When Did the Pilgrim Fathers Land at Plymouth?
IN his latest historical work, in which there is, perhaps, more learning to the page than is often crowded into a single volume, Dr. Freeman says that “in the case of the smaller dates, those which do not mark the great epochs of history, nothing is easier than to get wrong by a year or so.” As he thought it worth while to show how these errors sometimes occur, and to declare that he could give a reason for his own choice in disputed cases ; and as he adds he shall be “ deeply thankful ” to any one who will point out “ any mistakes, or seeming mistakes,” that he may have made; the implication is that smaller dates being, in Dr. Freeman’s opinion, worthy of so much consideration, those which mark great epochs of history cannot be regarded as unimportant.
If this may be accepted as true on the authority of this distinguished historiographer,. or if it may be accepted as a self-evident truth, then this paper needs no further apology. For its subject is the accuracy of the date of an interesting and important event, which is usually considered one of the “ great epochs ” in American history.
Yet, doubtless, there are persons who do not consider it of the least moment to anybody whether the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth on the 21st or the 22d of December, 1620, or whether they did not land there on either of those days. But if that be true, and the question is of no real importance ; if we may continue to consider either one or the other date of an alleged incident as correct, because, heretofore, sometimes one, and sometimes the other, has been so considered; then the step from unconscious historical inaccuracy to conscious historical falsehood is not a long one. On the other hand, putting aside any question of historical conscientiousness, if it has been worth while, for more than a century, to commemorate the event on each recurring year, is it not worth while to know, if that custom is to be continued, whether the date of the event is fixed on a right or a wrong day?
The question, however, has been thought already of importance enough to be carefully discussed. It is not seriously disputed now that the wellknown New England Society of New York is out of its reckoning by a day on its annual gathering. It eats its anniversary dinner on the 22d of December, to solemnize the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers on what an irreverent Irishman, at one of those dinners, called " the Blarney Stone ” of New England. But dinners are perishable things, as we all know to our sorrow, nor do they make history. And now that a similar body of faithful and pious pilgrims on the other bank of the East River, in Brooklyn, assemble on the 21st of December, with their shoes also full of boiled peas, to testify their veneration of the austere virtues of the Fathers, it will lead to no serious confusion if the New York brethren shall adhere to an anniversary which is a day behindhand. No great harm, indeed, would be done, if the day may be adjusted to the dinner rather than the dinner to the day, should the older society insist that, for the sake of the unities and the sentimentalities, “ Forefathers’ Day” must fall hereafter on the 19th of April or the 17th of June. But when they set up in Central Park the monument they are talking about, it would then be as well that the faithful and enduring stone should not be besmirched with blunders.
This error of a single day the later historians have corrected with more or less emphasis. Are there more blunders behind ? If it shall appear that there is a mistake as to the alleged event, as well as a mistake as to the alleged date on which the alleged event (which may never have happened) is alleged to have happened, — are not these also worth looking into ?
It was, probably, the late Judge John Davis, of Boston, then president of that venerable and, if history is worth anything, useful body, the Massachusetts Historical Society, who first observed this erroneous date in the reputed landing at Plymouth of the founders of New England. More than a hundred years ago, in 1769, the Old Colony Club of Plymouth was formed, and its members resolved to do reverence to their ancestors by an annual dinner. The day fixed upon was the 22d of December. The first course of the first dinner was “ a large baked Indian whortleberry pudding.” They wished, says the historian of Plymouth, that “ all appearance of luxury and extravagance be avoided, in imitation of our ancestors, whose memory we shall ever respect.” Here is the precedent which the New York gentlemen who trace their lineage so unerringly to the passengers of the Mayflower insist upon following, — the precedent, that is, as to the day of the month ; whether they are equally tenacious of the whortleberry pudding, typically or literally, does not appear in the reports.
Judge Davis’s suggestion was that the mistake was made by adding eleven days instead of ten to December 11th, Old Style, to make it conform to New Style. But as the Gregorian calendar had been only a few years before adopted by England, it seems incredible that the principal citizens of one of the chief towns of the best educated colony in America could have made such a blunder. Such men could hardly have failed to understand why the Gregorian calendar was adopted, and that to change Old Style into New ten days only should be added to the day of the month in the seventeenth century.
How, then, could the mistake have occurred ? It may have been a perfectly natural one. The antiquary of the Old Colony Club may have turned to a copy of Mourt’s Relation, if one could be found in Plymouth, — which was not in the least unlikely a hundred years ago, rare as original copies of the book now are, — to verify the date of the day it was proposed to commemorate. The careful man would seek for an original authority, and there was then no other available than the Relation. Mr. Charles Deane was not yet born, and Bradford’s History, which he, a few years since, gave to the world, was still hidden away somewhere in manuscript, —perhaps in the library then kept in the tower of the Old South Church in Boston. The Relation is a journal of the voyage of the Mayflower and of the planting of the colony, kept day by day, probably by William Bradford and Edward Winslow. It was printed in London in 1622, and it was not the fault of the writers if the blunders of the printer led a Plymouth gentleman, a hundred and fifty years afterward, into mistaking one date for another.
This journal records that on Wednesday, the 6th of December (Old Style), Bradford and Winslow, with others, left the Mayflower in Provincetown harbor, and went in the ship’s shallop to search, as had already been done several times before, for a fitting place for disembarkation and settlement. Two days later,—Friday, the 8th, — they were driven by a storm upon Clark’s Island, in Plymouth harbor, where none of them had ever been before. Now let us look at the exact words of the journal, with the punctuation of the original edition, and see what the Plymouth researcher of 1769 would very likely make of it. The record is, “ and here wee made our Randevous all that day, being Saturday, 10. of December, on the Sabbath day wee rested, and on Monday we sounded the Harbour, & found it a very good Harbour for our shipping, we marched also into the Land, & found divers corne fields, & little running brookes, a place very good for scituation,” etc.
A careless reader would be easily misled by this sentence. At a glance, it is evident that he must correct the punctuation, and the construction seems to imply that there should be a semicolon after December, — “ all that day, being Saturday, 10. of December,” — instead of a comma. If, then, Saturday was the 10th of the month, Monday, when they “marched into the land,” was the 12th. The addition of the ten days requisite to change Old Style to New would give the 22d as Forefathers’ Day ; which is wrong.
But it is not the journal which is responsible. The printer blundered in punctuation, and the reader does no better who puts a semicolon after December. For at the beginning of the narrative of this expedition in the shallop the journal says, “ Wednesday the sixt of December wee set out ; ” and in the next paragraph to that, which the careless reader may read “ Saturday, 10. of December,” the journal records Friday of the next week as “ the fifteenth,” and the next day as “ being Saturday the 16.” Reading the passage, then, as undoubtedly it was written, and supplying the proper punctuation, this is what we learn: “and here wee made our Bandevous all that day, being Saturday ; 10. of December on the Sabbath day wee rested; and on Monday we sounded the Harbour.” Monday, therefore, was the 11th, as the context of the dates of the diary shows, — as a calculation will show to any one who may think it worth while to make it; and Monday in New Style would be the 21st.
Whether the Plymouth Club, a hundred and twelve years ago, made a mistake in the way here suggested, it is certainly a curious fact that if they had gone to the only original authority then probably accessible for the date they sought, they might very easily have been led into the very error they committed. At any rate, that the mistake was made few now dispute, directly or indirectly. Yet only about twenty years ago Dr. Palfrey said, “ The twentysecond day of December has taken a firm hold on the local thought and literature, which the twenty-first will scarcely displace.” It appears already that on this point he was mistaken. The correction has become gradually accepted among intelligent people.
Now, the day being fixed, will it be thought an impertinent question whether there is any doubt as to what really happened on that day ? Mr. Bancroft’s assertion is very categorical. He says that “on Monday, the eleventh day of December, Old Style, the exploring party of the forefathers land at Plymouth. A grateful posterity has marked the rock which first received their footsteps.” Dr. Palfrey says, " A trustworthy tradition has preserved the knowledge of the landingplace.... It was PLYMOUTH ROCK.” But, more cautious than Mr. Bancroft, he adds presently, “The tradition does not appear to have unequivocally determined who it was that landed on the rock, whether the exploring party of ten men who went on shore at Plymouth December 11th (Old Style), or the whole company who came into Plymouth harbor in the Mayflower on Saturday, December 16th, and who, or a part of whom, ‘ went a land ’ two days after.”
Here is confusion enough to arrest attention. Is tradition the only evidence of the landing upon the Rock? In that case, does tradition refer to the landing of the exploring party only on the llth; or to the landing of all, or part, of the Mayflower’s passengers on the 16th ; or to both ? Is there any evidence to show that the tradition cannot refer to the exploring party ? And is there any evidence to show that the other passengers did not land on the Rock on the 16th, but some days later ? Then, if the tradition does not refer to the ten explorers ; and as the Mayflower was safely at anchor, with all the other passengers on board, twenty miles or so away, in Provincetown harbor, on the llth; is it probable that anybody landed on the Rock on that day ?
But the popular belief, no doubt, is that on that day the whole company was disembarked. Before me is an elaborately illustrated certificate of membership of “ The Pilgrim Society, instituted at Plymouth, Mass., A. D. 1820, in grateful remembrance of the First Settlers of New England, who landed at that place December 21, 1620,” The grateful remembrance must be of the whole company, not of ten men in a shallop. This certificate is duly attested by president and secretary, and was issued, years ago, to all who would pay in return a certain sum of money, to be used in the erection of a monument at Plymouth. Whether there is any such monument I do not know; but the document, coming from an eminently respectable society in Plymouth, is good evidence of the belief there of what the memorable event was that took place on the 21st of December, 1620. Probably there is hardly a Northern State where, on the anniversary of that day, the landing of the Pilgrims — meaning the whole of them — is not, in some way, commemorated by those who came, or whose ancestors came, from Massachusetts.
It ought to be possible to clear away all this confusion. The simple fact is that two events have been confounded: the presence of ten of the Mayflower’s passengers, with some of the ship’s company, in Plymouth harbor for a few hours on the 11th (21st) of December; and the landing of all the colonists at Plymouth a fortnight later.
Mr. Bancroft asserts positively that the exploring party landed on Plymouth Rock on the llth. But there is no historical authority for this assertion. Turning again to the contemporary narrative in Mourt’s Relation, we learn only that “ we sounded the Harbour, & found it a very good Harbour for our shipping, we marched also into the Land, & found divers corne fields, & little running brookes, a place very good for scituation, so we returned to our Ship againe with good newes to the rest of our people, which did much comfort their hearts.” In his History of Plymouth Plantation, — first published only five and twenty years ago, — Bradford, who was one of the exploring party, says, in almost the same words, but with a significant addition, “ On Munday they sounded ye harbor, and founde it fitt for shipping; and marched into ye land & found diverse corn-fields, & litle runing brooks, a place (as they supposed) fitt for situation ; at least it was ye best they could find, and ye season, & their presente necessitie, made them glad to accepte of it. So they returned to their shipp againe with this news to ye rest of their people, which did much comforte their harts,”
Of what these men did that day this is all the direct evidence. And one can hardly read it, with a Plymouth map before him, without regarding it as very circumstantial evidence also. He will hardly escape the conclusion that the harbor they sounded was the harbor all about them surrounding Clark’s Island ; that the land they “ marched into ” was the nearest main-land right opposite, straight across the harbor, — now Duxbury and Kingston, — where corn-fields would be sure to be found, and where along the shore half a dozen little brooks are still loitering on their way to the sea. Then how plain it is, from Bradford’s narrative, that they were in a great hurry, and therefore, it may be presumed, sounded the nearest waters, and examined the nearest shores, that they might return that day, as apparently they did, to the impatient company on board the ship. What possible reason is there for supposing that men so pressed for time, whose sole object there was to find if there was water enough about them to float a ship, and a neighboring country which seemed fit for a colony, — what possible reason could they have for sailing three miles or more along a coast utterly unknown to them, and presenting everywhere the same features, before they went ashore? That would have been to go, going and coming, six miles, at least, out of their way to learn what could be learned as well within a mile or two ; to delay just so much, for no reasonable purpose whatever, their return to the ship, where ninety-two men, women, and children were as anxious that winter quarters should be found for them as the captain of the Mayflower was anxious to be rid of them, that he might escape the winter storms and get back to England. Taking the statements of the actors themselves; considering them in the light of the probabilities of the case, and putting aside for the moment a misunderstood tradition ; the probability amounts almost to a certainty that the exploring party did not go within miles of Plymouth Rock.
To come, then, to the tradition. Traditions are, in the first place, uncertain things. They are often founded in error; and often they become by accretion something very different from the original story. So far from being exempt from the difficulties of ordinary evidence, as they are usually supposed to be, they are the more subject to them, for, from the nature of the case, there is no possibility of sifting out the truth by cross-examination. But the tradition in regard to the landing at Plymouth — or rather the traditions, for there are three of them, each bearing upon the other — is, as Dr. Palfrey says, “ trustworthy.” But it is trustworthy partly because it is verified by evidence, and is limited by it.
That to which Dr. Palfrey refers is the assertion of Elder Faunce, of Plymouth, an aged man, who, when the Rock was about to be covered by a wharf in 1741, declared that he knew, from his father and others of the first settlers, that it was on that spot they landed. Mrs. White, a venerable lady, who died in 1810, at the age of ninetyfive, and Deacon Spooner, who died in 1818, at the age of eiglity-three, had heard the Elder make this statement; and this oral testimony was recorded by the late Judge Davis and by the late Dr. Thacher, the historian of Plymouth. It is seldom that a tradition can be traced so directly from mouth to mouth of known and responsible persons for two hundred years.
But for all that the tradition is not quite clear, because it may be made, and has been made, to apply to two distinct events. Elder Faunce did not, as Dr. Palfrey has pointed out, say to which of two possible disembarkations the tradition refers. Was it to that of ten men, who may have been at Plymouth for a little while on the 21st of December ? Or was it to that of the whole body of one hundred and two men, women, and children on board the Mayflower, who, at a subsequent date, landed upon Plymouth Rock, and landed to stay ?
It is more than probable that no such question ever entered the mind of Elder Faunce. The venerable narrators from whom he heard the story could certainly have been in no doubt as to what they were talking about. Faunce was born in 1646 : if he were ten or fifteen years old before he became enough impressed with the story to remember it, only thirty-five to forty years had passed even then since the event. No confusion could have arisen in that short period as to what was meant by the landing upon Plymouth Rock. Those who talked of it as an event within their memory knew who landed there, and when they landed; and, naturally, it would not occur to them, nor to the children who listened to them, that they could be understood as meaning the landing of somebody else at some other time.
There certainly was a day when all the passengers of the Mayflower left the ship, and landed upon Plymouth Rock. It was the last step by which they left the Old World behind them forever; it was the first step of the whole company into the New World, from which there could be no retreat, the important consequences of which were visible enough now after thirty or forty years. Surely this was the event so vividly remembered, — the event which they would wish to impress upon the minds of their children, to be handed down to the latest posterity. There was no overweening self-consciousness in this feeling that attached importance to what they all did together, rather than to what a few of them did alone. It was to the dual disembarkation of the whole company at the foot of that hill where, before three months were over, half of them were resting quietly in their graves that memory clung with so tender and melancholy an interest; not the casual visit to that spot — even if that occurred — of a few of their number some days before. And it is the universal sympathy with this feeling that has fixed the popular belief that on the 21st of December the Mayflower rode at anchor in Plymouth harbor, and her one hundred and two passengers landed on that day upon Plymouth Rock.
But this popular belief, we know, is a popular error. The Faunce tradition, no doubt, refers to that event, but it does not refer the event to that date. Putting aside the probabilities as to what particular landing it was that the first settlers loved to remember and talk about, the Faunce tradition may be tested by two other traditions, and by such facts as can be gathered from the contemporary journal.
It has been handed down through the descendants of two sisters, Mary and Susanna Chilton, that the first person to spring from the boat to the rock was Mary. Another tradition, cherished by the descendants of John Alden, claim that honor for their ancestor. It may be that both are, in a sense, trustworthy ; that Mary Chilton was the first woman, and John Alden the first man, to make the leap. At any rate, the three traditions evidently point to the same event; for there could not have been two separate and distinct landings which the Pilgrims thought should be remembered as an era in their history. But these family traditions, it is plain, do not point to anything that could have happened on the 21st of December; for Mary Chilton and John Alden — “ that hopfull yong man,” as Bradford calls him, without intending an allusion to his legs — were, on that day, with the other passengers on board the Mayflower in Provincetown harbor, quietly awaiting the return of the exploring party from their voyage of discovery in the shallop. As the Faunce tradition, then, gives no particular date, and as the Chilton and Alden traditions cannot possibly refer to the 21st, the logical conclusion must be that, as all three clearly commemorate the same event, that event must have occurred at some time subsequent to the 21st. When was it ? If we can fix that, we shall get at the true Forefathers’ Day as the forefathers themselves remembered it. As tradition is exhausted, something may be learned from history.
The exploring party returned to the ship at Provincetown on Monday, the 21st, or Tuesday, the 22d, and made their report. On Friday the Mayflower sailed for the newly discovered bay, and the next day, Saturday, the 26th, arrived in Plymouth harbor. On Monday a boat-load “went a land;” that is, a new exploring party went ashore, and “ marched along the coast in the woods, some 7 or 8 mile,” to search now for a fitting place on which to plant the colony. They found none to suit them, and therefore, “ the next morning,” continues the Relation, “ being Tuesday the 19. [29th N. S.] of December wee went againe to discover further. Some went on Land, & some in the Shallop.” Both the harbor and its shores were again examined. Some of them had “ a goode minde, for safety to plant on the greater lie,” — Clark’s Island ; others “ went vp three English myles a very pleasant river,” — Jones’s River in Kingston, as it was named afterward ; and this, also, says the journal, “ we had a great liking to plant in, but that it was so farre from our fishing, our principall profit; ” that is, it was about six miles from the open sea of Cape Cod Bay.
They had now been four or five days in the harbor, including Sunday ; three of them had been spent by some of the company in diligent observation along its shores, for half a dozen miles or more ; while most of the passengers still remained on board the Mayflower, waiting in irksome and anxious impatience to know when and where they were at last to land. When the explorers returned to the ship on Tuesday evening, the 29th, it was resolved “the next morning to settle [agree] on some of those places ” which they had examined. Accordingly, the next morning, the 30th, “ after we had,” continues the journal, “ called on God for direction, we came to this resolution, to goe presently ashore againe, & to lake a better view of two places, which wee thought most fitting for vs, for we could not now take time for further search or consideration, our victuals being much spent, especially our Beere.” This “ better view ” was taken ; the site of Plymouth was one of the two designated places, and, “ by most voices,” that was preferred.
From that day, the 30th, this spot was permanently occupied. “ So there we made our Randevous,” says the Relation, “ & a place for some of our people about twentie, resolving in the morning to come all ashore & to build houses.” Is it not to do violence to common sense, and to all the rules of evidence, to assume that this very place had been visited and selected as the best for the new home by an exploring party more than a week before ? Days had been spent in roaming along the coast for miles ; different places had been examined and compared ; only two days before some had “ a goode minde ” that the settlement should he made upon Clark’s Island, while others “ had a great liking to plant ” on the pleasant bank of Jones’s River ; and at the last, there was still a question between Plymouth and another place, nine days after the alleged visit and the alleged selection of Plymouth by ten of the company.
But not even yet have we come to the probable day which was to be marked as forever memorable by the Faunce tradition, — marked more distinctly by the last gleam of vivid color that shines out of that sad and sombre winter in the merry and good-natured rivalry between Mary Chilton and John Alden. Poor little Puritan maiden ! to be all alone presently, with tears, and not laughter, for her share ; for her sister Susanna had been left behind in England, and the father and mother were among the first to be laid away at the foot of the hill into whose shadow Mary sprang as she leaped upon the Rock.
Up to the 29th it had been all uncertainty ; and in the records there is nowhere the least allusion to any place having been selected, or to any particular spot having been visited, by that party in the shallop. History and tradition seem to be in entire accord. Some other date, then, than the 21st must be looked for as the date of the landing.
That memorable day was not this Wednesday, the 30th, when possession was taken of Plymouth, and twenty of the people remained there. “ The next morning,”says the careful journalist, " being Thursday the 21. [31st N. S.] of December, it was stormie & wett, that wee could not goe ashore.” But this is a qualification only of the preceding statement in the same sentence of the resolution of the night before, — “resolving in the morning to come all ashore & to build houses.” That “ wee could not goe ashore ” does not mean that nobody did so, but that the purpose of a general landing was frustrated by the bad weather; for before noon of this day, as we are told before the paragraph is finished, “ the Shallop went off with much adoe with provision ” from the ship. On Friday even this was impossible; but on Saturday the storm abated, and then “so many of vs as could went on shore, felled and carried tymber to provide themselues stuffe for building.”
So many as could, but not the whole. This careful and reiterated distinction between the whole and a part can hardly have been without a purpose ; but whether it was or not, we get at the exact fact, — the appointment of a time for the disembarkation of the whole company, and its delay from day to day by the storm. The event which tradition perpetuates, the journalist, whether he meant to or not, carefully distinguishes — the landing of all the Pilgrim Fathers, not a part of them, upon Plymouth Rock.
Turn once more to Mourt’s Relation : “ Monday the 25. day, we went on shore, some to fell tymber, some to saw, some to riue [rive], & some to carry ; so no man rested all that day.” Here “ we ” means the whole company ; all on that day landed upon the Rock ; all, for the first time, took part in the building of the new home ; “ no man rested all that day.” Turn then to Bradford’s History. He relates succinctly the sailing from Provincetown harbor, and the arrival in Plymouth bay. “ And afterwards,” he continues, they “ tooke better view of ye place, and resolved wher to pitch their dwelling : and ye 25 day, begane to erecte ye first house for comone use to receive them and their goods.” It was “ they,” the whole body of the colonists, who “resolved wher to pitch their dwellings,” after coming from Provincetown harbor; not a pioneer party who visited the bay before. And surely Bradford knew, for he was one of that party in the shallop. Indeed, it is probably Bradford who wrote the Relation as well as the History.
This, then, was the day which, thirty or forty years afterward, the boy Faunce heard the old men talk about as the day they landed from the Mayflower upon Plymouth Rock; it was the distinction of being the first to leap ashore on this day, when for the first time the women seem to have left the ship at Plymouth, that is given by tradition to Mary Chilton and John Alden, — the 25th of December, 1620, which in New Style falls upon the 4th of January, 1621.
Who, then, landed on Plymouth Ilock on the 21st of December, 1620? Nobody.
S. H. Gay.