idle time,” he said. “You were always working on something.”
It would have been then, from a dense forest — with stands of trees down to the shoreline — that members of the Wampanoag Nation saw the Mayflower arrive on the horizon. Tribe members had seen white explorers before, but this particular arrival, as it turns out, was to be catastrophic for the tribe, Weeden said.Phillip Wynne adjusts his outfit next to a wetu before the grand entry at the annual Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow in 2011.Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip
“For me, personally, I perceive it as the place of the first conflict between the two cultures,” he said. “That’s kind of what sticks out in my mind. It’s kind of like the beginning of the end of thousands of years of living in harmony with the environment around us. So it’s not this blissful idea of anniversary and commemorations. The years that followed and up to the (anniversary) date have not been beneficial for Native Americans in any way.”
At the same time, for the religious leaders on the Mayflower and their ancestors and followers, the arrival from England to the waters off Cape Cod was “terribly important,” according to retired Plymouth historian James W. Baker.For the religious leaders on the Mayflower, the arrival from England to the waters off Cape Cod was “terribly important,” according to retired Plymouth historian James W. Baker.[Wicked Local/File Photo]
“Nobody would argue that Provincetown didn’t have a major role in the history, and that’s what’s reflected in the two historical documents that talk about it,” Baker said, referring to the 1622 “Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth 1622” by Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim leader, and the written history by Mayflower passenger Gov. William Bradford.
“Plymouth Colony began in Provincetown,” Baker said. “The fact that they decided there wasn’t enough farmland and running water made them move on. But it began there.”
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on Cape Cod. The religious refugees from England and other passengers arrived Nov. 11, 1620, in what is now Provincetown Harbor.
Because of the threat of COVID-19, however, the yearlong commemoration of the quadricentennial anniversary and remembrance of the impact on the Wampanoag Nation were canceled.
What does remain this year is the mission on the part of Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400, plymouth400inc.org, and members of the Wampanoag tribes to revisit the oft-repeated narrative of the Pilgrims’ arrival with a keener focus on the accurate history and the impacts on the people who had already been living in the region for thousands of years.
Museums in Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet have each reexamined an older exhibit that either improperly reflected the history of the Pilgrims’ arrival or relegated the Native American history to a dusty shelf.
“The Provincetown story really started before the Mayflower Pilgrims, and that was that this area was all part of tribal Indian lands,” said K. David Weidner, executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.
The monolithic all-granite Pilgrim Monument, built more than 100 years ago on High Pole Hill, is owned by a nonprofit organization steeped in the preservation and pride of Pilgrim history. But that has changed over time both in mindset and in what is exhibited in the museum on the hilltop property, Weidner said.
“One of our goals, and my goals, as an executive director was to work with our board of trustees to really tell a more accurate interpretation and story of who we are,” he said.
Another outcome is that the Provincetown Museum is now the permanent home for a new exhibit, developed by Paula Peters and her son, Steven Peters of SmokeSygnals, a Native American creative agency based on Cape Cod.
The Peters are members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
“A lot of the work that we’ve been doing over the last 10 years has been around sharing the story of the colonization from a more balanced perspective, trying to include both Native American and European perspectives,” Steven Peters said. “The European perspective has been out there much longer than ours simply because they wrote the history. You know, in 1620, 400 years ago, the Wampanoag didn’t have a written language, so they weren’t able to document things in a way that we can understand them today.”
To narrow it down to the outermost areas of Cape Cod, the Nauset tribe, which was part of the Wampanoag Nation, would likely have been watching and wondering what the intentions of the Mayflower occupants were, Peters said.
“It’s another part of the story that didn’t necessarily fit with the mythology that was created around the whole Thanksgiving and Wampanoag helping the Pilgrims, and this really sort of joyous relationship that was created,” he said. “It’s pivotal because the Nausets had some difficult interactions with some Europeans prior to the Pilgrims' arrival. So when the Pilgrims do arrive in 1620 off Provincetown, the Nausets absolutely would have been watching what had taken place.”
They would not have known if the Pilgrims were coming to trade or to seek retribution for men taken captive a few years earlier, Peters said.
“Certainly the Nausets didn’t write down (that) they were watching the Mayflower come ashore, but we absolutely know that they would have. You can’t pull that boat up to the coast and people not notice,” he said. “And for them, it must have been such an odd sight to all of a sudden see women and children step off the ship ...”
At that time, the tribe members had never seen European women and children, Peters said.
“I think they would have thought about that very carefully, and I think they were careful in how they responded,” he said. “Ultimately, they did respond in the ‘first encounter’ ... you know, shoot some arrows at them to say, ‘OK, time for you to move along. We don’t want to take the risk of having Europeans hanging around here.’ That ultimately pushed them over to Plymouth, which was just a short ride in the shallop for them to get there.”
Most events in the Pilgrims’ 35 days on the outermost Cape are not documented, according to Baker, who was head of research for Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum now known as Plimoth Patuxet, for 26 years. The “first washing” is an example that researchers find throughout the years depicted in drawings or cartoons in history books and enacted in town theatrical productions.
“The one thing they do mention is that on that first Monday they were there, the women went ashore to wash their linens,” Baker said. “In those days, you would wash linen. You wouldn’t wash your outer woolen costume. You would actually brush that clean, using things to bring out the soil and stuff like that. But it’s almost like the only thing we know that happened with ordinary people, as opposed to the exploring parties.”
The Mayflower passengers came ashore on a long boat with a shallow draft, called the ship’s boat, which was used by the exploring parties and likely others hoping to do laundry and collect fresh water and firewood. The large shallop, which was in pieces aboard the Mayflower, had to be floated to shore, to be put together and repaired, Baker said.
Four passengers from the Mayflower who died were buried somewhere in the area, Baker said, but the location of the graves remains unknown.
“We can’t tell what (the Pilgrims) did, but they did something, and they were there for over a month, so it’s an important fact, but where exactly they did things it’s not clear,” he said.
For the Wampanoag Nation, though, some of those “things” are very real, even if the exact location is unknown.
In “Mourt’s Relation,” an exploring party from the Mayflower is described as finding what turned out to be a Nauset burial ground, which it discovered after digging up some graves.
The text also describes how the exploring party came across “heaps of sand” under which they found baskets of “fair Indian corn” and ears of corn of varying colors. The Englishmen dug up the food stores and stole them.
The exploring party as it traveled is described in “Mourt’s Relation” as being low on “victuals” and thirsty for freshwater.A monument at First Encounter Beach in Eastham describes the Pilgrims' first meeting with the Wampanoag. The beach is the site of a skirmish that led to the Pilgrims leaving to settle in Plymouth.Steve Heaslip/Cape Cod Times
“It is remarkable to look back and see that (the Pilgrims) would have taken food stores, which they clearly knew were food stores,” Paula Peters said. “It’s not like they tripped over it and said, ‘Oh, somebody dropped this candy bar here, I’m going to keep it.’ It was buried. It was wrapped. It would be like me going into your freezer and, you know, taking a T-bone steak. Yeah, it’s quite clear, and they also opened graves, and were disrespectful to graves. You just would not even conceive of doing that today, and it’s been marginalized and downplayed in history to the degree that everybody’s comfortable with.”
Like the missing description of the day-to-day life of the Pilgrims in their first month or so in New England, in the outermost lands of Cape Cod, the Wampanoag Nation has nothing written to study now except what the Pilgrims recorded, Peters said.
According to “Mourt’s Relation,” in early December of that year at what is now known as First Encounter Beach in Eastham, the explorers found themselves with tribesmen’s arrows “flying amongst us.” In return, the explorers grabbed their guns.
“In the meantime, Captain Miles Standish, having a snaphance ready, made a shot, and after him another,” according to the account.
“After they two had shot, other two of us were ready, but he wished us not to shoot till we could take aim, for we knew not what need we should have, and there were four only of us which had their arms there ready, and stood before the open side of our barricade, which was first assaulted.”
The tribesmen, though, could have “killed them all instantly, just killed them all,” Paula Peters said. Instead, they issued a warning, something along the lines of “Hey, you’re not welcome here, move on,” she said.
“A lot of historians and scholars agree,” Peters said. “Certainly, that’s what they were saying. They don’t have a written language to have written that down. It’s so easy to read, not even between the lines, we’re reading the lines, the entries into the journals of those who experienced this firsthand (that) are quite clear. They’re clear in what they’ve done, and they’re clearly dismissive of the response of the Wampanoag, just as people are today.”Jonathan Perry, right, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), leads a group of native dancers onto the stage at the Cape Cod National Seashore's Salt Pond Visitor Center in 2011 during a celebration of the tribe.Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip
Editor’s Note: The story of the Pilgrims stepping off the Mayflower in 1620 underpins the narrative history of our nation’s founding. It is a story about disaffected English settlers motivated by religious freedom, and it is a story about indigenous people such as Squanto, who helped the settlers learn how to survive in a new environment.
This month, as we commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing and as our country finds itself once again in the midst of a reckoning with our history, this series of stories reflects a less commonly told accounting of the founding of America and the impact it had on the indigenous people who had lived on the land for thousands of years.
Using the model of restorative narrative — an attempt through our journalism to give voice to those historically unheard — we spoke with experts and historians and studied contemporaneous accounts of what happened in 1620 and the years that followed. We also engaged members of the Patuxet and Mashpee Wampanoag to write their own stories about their own rich histories, long overshadowed by the focus on the Pilgrims.
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