Mayflower 400 year ends with Thanksgiving legacy

The old harbor of Plymouth, England, where the Pilgrims departed aboard the Mayflower in 1620. | Dennis Lennox

Last year’s 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing to the New World was devastated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the originally planned festivities were canceled or greatly scaled back. Then there were the American tourists who never came to Plymouth, England, where the ship departed on Sept. 16, 1620, with 102 passengers.

“Heading into 2020, Mayflower 400 looked very promising overall for all the destinations in the Mayflower 400 commemoration with both domestic and international visitors booking to visit the U.K.,” Mayflower 400 UK spokesman Mark Howell said. “We originally anticipated an extra 500,000 visitors in 2020 on top of the 5.2 million we get annually.”

Ignoring what was lost, October is actually the quadricentennial of the 1621 Thanksgiving held by the Pilgrims, most of whom dissented from the Anglican state church at a time of political and religious tumult.

According to a contemporary account by Edward Winslow, a three-time governor of Plymouth Colony, they were joined by local Indians in celebrating the harvest with three days of feasting and rejoicing in “the goodness of God.”

The harvest would have been quite the celebration, as it was one of the rare successes in the first year. Not only had the Mayflower landed hundreds of miles from their intended destination of Virginia, but nearly half of the colonists died from malnutrition or disease during what William Bradford, the most famous and important of Pilgrims, called their “hard and difficult beginnings.”

Popular belief notwithstanding, the Thanksgiving in Massachusetts wasn’t America’s first. Nevertheless, the Pilgrims’ feast is seen, fairly or not, as the precursor to the modern Thanksgiving holiday.

Of course, the enduring legacy of the Pilgrims isn’t the kitsch and commercialism of the holiday every November. Rather, it is the exceptionalism of God-given American liberty, which was written into their covenant of self-government known as the Mayflower Compact. These foundational principles were reaffirmed more than a century later by the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia.

If you go

Those going to England now that U.K. borders are reopen to tourists should visit the “Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy” exhibit at The Box, the newish museum and cultural center in Plymouth. The exhibit, which uses 300 artifacts and other objects to tell the epic journey’s story, runs through the end of December.

Perhaps the best resource for planning a trip on all things Pilgrims and the Mayflower is the Mayflower 400 UK website. Consider the road trip I did back in 2018, which took me to 11 destinations across England’s Mayflower 400 trail. (Read “On the Pilgrim trail across England, 400 years after the Mayflower”: Part 1part 2part 3 and part 4.)

On these shores is the Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The open-air museum and recreation of the original 17th century settlement is a must visit. Visitor hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Follow @dennislennox on Instagram and Twitter.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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