Chatham To Mark 400th Anniversary Of 'The Turning Point'

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History

This display at the Chatham Lighthouse Overlook gives visitors an overview of the Mayflower's journey between Nov. 9 and 11, 1620. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Pollock Rip Shoals Turned Mayflower Around, Changing History

CHATHAM – In his “Of Plymouth Plantation,” William Bradford devoted just a few lines to the events of Nov. 9, 1620. That was the day those aboard the Mayflower sighted land—the highlands of Cape Cod, the Nauset-Eastham area—and headed south toward their intended destination of the Hudson Valley, then part of the Virginia colony.

“But after they had sailed that course about half the day, they fell amongst dangerous shoals and roaring breakers, and they were so far entangled therewith as they conceived themselves in great danger; and the wind shrinking upon them withal, they resolve to bear up again for the Cape and thought themselves happy to get out of those dangers before night overtook them, as by God's good providence they did. And the next day, they got into the Cape Harbor where they rid in safety,” Bradford wrote.

That “turning point” in the Pilgrim's journey to the new world, before they found shelter in Provincetown Harbor and later settled across the bay in Plymouth, happened about nine miles south of Monomoy Island at Pollock Rip, where unpredictable shoals bedeviled mariners for centuries. If not for those dangerous waters, the history of the United States might have been very different.

“Had the Mayflower been able to continue to the Hudson River area, there would be no Cape Cod, Plymouth or New England Pilgrim story,” reads a plaque at the Chatham Lighthouse Overlook relating the story. “Nor would there have been a Mayflower Compact, the first self-governing document written in the New World.”

The “turning point” forms the focus of Chatham's commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the historic voyage. Plans to mark the anniversary include an exhibit at the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood Museum, a luncheon at Chatham Bars Inn, and a commemorative medallion being created by Chatham Jewelers.

“It changed history,” said Ronald Nickerson, co-chair of the group of local Mayflower descendants coordinating Chatham's commemoration efforts, said of the “Turning Point,” the term they're using to describe the decision by Bradford and others aboard the vessel to avoid the Pollock Rip shoals. Speaking on Nov. 19, the 399th anniversary of the Mayflower's arrival (today's Gregorian calendar differs from the Julian calendar the Pilgrims followed by 10 days, so by current reckoning the “Turning Point” happened Nov. 19-21), Nickerson said, “just the act of turning around made the difference.” If that hadn't happened, “there would be no New England Pilgrim story.”

Publicizing the town's role in “throwing a little underwater topography” in the way of the Mayflower to “spoil the trip south,” as co-chair Bill Horrocks put it, is the group's goal.

“It's not clear to me how widely the story is known,” he said.

The group of about 30 Mayflower descendants first got together a year ago and has been meeting informally since, said Nickerson, who counts Mayflower passengers Stephen Hopkins, John Howland and John Tilley among his ancestors. They developed a logo featuring a graphic of the Mayflower in the process of tacking. To kick off the commemoration, Nickerson's co-chair, Bill Horrocks, will give a talk at the Atwood House Jan. 26 entitled “Landfall at Cape Cod: Reconstructing the voyage of the Mayflower.”

In his talk, Horrocks—a descendant of William Bradford—will go into detail about the situation. He's researched upwind sailing of square-rigged vessels like the Mayflower and collected information on that day's tides from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. After talking with fishermen and other mariners, he learned that “roaring breakers,” as Bradford wrote, only occur on Pollock Rip when there are northeast winds. The NOAA information, together with information from a few other accounts, such as W. Sears Nickerson's “Land Ho! 1620,” seems to indicate that the tide was going against the waves and wind as the Mayflower approached the shoals. While he acknowledges that is a hypothesis of events,” it's a scenario that is at least consistent with the known facts,” he said.

The Atwood Museum will feature an exhibit on the “Turning Point” during the 2020 season, said Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz.

“This will be our main focus,” she said. The exhibit will examine the route the Mayflower took across the Atlantic and the hardships its passengers suffered. There will be an interactive component focusing on genealogy, and work is being done to develop hypothetical dialogues passengers may have had among themselves.

The museum is also working with the Wampanoag community on an aspect of the exhibit that will examine what life was like for the Native Americans at the time.

“It's a nice opportunity to talk about the Wampanoag story,” Jeanloz said. Information about the daily life of Native Americans is “limited,” she said, but by working with Plimoth Plantation and Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoags, “we're learning,” she said.

The CBI luncheon on Nov. 19, the 400th anniversary of “The Turning Point,” will cap the nearly year-long commemoration. Nickerson said a number of dignitaries will be invited, including the governor, to mark the day of that fateful decision.

Both Plymouth and Provincetown, the two locations most associated with the Pilgrims, are planning significant events to mark the 400th anniversary. The Mayflower II is scheduled to visit Provincetown, where the Mayflower Compact was signed on board the original vessel on Nov. 21, 1620, from Sept. 10 to 14. There will be daily reenactments of the signing, a formal gala on Sept. 12, and a sunrise “toast and bon voyage” on Sept. 14.

The General Society of Mayflower Descendants will hold a memorial program, including placing a wreath in the harbor, a procession through town and luncheon on Sept. 13.

Eastham is also planning events to mark the Pilgrim's first encounter with Native Americans at First Encounter Beach.

Plymouth plans to begin its commemoration with an opening ceremony on April 24, which includes a time capsule. State and federal officials as well as representatives from England and the Netherlands, are also planning commemorations of the voyage next year. An indigenous history conference and powwow will take place Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 examining the legacy of colonization in New England. A series of events will be held leading up to Thanksgiving (the 399th anniversary). For more details and an updated schedule, visit

Cape Cod Community College is planning a symposium in May focusing on the impact of the Mayflower on Cape Cod; Horrocks will give an expanded version of his talk at that event. And a statehouse salute to the 400th anniversary is scheduled for Sept. 14.

The Mayflower didn't land in Chatham and it would be a few years before any of the Pilgrims set foot on the Cape's elbow, but had someone—a member of the Monomoyick people, perhaps—been standing at what is today the Chatham Light Overlook on Nov. 9, 1620, they would have seen the Mayflower “sail by” not once, but twice, Nickerson said.

“By turning around, they changed history,” he said.