400 Years in the Making

Cape Cod Life  /  Annual Life 2020 / , ,

Writer: Brenna Collins

Take a trip back in time to the event that shaped our nation, and commemorate those who came before us

Four centuries ago, 100 souls endured a two-month journey across the stormy Atlantic with the hopes of creating a free life in the New World. Those aboard the Mayflower landed upon what would become Cape Cod, first stopping in Provincetown, and ultimately settling in Plymouth. This story is one that set the stage for America’s future. With 2020 marking the voyage’s 400th anniversary, Plymouth and Provincetown are ensuring its impact is commemorated inclusively, accurately, and meaningfully across the state of Massachusetts. 

As a homecoming tribute, the newly restored Mayflower II will travel from its current home in Mystic, Connecticut to Boston before it returns to Plymouth and Provincetown, commemorating the 400-year-old original journey. Throughout 2020, events will be held in both towns to honor this story and all groups involved in its unfolding. Beginning in January and scheduled through November, these commemoration events include opening ceremonies, museum exhibits, cultural festivals, a maritime salute, and State House salute. Step aboard the Mayflower II in either port to experience what those who came before us did, and learn more about the first meeting between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe. Parades and historical reenactments abound during this anniversary year and the educational opportunities are endless. Learn more about the passengers of the Mayflower as well as their descendants and lasting legacy through the General Society of Mayflower Descendants and their resources. With so many events and topics, there is surely something for every visitor, old or young, history buff or novice.

Regardless of your visit’s timing, there will be some way to connect with and honor this anniversary while taking in the distinct beauty of the towns and the surrounding area. The towns may look a little different and there may be more people than there were 400 years ago, but the spirit and legacy of the Mayflower, its passengers and those they met on shore live on across the Cape, Plymouth and the nation. While honoring the past, these commemorations lay the foundation for a thoughtful future. In these pages, step into history, and preview what Provincetown and Plymouth have in store for the 400th Anniversary.


Four hundred years ago, a group of English citizens boarded the Mayflower and made for the New World. The group was made up of Separatists, the true Pilgrims seeking religious freedoms, and those looking to make a new life away from England. On board, the Separatists began calling the group Saints and Strangers, the Separatists being the Saints and the other passengers the Strangers. While many people today associate the Mayflower with Plymouth, Plymouth Rock and the first Thanksgiving, the Saints and Strangers landed in Provincetown in November before making their way to the famed Plymouth in December. It was in Provincetown Harbor that those aboard the Mayflower signed the Mayflower Compact, a set of rules and laws for self-governance for those aboard the ship. Before stepping off the ship, the Compact was drafted by the Pilgrims who knew that in order to survive in this harsh new reality, they would need as many law abiding, hard working people as possible. The Compact outlined laws to create a successful, harmonious community that could survive and thrive through any hardships. 

To commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower landing, the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum (PMPM) is overseeing the Provincetown 400 event to mark the landing in Provincetown Harbor and the signing of the Mayflower Compact. The commemoration kicks off Friday, April 24 in Plymouth with the opening ceremony, which will see the introduction of the Plymouth 400 Legacy Time Capsule. The day will also include music, interpretive readings, visual narratives and of course, an abundance of historical content. “Our mission is rooted in education, reflecting on what the monument and museum stand for, so we’re hoping this is an opportunity to set the record straight and inform the community and visitors about the five and a half weeks the Pilgrims spent here,” says Courtney Hurst, Board President of the PMPM.

The Mayflower II

The month of September will have the most commemorative events, starting with the arrival of the Mayflower II. The ship will be docked from Thursday September 10th to Monday, September 14th. Aboard the ship, actors will reenact the signing of the Mayflower Compact, allowing the public to witness this moment in history. For a little something more, attend the Mayflower Compact Reenactment Ceremony on September 13th. This fundraiser brings participants onto the Mayflower II to witness exactly what it was like on board the original Mayflower 400 years ago. A commemorative wreath will then be lowered into Provincetown Harbor. On September 14th, after a sunrise toast, the Mayflower II will depart towards her final destination in Plymouth. If historical reenactments aren’t your thing, make sure to check out the Provincetown 400 Gala on September 12th for a night of cocktails, dinner and music. 

2020 will also see the unveiling of the new, permanent Wampanoag Tribe exhibit in the Provincetown Museum. Hurst says the exhibit has been years in the making after working in close collaboration with the Wampanoag Tribe to ensure everything is as accurate and representative of the tribe as possible. This marks the first installation of a permanent exhibit  at the museum in decades. “We’re so happy that we’ve had the opportunity to work so closely with the tribe to make sure we’re getting it right,” says Hurst, “The work we’ve been doing with the tribe leading up to 2020 has been mostly education based and we’ll be turning that education over to the community with forums and round tables.” The exhibit will be toward the back of the museum, which formerly housed paintings and murals inaccurately depicting the first meeting between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe. The ribbon-cutting event will also feature a round table discussion about how and why the museum decided to update the exhibit the way they did. 

As some of the first colonists in the New World, the Strangers and Saints created a lasting impression and legacy not just in Massachusetts, but across the country. Since 1897, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (GSMD) has been committed to researching lineal descendants of those aboard the Mayflower and teaching the public about those passengers. The GSMD currently stands at over 30,000 members and will host an estimated 1,500 registrants during its special triennial Congress. To commemorate the 400th anniversary, the GSMD will host a luncheon on the Pilgrim Monument grounds after the Mayflower Compact Reenactment ceremony.   

Each year, the Pilgrim Monument is lit up for five and a half weeks around the holidays. The common misconception is that the lights are for the holiday season, when in fact, it is lit to mark the number of weeks the Mayflower was docked in Provincetown. The lighting usually takes place around Thanksgiving, but this year will take place on Wednesday, November 11th to mark the day the Pilgrims landed in Provincetown Harbor.

Tourism is expected to boom around the time of the commemorations, with Smithsonian Magazine including  the 400 Commemoration as one of twelve anniversary events not to miss. Hurst says of her goals for the events, “We’re hoping this commemoration is the perfect stage to highlight what Provincetown is about. The Mayflower Pilgrims were the first Pilgrims to come to our shores 400 years ago, seeking tolerance and acceptance and inclusion, and they found it here. Many pilgrims for the next 400 years have arrived in Provincetown seeking those same ideals; the artists, the Portuguese fishermen, the LGBTQ community. These people have come to Provincetown and found that acceptance and tolerance.”  

For more information on the 400th Anniversary, visit!

Check out our Best Of Outer Cape for even more to do in Provincetown!


2020 will bring tourists and locals alike to Plymouth to connect with this pivotal narrative and realize its extensive legacy. The town is expecting a visitor count in the millions, roughly three times its usual traffic. Plymouth 400, Inc. has been working for eight years to connect with businesses and Mayflower and Wampanoag descendants to best memorialize this anniversary. “To be a part of this is very exciting because we are looking back 400 years to commemorate history. However, I feel that through planning and working with a variety of groups and organizations, we are also making history in the process of commemorating it. That to me really brings it alive,” says Brian Logan, Communications Manager for Plymouth 400, Inc. With events scheduled throughout the calendar year, those visiting Plymouth on any given day will find some way to engage, discover, and remember.

Seven Signature Events of national significance will be held from April to November, recognizing all four nations involved in the Pilgrim legacy: England, the Netherlands, the Wampanoag Nation, and the United States. At the core of Plymouth 400’s mission is emphasizing the themes of “exploration, innovation, self-governance, religious expression, and thanksgiving” across these carefully constructed events. In addition to the Signature Events, various exhibits will be open to the public year-long, including displays of Wampanoag and Pilgrim culture in Boston, the women founders of Plymouth Colony at the Pilgrim Hall Museum, and much more. 

Kicking off the Signature Events on April 24th, the Plymouth 400 Commemoration Opening Ceremony will launch with a procession through downtown, culminating in a gathering in Memorial Hall with performances and speeches. For those not attending the Memorial Hall ceremony, various local businesses and restaurants will host live watch parties, engaging all of Plymouth in the festivities. From June 27 to 28th, the Official Maritime Salute to the 400th Anniversary will gather various vessels at Plymouth’s waterfront, symbolizing the Mayflower’s voyage. 

A homecoming not to be missed, the Mayflower II will return to Plymouth harbor after a three-year restoration managed by Plimoth Plantation. The homecoming is scheduled for May 21st and the ship opens for public tours two days later. To immerse yourself in the voyage, tickets to climb aboard the vessel are on sale now through Plimoth Plantation. A visit to Plimoth Plantation and Pilgrim Hall museum are additional worthy stops during your time in Plymouth for tangible historical experiences.

The Wampanoag Ancestors Walk and the Indigenous History Conference and Powwow will both shed a light on the Wampanoag’s critical historical role as well as their current story. The walk, scheduled for August 1st in Plymouth, will commemorate Wampanoag ancestors. From October 29th to November 1st, the History Conference will dive into life before and after colonization and finish with a public powwow at Bridgewater State University. 

In Boston, the State House will salute both the Plymouth Colony founders and the Wampanoag tribes on September 14th, with descendants from both groups present. To celebrate the cultures of the Wampanoag people, Pilgrims, and American immigrants, the Embarkation Festival will honor all groups at Plymouth’s waterfront on September 19th. Wrapping up the Signature Events in November 2020, Illuminate Thanksgiving will take place during the five days prior to Thanksgiving and be centered around fostering gratitude.

Celebrating the 400th Anniversary is bound to inspire questions of personal ancestry, envisioning yesterday’s catalysts and how one’s own roots could be connected to the past. To start the story of your own history or witness that of the Mayflower descendants, the Plymouth 400 Official Tour begins at the New England Historic Genealogy Society, the oldest genealogy society in the country. This four-day historical tour by Tour Trends has dates for individuals and groups throughout the year. “These sites, from Boston, Duxbury, Plymouth, to Provincetown, had never been linked together before. It really does pull together not only the lead up to the Pilgrims landing, but it links together pieces of this story that have never been connected before,” Logan describes.

The 400th Anniversary is a chance to be a part of history right in our backyard. While commemorating, one ought to enjoy the plethora of restaurants, culture, and beloved natural landscape that Massachusetts has to offer. These year-long events are monumental, remembering the past while simultaneously writing today’s story.

For more information on the 400th Anniversary, visit!