Century-old tower marks Mayflower’s first landing

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 5, 2010

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. (AP) — Quick, name the landmark in Massachusetts that marks the spot where the Pilgrims first landed in the New World.

Plymouth Rock? Try again.

Soaring more than 250 feet above picturesque Provincetown Harbor at the very tip of Cape Cod is the nation’s tallest all-granite structure, a 100-year-old monument at the place where the Mayflower initially dropped anchor after its perilous journey from England. Impressive as the tower may be, its story surprises many visitors who since childhood have learned only the iconic tale of Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and the first Thanksgiving, and little if anything about what happened first.

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‘‘They’re shocked,’’ said Laurel Guadazno, education and program manager for the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.

Often tourists ask: ‘‘Really? How come we weren’t told that?’’ Guadazno said.

Perhaps it is because the Mayflower Pilgrims spent only about five eventful but difficult weeks in their first landing spot before a search party scouted out Plymouth Harbor, about 30 miles southwest across Cape Cod Bay, and determined it to be a more suitable location for a permanent settlement.

On Thursday, the monument will celebrate the centennial anniversary of its dedication on Aug. 5, 1910. A parade, concert and fireworks are planned.

Carrying English separatists and other settlers, the Mayflower’s original destination wasn’t Massachusetts at all but the Hudson River in what was then part of Virginia colony. The ship was blown off course, and the Pilgrims arrived at what is now Provincetown on Nov. 21, 1620.

It was there aboard the vessel that the Mayflower Compact, often viewed as the first governing document of the New World, was signed. Yet Provincetown — today an artists’ community and popular summer beach destination — was also a scene of considerable hardship and misfortune.

Desperate for food and fresh water after the long sea journey, Pilgrims exploring the area discovered and raided Indian corn stores.

On a nearby beach in modern day Eastham the Pilgrims had their first encounter with the native population and an unpleasant one at that, a fierce exchange of musket and arrow fire that remarkably caused no casualties on either side.

But four settlers did die during the short stay in Provincetown, including the wife of future Plymouth Colony governor William Bradford, who drowned after falling overboard the Mayflower. There also was one birth.

Nathaniel Philbrick, author of ‘‘Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War,’’ said the Provincetown landing was a ‘‘disturbing preamble’’ to the more popular and pleasant legend surrounding the Pilgrims.

‘‘They were just blundering around, stealing corn and angering the people they are going to need to have on their side if they are going to have any hope of survival,’’ Philbrick said.

All of this, he believes, may contribute to the reason that the first chapter of the Pilgrims landing has been overlooked. It just doesn’t fit neatly into the myth.

‘‘The Mayflower myth is that they hit Plymouth Rock, they are met by the Indians, they form a treaty and a year later they celebrate the first Thanksgiving,’’ Philbrick said.

The Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association, founded in 1892, commissioned the Provincetown monument in an effort to set the historical record straight. Modeled by its architect after the Torre del Mangia in Siena, Italy, the tower was constructed for the modest sum of $92,000, with $40,000 paid by the federal government and the rest raised through private donations.

The effort certainly got attention at the time. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the monument in 1907 and President William Taft was on hand for the dedication ceremony in 1910.

Yet a century later, many tourists who visit and make the arduous climb to the top of the monument still arrive with no clue that the Pilgrims landed anywhere other than Plymouth Rock. Tourists Tom and Kathy Wolff, of Okemos, Mich., recounted a visit 30 years ago to Plymouth, where they were told nothing about Provincetown.

Plymouth gets all the attention, ‘‘because (the Pilgrims) actually settled there,’’ Kathy Wolff said.

‘‘And the rock, I guess it’s been there longer,’’ her husband added.

James Bakker, executive director of the monument, concedes that Plymouth probably has done a better job of selling its story, but the tower is more impressive.

‘‘The myth of the rock, pales in comparison to the wonderful monument we have here,’’ he said.