Coastal Massachusetts had plenty of history before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Native Americans long lived there. Even other Europeans explored the area. Nonetheless it was the Pilgrims we all remembered from our elementary school curriculum and a lifetime of Thanksgiving holidays so that’s where I began. I’d been wanting to do that for many years. It had been an empty hole in my personal experience of a particularly important era of American history.
Lesser known in the tale of the Pilgrims was that their initial footsteps in the new world didn’t happen at Plymouth. Initially they disembarked at the tip of Cape Cod in the vicinity of modern-day Provincetown. That Mayflower Compact — the governing document for the Plymouth Colony — was written and signed aboard the Mayflower as it sat in the Cape’s natural harbor. The Pilgrims explored Cape Cod for several weeks seeking a suitable place to establish their colony. The land, they discovered, would be too difficult to farm and it lacked suitable fresh water. Only then did the Pilgrims press onward towards Plymouth.
This initial landfall was commemorated in the early 20th Century by the construction of a large granite tower (map) in Provincetown named the Pilgrim Monument. Visitors can climb 252 feet (77 metres) to the top where it features an open-air room with amazing views of the cape and the town below. I was quite impressed by the experience. It also helped to have picture-perfect weather and few other visitors.
Naturally I stopped by Plymouth too. That was a given. Once again I was happy to have arrived in mid-May with wonderful weather and the bulk of the tourists not arriving for another couple of weeks. We visited all of the historical sites without feeling jostled or claustrophobic.
Well, let’s talk about the rock (map). Plymouth Rock, as the story goes, was supposedly the first place the Pilgrims set foot when they arrived at their new home (after leaving Cape Cod). I’d seen images of Plymouth Rock before so I was able to manage my expectations and not be underwhelmed. It was amusing to watch the faces of other visitors who gazed upon the famous stone for the first time. Plymouth Rock is housed within a grandiose edifice resembling an ancient Greek temple complete with marble columns. People walked up expecting something spectacular… and… it’s just a rock with 1620 stamped upon it. Seriously. It looked like it was dug out of someone’s back yard.
Historically, it actually might be simply a rock without any greater significance. Plymouth Rock was identified by Thomas Faunce in 1741 and he was 94 years old at the time. There was nobody else alive who could corroborate his claim. He wasn’t a Mayflower passenger either although there were still some Mayflower passengers living when he was a child. In theory it’s possible that the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth Rock, just not likely. However, more important than the rock was what it represented and that alone made it a worthwhile stop.
Marconi Wireless Station
I moved onto other interests once my Pilgrim curiosity had been satisfied. An historical site of much more recent vintage awaited exploration about half-way up the cape (map). Little remained of the old Marconi Wireless Station other than a few bricks and crumbling cement. Most of it had been dismantled long ago or been consumed by the sea. Guglielmo Marconi built a series of towers while pioneering ship-to-shore and transatlantic radio communications. The facility on Cape Cod was known as the South Wellfleet Wireless station. From this spot, the first direct wireless radio message between the United States and the United Kingdom was transmitted in 1903.
Much of Nantucket’s history focused on whaling. Whaling fleets existed in various coastal communities in New England, and Nantucket had one of the most successful. It also provided a name for the "Nantucket Sleigh Ride" — when harpooned, a whale would drag the small dory boats used by hunters to get close to the whale on a fast, wild ride. Eventually the whale would become exhausted and only then could the whalers close in for the kill. The whaling industry made a lot of people quite wealthy for a time and many of their stately homes lined the cobblestone streets of Nantucket.
I particularly liked this photograph I took in Nantucket Harbor (map) during an early morning fog. Minus a couple of modern boats, it almost looked like it could have stepped out of a previous century when whaling still ruled the local economy.
I wrote about Methodist summer revival camp meetings last year in From Camp to Town. That brought the "gingerbread cottages" of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard to my attention. I won’t bother to repeat the story because it’s all covered in the previous article, however I’ll say that it was lovely to stroll amongst the 300+ historic buildings (map) as well as visit a place in person that I’d discovered while writing Twelve Mile Circle.
Islands and Cape articles:
- Part 1 (Seacoast Scenes)
- Part 2 (Momentous History)
- Part 3 (Lighthouse Crazy)
- Part 4 (Random Thoughts)