Thanksgiving. It is a holiday most Americans revere, yet some Europeans find strange. To gather for no reason other than to feast and “give thanks” to all they have, whether spiritual or material. But hey, it’s not all about that. Thanksgiving is about homecoming, about enjoying human contact, great food, and all the traditions that comes from the companionship of friends, family, and our fellow man. While there have been many Thanksgiving feasts, the one heralded as the traditional “First Thanksgiving” took place with the pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. And to this day, there are many historic sites one may visit to pay tribute to this American holiday.
To commemorate the wartime cooperation between England and the United States in World War II, it was decided, in 1954, that a full-sized replica of the original Mayflower would be built and sail from England to the United States along the same path the original pilgrims took some 330 years before. “Project Mayflower” was formed with the cooperation of the Plimoth Plantation museum and a vessel was built to match the original Mayflower as accurately as possible. The wood is English oak, the sails hand-sewn, and the nails hand-forged. In 1956, the ship was christened in the style used during the 17th century. A few months later, it would set sail across the Atlantic. Today, the ship can be found at State Pier in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is still seaworthy to this day.
From its appearance, it would seem to be just any old barn, but in fact this is a building of controversy. Whether true or not, this has so far proven to be the best bet as to where the original Mayflower came to be. “Where is it?’, you may ask, ‘Inside the barn?” No. Actually… it is the barn. The site itself dates back to the Middle Ages. In 1618 it was purchased by a Thomas Russell, and six years later, in 1624, Russell would build a new barn with the timbers from a ship he purchased at the shipbreaker yards in Rotherhithe. The name of that ship? “Mayflower”. In the 1920’s it would be concluded this was indeed the original Mayflower that brought the Pilgrims to the new world. This conclusion, however, has been hotly debated to this very day as there were dozens of ships with the name “Mayflower” in the 17th century. The barn is located in England on the edge of the Chiltern Hills in South Buckinghamshire.
400 years ago, it was just a rock… And then a pilgrim stepped onto it from his boat. Plymouth Rock, one of the most revered relics of early American history (early, of course, being a relative term). While there is no documentation from 1620 that references the rock, its location was instead passed down from generation to generation. Some claim that this is unreliable, and the rock is therefore most likely apocryphal. Our response? So, what! Whether or not the pilgrims actually stepped onto this rock when they left their boat has largely grown to be irrelevant. What is important now is what the rock symbolizes, a piece of the origin of the United States. One could argue that the rock still then has no “historical” significance. But consider this, the belief that the rock stood at the landing site of the pilgrims is even older than the United States itself. Today, the rock has a history all its own. In 1774, the rock was split in two with the bottom-half being left at the sea and the upper-half being taken to the town’s meeting house. In 1880 the two halves were recombined in a knew housing close to the sea. In 1920, the rock was again relocated to where it rests today, within a waterfront promenade in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
This is, quite simply, the oldest continuously operating public museum in the United States, having opened its doors in 1824. The museum is run by the Pilgrim Society and tells the story of the Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts as well as the Pilgrims themselves. The top half of Plymouth Rock spent a portion of its time here during the period when it had been divided in two. The museum was upgraded in the 1880’s and once again given a renovation in 2008. The museum is home to various artifacts from the Pilgrim era including the only known remains of a 17th century trans-Atlantic ship.
This living museum features an outdoor, full-size reconstruction of the Pilgrims’ original settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The museum has meticulously researched the era in an effort to portray the settlement as accurately as possible. From the homes, to the streets, to the everyday items, every detail is a faithful recreation. The settlement follows a timeline from March through November when it is open to the public. The museum was founded in 1947 and the village built in the 50’s. The actual, original settlement is believed to have been located 2.5 miles to the northwest along Burial Hill and today’s Leyden street. The Plimoth Plantation is also responsible for the upkeep of the Mayflower II docked nearby.
Since most of the sites on this list are located here, it’s only fair that the town itself be mentioned. Plymouth, Massachusetts is obviously one of the oldest municipalities in the United States, and it is here that the first Thanksgiving feast took place. The name “Plymouth” came from the British city of the same name, which in turn was named after the mouth of the River Plym, where the city is located. Today, Plymouth’s major industry is tourism.
Thanksgiving is often seen as a holiday of homecoming, yet there is no reason why one can’t take it as an opportunity for a family vacation to learn more about why we give thanks every November.
photo credit: Flickr/ Bob Palin