CHATHAM – If not for Chatham's unique coastal geology, our country might have a very different history.
When the Pilgrims sighted land from the deck of the Mayflower on Nov. 9, 1620, it was the Nauset area that they saw, just north of Chatham. Heading south toward their original destination, they ran into Pollock Rip off Monomoy, and, sensing the danger that would drag many ships down over the coming centuries, turned the ship around, ending up two days later in Provincetown Harbor. More than a month later they sailed across Cape Cod Bay and established a settlement in Plymouth.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Plymouth and Provincetown plan grand celebrations in two years to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival. Last Friday, on the 398th anniversary of the day the Pilgrims first saw the shores of the New World, a group of Chatham residents took the first steps in planning the town's commemoration of the quadricentennial anniversary.
“This is the time they probably would have been sailing by,” Ron Nickerson said as about a dozen Mayflower descendants gathered at the Lighthouse Overlook. A brisk, cold wind blew off the water. “It kind of keeps that Mayflower feel,” quipped Nickerson, a 13 generation Mayflower descendant and a 12th generation descendant of Chatham's first European settlers, William and Anne Nickerson.
Nickerson and Bill Horrocks hope that the group that gathered Friday will form the core of an organization to map out a celebration of the Mayflower anniversary two years hence.
“We have to do it on our own, and we have a story to tell,” Nickerson said, referring to the a plaque at the overlook which details Chatham's part in the Mayflower tale. Exactly what form that will take has yet to be decided. “This is just our first effort,” he said of the gathering. There are more Mayflower descendants in town than just those who showed up Friday, and he hopes they will contribute ideas and energy toward finding a way for the town to mark its role in one of the most important events in the nation's history.
“We're off to a positive start,” Nickerson said. “We want to expand and get more people.”
There are millions of Mayflower descendants living in the U.S. David Martin, past president of the Cape Cod Genealogical Society, who has eight Mayflower passengers among his ancestors, didn't know how many Cape residents could trace their lineage to one of the Mayflower's 102 passengers and 30 or so crew members, but estimated the number is easily in the thousands.
“Many people don't know” that they are descended from a Mayflower passenger, added Cherrill Lewis, who spent hours doing genealogical research to confirm the stories she'd heard from her grandparents about the family's connection to the Mayflower. She traced her lineage to passengers Edward Fuller and Resolve White.
Many Mayflower descendants have more than one of the original settlers in their family tree, chiefly because it was such a small group; only 53 passengers survived the first winter in Plymouth.
“Almost everyone has more than one,” said Horrocks, who is descended from William Bradford and John Howland.
Stephen Daniel, chairman of the town's finance committee, is also descended from Howland, one of probably millions of that passenger's descendants who are lucky to be alive today. Howland, who was an indentured servant, fell overboard during a storm. He managed to grab onto a topsail halyard, giving the crew time to haul him in. Howland later went into business with Miles Standish.
Some believe the Mayflower was lost when it arrived off the Cape's eastern shore after a 66-day journey across the Atlantic, said Nickerson. “They weren't lost,” he said. “The crew knew they are at Cape Cod and needed to turn left.” The Pilgrims aboard the ship had a charter to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River. But about three miles southeast of the tip of Monomoy, about nine miles from where they'd originally sighted land, they ran into Pollock Rip shoals, which marks the convergence of Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic. The shoals and currents are dangerous and unpredictable, and forced the Mayflower to turn around and head back north.
“They couldn't see how to get past it, and didn't want to take any chances,” Nickerson said. Over the coming centuries, the shoals would prove a hazard to thousands of ships, many of which ran aground or sank in the treacherous waters off Monomoy.
The Mayflower anchored for the night off Chatham, and two days later, on Nov. 11, arrived in what is today Provincetown Harbor. Realizing they were no longer governed by their original charter, the passengers signed the Mayflower Compact, the first social contract in the New World under which they agreed to be governed by a set of agreed-upon laws. After Myles Standish and others explored the area – and had a “First Encounter” with natives in current-day Eastham – the Mayflower crossed Cape Cod Bay and anchored in Plymouth Harbor on Dec. 16. Plymouth Colony, which originally included Cape Cod, was the first successful English settlement in New England and holds a special place in the folklore of the nation.
Martin said the Cape and Islands Historical Association is planning a symposium in May 2020 on the role of Cape Cod in the development of the Plymouth Colony during the 17th century. For more information, email davidmartindr.aol.com. For information about the Plymouth celebration, visit www.plymouth400inc.org; follow plans for “Provincetown 400” at www.pilgrim-monument.org,
Nickerson said anyone interested in joining the group to plan a celebration in Chatham can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.