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Provincetown exhibit shows the Wampanoag side of the Pilgrim saga

From left: K. David Weidner, executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and Steven Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, posed for a portrait at the museum, where a new exhibit, curated by Peters, explores the early interactions between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.
From left: K. David Weidner, executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and Steven Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, posed for a portrait at the museum, where a new exhibit, curated by Peters, explores the early interactions between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

PROVINCETOWN — The Pilgrim Monument rises 252 feet from a steep hill overlooking the bustling downtown here, a soaring granite tribute to 102 passengers of the Mayflower who 400 years ago made the tip of Cape Cod their first anchorage in the New World.

It’s the tallest all-granite structure in the United States. Its cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and the completed monument was dedicated three years later by President William Howard Taft.

But until this summer, the monument and the adjacent Provincetown Museum had taken little note of the native people living where the Pilgrims sought refuge. When its exhibits did mention the indigenous Wampanoag, they were depicted in clumsy stereotypes that were rife with historical inaccuracies.

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That narrative has changed, part of a broad movement to view the earliest days of American colonization more candidly and critically.

When the restored Mayflower II returned to Plymouth with great fanfare last month, the Provincetown Museum had just opened a permanent exhibit about the Wampanoag that seeks to educate and engage visitors in the other side of that story.

“It was obvious that we needed to address history that wasn’t necessarily told in the right context,” said K. David Weidner, executive director of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. “The references we had to native people were just not right.”

What the museum had were a few large murals, commissioned in 1971, that showed the Nauset tribe of the Wampanoag as a caricature of Native Americans, apparently gleaned from decades of television and movie westerns.

Their leggings resembled rodeo chaps, and they wore their hair Mohawk-style. Neither was accurate. The Wampanoag also were depicted as aggressors in their first encounter with an armed party of Pilgrims, even though the Europeans had stolen their corn.

“You never hear that. You hear ‘the Pilgrims,’ and the next thing you hear is ‘Thanksgiving,’” said Weidner, who was hired by the museum three years ago.

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“I learned that our staff didn’t have a narrative about what the Mayflower was about,” Weidner said. “We went through a whole year of dialogue and training, and it was introspective. There were some tough conversations with people.”

Now, an entire wing of the museum contains an interactive exhibit on the Wampanoag, their tribal ways and governance, and their 17th-century encounters with Europeans — first the traders and explorers, and then the Pilgrims and their descendants — that ultimately destroyed their way of life.

“For a long time, we’ve been fed this story that makes us feel good about how the United States became the United States of America,” said Steven Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag who curated the exhibit. “I’ve grown up hearing a very different story. The way you get history right is to tell it from both perspectives.”

The Wampanoag perspective includes this little-circulated piece of history: Two dozen of its people were taken prisoner by an English explorer and trader in 1614, six years before the Pilgrims arrived, and brought to Spain to be sold as slaves.

One of them was Tisquantum, who managed to return in 1619 to his former village of Patuxet — in and around present-day Plymouth — only to find his home ravaged by plague. The pandemic, believed to come from a diseased European visitor, is estimated to have killed up to 100,000 of the Wampanoag from 1616 to 1619.

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Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, greeted the arriving Pilgrims the following year in English, which he had learned during captivity. But his once-thriving village, where 2,000 people had lived, was now a ghost town.

William Bradford, the Pilgrim leader, was awestruck.

“Their skulls and bones were found in many places, lying still above the ground, where their houses and dwellings had been,” Bradford wrote. “A very sad spectacle to behold.”

The old ways soon became incompatible with the new.

In the run-up to the 1678 defeat of the Wampanoag and their allies in King Philip’s War, the tribe was under increasing pressure to assimilate, adopt the ways of the new colonists, and convert to Christianity, Peters said.

“They were adamant on converting the Wampanoag to their religion. The Wampanoag had their own spirituality and their own governing structure that worked well for them,” said Peters, creative director at SmokeSygnals, a Cape Cod-based marketing and communications agency.

“The Pilgrims made it clear those things needed to be disbanded, and there was a constant assault on those values pretty much from the time the Pilgrims arrived,” he added.

Weidner, the museum director, said this clash of cultures remains relevant in a time of racial reckoning.

“If it had not been for the generosity of the native people, the Pilgrims would never have survived. They helped them in true social-justice fashion because it was the right thing to do,” Weidner said.

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The project has gotten a boost from Jay Cashman, the Quincy-based builder and developer, whose company provided free consulting for an “inclined elevator” that will scale the hill to the monument and museum. The Cashman Family Foundation also donated $150,000 for the tram project, which is scheduled to begin service next spring.

“I think the displays in the museum are great,” Cashman said. “Obviously, we gave the Indians a hell of a bad time.”

Cashman said his great-grandfather and great-great-uncle played important roles in building the monument, and that its granite came to Provincetown by barge from a family quarry in Stonington, Maine.

“They hadn’t been doing very well in Ireland and came here on a coffin ship. It’s kind of the story of America, and the Pilgrims are the same thing,” Cashman said. “It was a big gamble, and the country was built on gamblers, people who took a chance.”

For the Wampanoag, telling the lesser-known part of that story is long overdue.

“It can be emotional, but more importantly, we’re driven by a constant need to get history right and set the record straight,” Peters said. “It’s important so our children and other tribal members can at least know that our story wasn’t lost.

“And that the truth matters.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.