400 Years of Gratitude

Cape Cod Life  /  November/December 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

In the classic 1970 reggae song, “400 Years,” Peter Tosh of The Wailers decries the painful legacies of oppression, exile, and colonialism when he sings, “400 years of the same philosophy, 400 years and the people still cannot see.” While the song also alludes to passages from the Bible, Tosh is calling out for truth and freedom in general, and for the end of systemic racism on both a global level and in his home of Jamaica, a former British colony that enslaved native and African peoples. In terms of American history, Tosh’s anthem arrived 50 years early, but as our country has been preparing for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival on these shores, two new exhibits in Provincetown and in Plymouth reveal a commitment to helping “people see” a clearer picture of the events that culminated in 1620 and 1621, and to the circumstances that led to the creation of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Photos provided by Plimouth Patuxet Museums and Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museums.

As both museums were preparing for ways to commemorate 400-year anniversaries in 2020, Covid-19 struck and put things on hold, and American history faced something of a reckoning amid the protests and calls for increased consciousness following the killing of George Floyd. On July 6th 2020, Plimoth Patuxet Museums officially dropped its former moniker “Plimoth Plantation,” which had been in place since its founding in 1947. According to a statement on the organization’s website, the new name reflects its support of the Mashpee Wampanoag Nation’s recent legal battle “to retain their tribal land on which Native people have lived for 12,000 years.” By including Patuxet in the name, “the Museum seeks to represent all of the people, Indigenous and European, first-generation or with deep roots, who lived, worked, loved, fought, planted, and traded on this land in the 17th century. In 1620, Mayflower arrived to a land virtually unknown to its now famous passengers, who, in seeking a better life for themselves, thought they were entering an almost vacant wilderness. In fact, they encountered a complex and interconnected network of Indigenous communities. The Wampanoag welcomed these émigrés, formed alliances with them, and showed them how to survive on a land that was new to them—land on which the Wampanoag continue—to this day—to fish, hunt, govern sovereign communities, and raise their families.” As the Plimoth Patuxet further “reflected on its mission,” the museum acknowledged: “We can’t change history, but history can change us,” and that, “The story we tell about an indigenous-colonial hybrid society that emerged here in the 17th century is the story of the United States’ complex beginnings. It is a story of collaboration and conflict, of understanding and miscommunication…of cultural destruction and cultural survival.”

The new Thanksgiving exhibit at Plimoth Patuxet Museums, called We Gather Together, simultaneously seeks to provide a more accurate history of the feasting that took place among the Mayflower Pilgrims and the Pokanoket Wampanoag people and to explain how Thanksgiving developed into first an American tradition and later a national holiday. Tom Begley, manager of institutional giving at Plimoth Patuxet, says, “We wanted to explore what is at the root of the holiday—gratitude—and we go back before 1621 to explain how the Pokanoket community had been decimated by disease, and then half of the Mayflower Pilgrims had also died in their first year. Death would bring the two groups of people together.” In the spring of 1621, the two groups created a kind of alliance, Begley says, but it remains unclear what happened over the course of the summer. “The harvest feast likely happened over three days sometime between September 24st and November 8th. At least 90 Native men joined the Pilgrims.” One of the Pilgrims, Edward Winslow, provided the description of the event in a letter sent to England, in which he recounted that those gathered shared “fowl” and that they “entertained and feasted” together. Some of the Pokanoket men also hunted five deer, which they presented to Governor Bradford. The Plimoth Patuxet website further notes that: “Later, in the 19th century, the event entered American popular imagination as the First Thanksgiving.”

Much of the information in the We Gather Together exhibit focuses on the various ways that Thanksgiving took on mythical status and developed into a holiday celebrated annually. This includes a collage wall with the covers of various magazines over the years and decades since 1863, when Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving official. “It first caught on as a regional holiday in New England, and by the 18th Century, writers began documenting similar feast days in the fall,” says Begley. “Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor at Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine made the push for the fourth Thursday of November. She wrote editorials, letters to other editors, and letters to governors all over the country.” In the center of the exhibition stand three display cases showing the evolution of the foods that people shared at different times in Thanksgiving history, including menus from 1788 and 1957. “The holiday is always changing, but always at its foundation is a sense of gratitude,” says Begley. “The exhibit wraps with traditions of gratitude; giving thanks to whatever deity goes well beyond English or Indigenous cultures. Scientists and psychologists have found that including a spirit of gratitude in one’s life is good for reducing stress and for one’s well-being.”

While it’s likely that the average American child still learns that the Pilgrims first landed on Plymouth Rock, the Mayflower Pilgrims actually began their North American lives in Provincetown, and the new exhibit at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum seeks to both correct long-popular misconceptions about history and to provide a showcase for a Native perspective. “We needed to let Wampanoag voices speak,” says executive director David Weidner, PhD. “And we’re presenting an unbiased truth about what we know is fact.” In an effort to “show patrons truths that they didn’t know,” the narrative of the exhibit actually begins in 1602-1603 and concludes in 1621. During this period of time, European sailing vessels had been trading up and down the coast of North America, but in addition to swapping items for furs and the like, a number of captains had made a practice of kidnapping Native people and transporting them back to Europe to enslave and/or use as novelty entertainment. “This was the story of Tisquantum,” says Weidner. “He was first enslaved by the Spanish, then the English. And That’s how the man we’ve called ‘Squanto’ learned to speak English.”

The concept for the new exhibit at PMPM began taking shape in 2017, in collaboration among Linda Coombs, Paula Peters, and Steven Peters. It’s an evolution of a project that Steven Peters had created back in 2014, and its full name is Our Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History. Linda Coombs is the former program director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center on Martha’s Vineyard and brought over 30 years of educational and museum experience—including at the Boston Children’s Museum and at Plimoth—to the project. Steven Peters is the creative director of SmokeSygnals, a native-owned production company. “My mother, Paula Peters, did most of the research and writing for the exhibit,” says Peters, “and I found a way to put it in a physical form for her. We wanted to tell the story of what really happened and how it continues to impact Wampanoag people today. This is the first time an exhibit has been put up in the voice of the Wampanoag.” In its early years, starting in 2014, Our Story was a traveling exhibition, but as 2020 approached, Peters entered into discussions with PMPM. He recalls, “They had the space where it could fit as a permanent installation—and they had some horribly inaccurate panels in place.” As the installation of Our Story took place, Peters and his team deliberately left an explanation as to why they had changed the historical information. “It’s an important educational tool to show where peoples’ mindsets were 50 years ago, 100 years ago,” he says. “And how these inaccuracies lead to stereotyping and systemic racism. We didn’t just wipe it away and throw it in the dumpster. It needed to be saved.”

In addition to building around some of the existing material, the new Our Story exhibit (now titled: Our Story: The Complicated Relationship of the Indigenous Wampanoag and the Mayflower Pilgrims) features fresh content that is specific to Provincetown and its environs, including accounts of the “first washing,” the “first compact,” and the “first encounter.” “The first washing took place off the coast of Provincetown,” explains Peters. “The Pilgrims came ashore to wash their clothes, and we tell this from the Native perspective. They were used to seeing men, but the Nauset people were seeing European women and children for the first time, which would have been very weird for them.” Among other things, the Nauset people would have concluded that rather than coming to trade or to kidnap people into slavery, the Mayflower passengers appeared to be interested in setting down roots. To drive events such as the first washing home, Our Story is interactive and features video. “The video content dives into specific moments in history,” says Peters. “It humanizes it. Without video, there’s more of a disconnect.”

The collaboration between the PMPM and Steven Peters has been a resounding success thus far. “Obviously, I love it,” he says. “It’s been refreshing working with PMPM because they have at no point tried to curb our views and perspective. Not at all. Our goal is to reach as many people as possible with Our Story so we can move forward in a better way, so people can be more understanding.” PMPM is actually the oldest non-profit organization on Cape Cod, according to David Weidner, and “Our Story is the only permanent exhibit of its kind in the world.” The museum worked with Steven Peters from 2018 through 2020 to bring Our Story to life; installation began just before the country shut down due to the pandemic. And while the exhibit was able to open last year, attendance was sparse because of restrictions. Bad luck hit again this past June, with the Covid outbreak in Provincetown, but the number of visitors has been climbing in recent months. “The entire Our Story experience takes about 50 minutes to complete,” says Weidner. “We’re proud to offer such a world class exhibit at our museum and to provide this historical treatise to Native peoples.”

As both museums commemorate milestones of 400 years, the new exhibits in Plymouth and Provincetown seek to provide more inclusive histories than what many visitors have previously seen and to broaden peoples’ understanding of events that shaped not just the past but continue to impact the present and future of the United States. At the Plimoth Patuxet Museums, We Gather Together will be on exhibit through November 2022 (during the museum’s operating season). The museum will also feature a premiere for a Smithsonian Channel Thanksgiving documentary on November 20th, the day of the annual parade in Plymouth. The Pilgrim Monument and Museum will close for the season from November 15-April 1st, but will light the monument on November 11th to commemorate the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620. Weidner concludes: “This is a beacon of tolerance and acceptance, welcoming all pilgrims—artists, actors, members of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities—any people regardless of race, orientation, or gender.”

Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.