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Mayflower’s 400th sets organizers off on a new journey: To put history right

The Dutch city of Leiden, where the Pilgrims lived and worked before emigrating.

The symbols of a historical milestone are peeking out at passersby on Newbury Street.

They’re among the first hints of an epic yearlong trans-Atlantic commemoration, though you might not know it yet.

It’s the looming 400th anniversary of one of the seminal events in American history: the arrival of the Mayflower, which will be marked in Boston, Provincetown, and Plymouth, where the settlers first landed; in the Netherlands, where the Pilgrims briefly lived; and in England, from which they ultimately left.

Organizers promise that this observance — a few of the events around which have already begun — won’t be like any before it.


It won’t repeat the mythology of elementary school textbooks that claimed the English settlers were warmly greeted by the natives, for example. It will incorporate new findings about the Pilgrims using DNA, and will focus for the first time on people whose roles have previously been ignored: the Mayflower women. The native Wampanoag Nation has been invited to participate and will hold an “ancestors’ walk” in memory of the villages pushed aside by the English.

“Not only is it an opportunity to set the record straight; it invites discussion about history and heritage, whatever your background is,” said D. Brenton Simons, CEO of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, in front of whose headquarters on Newbury Street has been placed a scale model of the Mayflower and figures of a Wampanoag mother and daughter to attract attention to the anniversary.

It’s also surprisingly timely, touching as it does on issues such as migration, the long neglect of women’s roles in history, the treatment of indigenous people, and the relationship between church and state.

Tourism boosters see it as a big opportunity to attract travelers to less-well-visited destinations such as Plymouth, England, and Leiden, the Netherlands, which welcomed refugees and gave the Pilgrims sanctuary before they ultimately traveled to the New World.


“I don’t think for a lot of Americans it’s known that they lived here,” said Marlijn Kok, project coordinator for Mayflower Leiden 400. “We are trying to change that.”

Visitors to Leiden will find exhibits including one about the Wampanoags that opens in the ethnology museum in May, a Pilgrim walking tour and historical markers on landmarks such as Pieterskerk, the Gothic cathedral around which the Separatist Puritans settled and where they sometimes worshiped.

Most look much as they did four centuries ago.

“You walk in the footsteps of the Pilgrim ancestors. It hasn’t changed at all,” said Kok, whose job includes drawing tour operators to the city for the anniversary.

There’s even a new Mayflower 400 beer being brewed in Leiden and in the American and British Plymouths.

But the Pilgrims-associated product most closely associated with Leiden is Thanksgiving, which some scholars believe was based in part on the annual Dutch fall festival of Drie Oktober.

Worried about the potential of an invasion by Catholic Spain, among other reasons, the Pilgrims left Leiden and returned to England in 1618. There, the quadricentennial is in full bloom — the official start is Thanksgiving Day — with a new Mayflower Trail connecting key Pilgrim-related sites and a similar objective of attracting American tourists.

“Whether you’re a descendant or just are interested in history and want to use the story to get a sense of English and Dutch culture and history that links back to the United States, the content is here waiting for you,” said Charles Hackett, CEO of Mayflower 400 UK.


The Mayflower Steps in Plymouth, England, near the spot where the Mayflower departed, have been restored. There’s a small Mayflower museum. And everything from musical recitals to museum exhibits have been planned or are already underway, including a touring wampum belt, made of quahog shells, to honor Metacom, or King Philip, the Wampanoag who went to war against the English 50 years after they arrived and whose own wampum belt was taken as a prize when he was killed.

The site of the Mayflower Steps in Plymouth, England, from which the Pilgrims are believed to have left England aboard the Mayflower.

All of this will culminate in the Mayflower Ceremony in mid-September, marking the anniversary of the ship’s departure, with representatives from all four nations, military ceremonies, and a triathlon. Cruise ships are expected in the port, and the Queen Mary 2 will offer passengers a special Mayflower-themed sailing in far greater comfort than was available to the Pilgrims, who were crammed for 66 days aboard a cold and leaky sailing ship that took them well north of the Virginia port for which they’d aimed.

When they did arrive, the Pilgrims weren’t, in fact, welcomed by the natives. Their first encounter was violent, since the English had been digging up and stealing the Wampanoags’ food and earlier English ships had kidnapped Wampanoags into slavery. That included Tisquantum, or Squanto, which is why he knew English when he returned to find the Pilgrims living in what once had been his village.


As recently as 1970, however, during the 350th anniversary of the Mayflower’s arrival, a Wampanoag teacher named Frank James who was invited to speak was promptly uninvited when he set out to talk about atrocities and broken promises. James went on to create the National Day of Mourning, still held in Plymouth each Thanksgiving.

This time, the Wampanoags have a central role in the commemoration, which in deference to them is consciously not being called a “celebration” and will include that ancestor’s walk in August and an indigenous history conference and pow-wow.

“You really do come up with a very different story” when you look at the Mayflower from the natives’ point of view, said Paula Peters, a former tribal council member and a member of the Plymouth 400 Wampanoag committee.

To the Wampanoags, it’s a story that begins not in 1620, but in 1614, when English ships kidnapped the man schoolchildren all over America would come to call Squanto. That’s an angle that “was not just marginalized,” said Peters. “It was buried.”

The Mayflower II is undergoing restoration at the Henry B. duPont Preservation Shipyard at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Conn., to prepare the ship for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' voyage from England to the New World.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Another group that’s getting new attention: the women of the Mayflower, who after 400 years have become the subject of fresh research. They turn out to have had more influence than was believed, said Sue Allan, an English historian and author of “In the Shadow of Man: The Lives of Separatist Women,” to be published in the spring.

“These weren’t just beasts of burden, which women were at the time,” said Allan. “These were women of extreme faith who were equally vested in this struggle for religious freedom as the men were. They were philosophical helpmates.”


The most visible representation of the Mayflower commemoration, of course, is the reproduction of the ship itself, which has undergone a three-year, $11 million restoration. It’s scheduled to sail into Boston in mid-May, and then to Plimoth Plantation by May 21.

There’s a new Plymouth Colony Legacy Trail, starting at the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown and including First Encounter Beach in Eastham, Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth and the John and Priscilla Alden sites in Duxbury. The General Society of Mayflower Descendants will hold its 2020 congress in Provincetown in September.

Simons, the genealogical society’s CEO who is himself descended from Mayflower passenger and Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, noted that the Mayflower commemoration will also be the first of many quadricentennials. Boston itself, for example, turns 400 in 2030.

“I expect this to go on for a while,” he said in his office overlooking Newbury Street.

It also promises to change the way the historical events marked by this anniversary will be forever understood.

“It’s nice to put history right,” said Allan.

Jon Marcus can be reached at