Mayflower Descendants Celebrate 'The Turning Point'

By: Tim Wood

Mayflower descendant Bill Horrocks points out to sea where the Mayflower would have passed by Chatham 400 years ago Monday. TIM WOOD PHOTO

On 400th Anniversary Of Arrival

CHATHAM – On a warm, sunny November Monday, more than two dozen descendants of Mayflower passengers gathered at the Lighthouse Overlook to mark the day 400 years ago when their ancestors sailed by just offshore. Twice.

On Nov. 9, 1620, land was sighted from the deck of the Mayflower for the first time since the ship left Plymouth, England, 10 weeks earlier. The Pilgrims arrived off the east coast of Cape Cod and were looking at the Nauset Heights, probably in modern day Eastham or Wellfleet. With a charter to settle along the Hudson River, the Pilgrims turned the Mayflower south, passing just off shore of Chatham for the first time.

In “Of Plymouth Plantation,” William Bradford, later governor of the colony, wrote that after a half day's sail along the coast, the Mayflower “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 resolved to bear up against the Cape and thought themselves happy to get out of those dangers before night overtook them, as by God's providence they did.”

In other words, the ship turned back north – an event now known as “the Turning Point” – rather than risk the “dangers” of unknown waters. And for a second time that day, the Mayflower sailed past modern day Chatham. The next day, “they got into the Cape Harbor where they rid in safety,” Bradford wrote of the Mayflower's arrival in today's Provincetown Harbor on Nov. 11.

The “dangerous shoals and roaring breakers” of Pollock Rip, about seven miles south, three or four miles east of Monomoy, proved to be the “turning point” that cemented the fate of the Mayflower passengers. After spending several weeks exploring the Cape and across the bay, the 102 passengers and crew landed the Mayflower in Plymouth on Dec. 20 and established their colony.

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

Bradford was the only one of the passengers who wrote about that day, and he left precious little, said Bill Horrocks a descendant of Bradford. The passengers were likely anxious to end the voyage. “They'd had this incredibly terrible voyage, they were all crammed into this absolutely stinking ship,” he said Monday afternoon. “Everybody wanted to get off.” Should they look for a place to land, or head toward their goal? “Well, they decided that they would continue to where they wanted to go.”

The Pilgrim headed into Pollock Rip at an inauspicious time. Particularly when there is a northeast wind, the shoals kick up large and unpredictable breakers. Horrocks used National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tools that show tides, currents and other factors in the past to check conditions that day. The Mayflower arrived at Pollock Rip on a northeast wind, when the current was flowing from the south, and at low tide, when conditions would have been at their most dangerous.

“On top of finding themselves in the breakers, the nice northeast wind quit and a southerly came in,” he said. “They scrambled out of there and ended up going back up around the top of the Cape.”

Ron Nickerson, who put together a group of Mayflower descendants to coordinate local events around the anniversary, said because the wind direction changed just as the vessel ran into rough waters, allowing the ship to sail north to safety, the “Pilgrims, as you know, were very religious, and they said divine providence has saved us.”

A Native American standing on the bluff above Lighthouse Beach on Nov. 9, 1620, would have seen the Mayflower sail past going south, and a short time later seen it sail back north. “They English have no idea where they're going, they're lost, they have no idea how to get there,” might have been the reaction, said Nickerson, who is descended from Stephen Hopkins and Elizabeth Tilley.

Today there are millions of descendants of the Mayflower passengers, the nearly 30 who stood on the bluff Monday marking the anniversary of “The Turning Point” just a tiny fraction of that population.

Most Mayflower anniversary events have been postponed or will be held virtually due to the pandemic. Nickerson said the local group will continue to meet and plan events for next year, which will coincide with the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, an exhibit on the 400th anniversary is open at the Pilgrim Monument Museum in Provincetown through the end of the month. And next Wednesday, Nov. 11, WOMR in Provincetown will broadcast music from the Festival of the Arts in Harwich, England, where the Mayflower was built. The event, called “The Mayflower Connection,” is part of the 400th anniversary celebration. The program will be broadcast at 1 p.m.