Helping set the stage for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival in the New World, Cape Cod historian Don Wilding wants people to know what the Pilgrims experienced before reaching Plymouth.
Invited to speak on “Provincetown and the Pilgrims” last week at the Franklin Public Library, Wilding focused on a five-week window between the Mayflower’s arrival in Cape Cod Bay and their eventual landing at Plymouth.
According to Wilding, the intrepid band of “Separatists,” as they referred to themselves, spent those five weeks anchored off Provincetown, exploring, provisioning and searching for a more advantageous spot to establish a permanent colony.
Utilizing dozens of archival slides and other visuals, Wilding captivated his audience with an hour-long narrative ranging from the earliest contact between European explorers and Native Americans on Cape Cod to the dedication of Provincetown’s Pilgrim Monument in 1907.
But the grist of his remarks focused on a five-week window between the Mayflower’s arrival off Cape Cod on Nov. 9, 1620 and their departure for Plymouth on Dec. 15.
Before leaving England, Wilding said, the Separatists had negotiated a settlement grant near Hudson River territory, then part of the Virginia Colony. Because of that, the Mayflower initially veered southward after sighting land in an effort to reach their intended destination.
Strong winds turned them back, however, and the ship anchored off “Cape Cod Hook,” in what is now Provincetown Harbor, on Nov. 11.
Over the next five weeks, the Pilgrims recorded both the first birth and first death in the New World (two passengers had died during a harrowing eight-week voyage), and also signed the Mayflower Compact, a cornerstone of American democracy which established a legal framework for future self-governance.
“By then they knew they weren’t going to (the Hudson) so the needed this to manage their affairs,” Wilding explained.
More critically, a 34-man scouting party in an open “shallop” was dispatched in miserable weather to reconnoiter the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay, eventually circling around to what is now mainland Plymouth. Finding the spot more suited to a settlement, the explorers returned to the Mayflower, which subsequently departed for Plymouth on Dec. 15.
Among the scouting party were both Capt. Myles Standish, a soldier hired by the settlers, and future Gov. William Bradford, who upon returning learned his wife, Dorothy, had inadvertently fallen off the Mayflower and drowned.
Relating numerous anecdotes gathered over decades of historical research, Wilding regaled his listeners with little-known facts about those first weeks in the New World. He also traced the settlers’ early interactions with Native Americans, sometimes combative and other times conciliatory.
Fast-forwarding nearly three centuries, Wilding then chronicled efforts to commemorate the 1620 landing by constructing a granite monument in Provincetown.
Still the tallest all-granite structure in the U.S. at 252 feet, the monument’s cornerstone was laid in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt and the finished tower was dedicated three years later by President William Howard Taft.
The architect, Willard Thomas Sears, also designed the Old South Church and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, both notable Boston landmarks.
Founder of the non-profit Henry Beston Society and former sports editor at The Foxboro Reporter, Wilding has authored several books on Cape Cod history. His lecture in Franklin last week was one in a series of appearances coinciding with this year’s 400th anniversary observances.
Wilding is also scheduled to appear at the Boyden Public Library on March 24, at 7 p.m. for a lecture entitled “Shipwrecks of Cape Cod.”