About Plymouth 400


It’s a special place and time. One of our county’s most historic towns is turning 400. For centuries now Plymouth has thrived. It’s a community comprised of diverse cultures who value their differences and continue a rich tradition of partnership and productivity. Come discover just how unique Plymouth is and join the excitement.

Past Celebrations

Almost four hundred years ago, the Mayflower reached the tip of Cape Cod, and a new chapter opened in the history of the Atlantic world. Today, the Pilgrims are recognized worldwide as the symbolic founders of our nation. It is often asked today why this should be so. The Pilgrims weren’t the first – indigenous peoples have lived here for thousands of years. They weren’t even the first Europeans to successfully settle within the boundaries of the future republic – the Spanish in Florida and the English at Jamestown did so earlier. 

The answer is twofold. The Pilgrims benefitted from being the progenitors of New England, which dominated the historical profession in the new nation. They were also arguably the best candidates for the role of America’s honorary ancestors. Their story, quietly heroic, lacked the embarrassing missteps that beset other colonial ventures. They came neither as conquerors nor as fortune hunters, but as families seeking freedom and prosperity in a new world, just like the multitudes that followed them. The Pilgrims were poor in worldly wealth, but rich in faith and sober, hard-working and honest in their dealings. As the first exemplars of the American Dream, they represent the humble virtues and strengths that make America great.

The time has now come to commemorate the Pilgrims’ heritage and example once again on the quadricentennial anniversary of their momentous adventure. The 400th Commemoration is but the latest in a long series of events honoring both these worthy people and the Native Peoples who facilitated the successful planting, in Plymouth, of the seed that grew into the United States of America.


Plymouth Rock's consecration occurred in 1774, probably as part of the response to the Coercive Acts and the blockading of the Port of Boston. “The inhabitants of the town, animated by the glorious spirit of liberty which pervaded the Province, and mindful of the precious relic of our forefathers, resolved to consecrate the rock on which they landed to the shrine of liberty. Col. Theophilus Cotton and a large number of inhabitants assembled, with about 20 yoke of oxen, for the purpose of its removal. The rock was elevated from its bed by the means of large screws; and in attempting to mount it on the carriage, it split asunder, without any violence. As no one had observed a flaw, the circumstance occasioned some surprise. It is not strange that some of the patriots of the day should be disposed to indulge a little in superstition, when in favor of their good cause. The separation of the rock was construed to be ominous of a division of the British Empire. The question was now to be decided whether both parts should be removed, and being decided in the negative, the bottom part was dropped again into its original bed, where it remains, a few inches above the surface of the earth, at the head of the wharf. The upper portion, weighing many tons, was conveyed to the liberty pole [or Town] square, front of the meetinghouse, where, we believe, waved over it a flag with the far-famed motto, ‘Liberty or Death.’” (James Thacher, History of Plymouth, 1832)


The Plymouth Forefathers – the term “Pilgrims” only became popular about 1800 – were celebrated long before the 1820 bicentennial. Colonial historians such as Cotton Mather, Thomas Prince and Jeremy Belknap identified the Plymouth colonists as the true founders of New England, and by extension, the new United States. In Plymouth itself, the Old Colony Club established “Forefathers’ Day” in 1769 on the December 22 anniversary of the landing at Plymouth Rock, as one of America’s first home-grown holidays. Forefathers’ Day was later observed in honor of the Pilgrims in Boston, New York, Charleston SC, and in many other places. 

The first major commemoration of the Plymouth story took place on Forefathers’ Day, 1820. On that day, the newly-founded Pilgrim Society hosted a grand celebration that included a three-hour oration by Daniel Webster in the First Parish church. This was followed by a procession including the president of Harvard, representatives from the Massachusetts legislature and other notables led by the Standish Guards to a banquet in the yet-to-be completed new County Court House, and a ball attended by 600 people from throughout the region.

1853 and 1859

In 1852, the new Cape Cod Association hosted an impressive commemorative event in Provincetown on November 11, the anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower and the signing of the famous Compact, which included speeches, a military parade and a dinner for 2,000 persons in a tented pavilion.

On August 1, 1853 (the anniversary of the departure of the Pilgrims from Holland), the Pilgrim Society held a similar grand commemoration to announce plans for a long-delayed memorial monument to the Pilgrims. The Pilgrim Society sent invitations across the nation and to England and Holland. Triumphal arches were erected on Court, Main, North, Summer and Pleasant streets. Festivities began at the First Parish church at 9:00 AM. Led by the New York Light Guard, a massive parade proceeded along Court, Main, Leyden, Water, Market, High, Summer and Pleasant streets to the Training Green. Householders along the parade route decorated their homes with bunting and mottoes, such as William Barnes’ “August 1 — Forefathers’ Day thawed out” (68 Court St.). An enormous tent covered the easterly half of the Green in which dinner was served to twenty-five hundred people. There followed a long series of speeches by Governor John H. Clifford, Senator Charles Sumner, and Hon. Richard Yeadon of Charleston, SC among many others. The Boston Brigade Band played in Town Square from eight to twelve o’clock, with a fine display of fireworks. There was national newspaper coverage of the event.

On August 2, 1859, an event of similar proportions was held to celebrate the start of construction of Forefathers’ Monument and the canopy over Plymouth Rock. A parade including a number of Masonic lodges, bands, officials and military units marched along Court, Main, Market, High, Summer, Pleasant, Green, Sandwich, Market, Leyden, Water, North, back to Court and Cushman streets to Monument Hill, where the monument’s cornerstone was laid. 2,800 guests then gathered in a pavilion on North Park Avenue to dine and listen to speakers including Massachusetts Gov. Nathaniel Banks, Salmon P. Chase, the governors of Connecticut and Maine, and Rev. Mr. Waddington of Southwark, London.


In 1870 the Pilgrim Society voted to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Landing of the Pilgrims on the 21st of December rather than the 22nd, correcting an error in adjusting the date for the Gregorian calendar. Again the festivities began with benedictions at the First Parish Church, followed by a parade escorted by the Standish Guards, Gilmores band of Boston, and the Plymouth brass band. As it passed Plymouth Rock, a national salute was fired on board the U. S. Revenue Cutter Mahoning. A public dinner was held in the Old Colony Railroad station, where Hon. Robert C. Winthrop gave the oration. In the evening a brilliant ball was held in Davis Hall (46 Main St.).


At a town meeting held April 2, the sum of $1,500 was appropriated in aid of the celebration, and it was voted that the Board of Selectmen be joined to the committee of arrangements. Invitations were sent to various Plymouth organizations and the Independent Corps of Cadets of Boston and Battery A of Boston were invited to participate in the parade. A tent two hundred and fifty feet long and eighty feet wide for 2,000 guests was pitched in the meadow below the house of Mrs. Lothrop (now the parking lot behind Memorial Hall). A salute was fired by Battery A at six o’clock AM, and at 9:30 AM, the M. W. Grand Lodge dedicated the monument. At 11 o’clock, the parade proceeded along Court, Allerton, Cushman, Court, North, Water, Leyden, Market, Summer, High, Russell, Court, Brewster, Water, North, Main, Market, Pleasant, South Sandwich and Water streets to the tent. Five hundred school children were seated on the slope of Cole’s Hill who sang appropriate hymns as the procession passed the Rock. Five triumphal arches were erected on Court, North, Leyden, Summer and Pleasant streets, and the decorations along the route “exceeded any ever before seen in Plymouth.”

A blessing was asked by Rev. Charles P. Lombard and after an opening address by Hon. John D. Long, President of the Pilgrim Society, an oration by Hon. W. C. P. Breckinridge, and a poem by John Boyle O’Reilly followed. Speeches were given by Lt. Gov. J. Q. A. Brackett, Hon. George F. Hoar, Hon. Henry Cabot Lodge and others, and “The Breaking Waves Dashed High” was sung by Myron W. Whitney, followed by a musical selection by the Temple Quartette Club of Boston. From three to five o’clock there were concerts in Shirley Square by the Lynn Cadet Band, on Training Green by the Plymouth Rock Band, on Cole’s Hill by the Silver Fife and Drum Corps, and on the Samoset House lawn by Lindall’s band. Fireworks were set off on Monument Hill together with an electric illumination of the Monument, and there was a concert in Shirley Square from nine to ten by the Plymouth Band. A ball in the Armory with music furnished by the Germania Band of Boston closed the festivities. The number of visitors was estimated at fifteen thousand, and as compared with the celebrations of 1853 and 1859, was from three to five thousand larger than that at either.


In 1895, the Pilgrim Society and guests met at Pilgrim Hall, and proceeded to the Armory on Leyden Street, where the exercises were held, consisting of an overture by the Plymouth Band, an anthem by the Plymouth Musical Club, a prayer by Rev. Charles P. Lombard, the poems “Sons of Renowned Sires,” and Mrs. Hemans’ “The Breaking Waves Dashed High” (sung again by Mr. Whitney) followed by an  oration by Hon. Geo. F. Hoar (who had secured the Bradford manuscript from England), and a benediction by Rev. Ernest W. Shurtleff.

The canopy over Plymouth Rock, a granite structure fifteen square by thirty feet high of the Tuscan architectural order, had been completed by 1867. The upper half of the Rock was reunited with the lower section in 1880. The old portico was torn down in 1920 for the Pilgrim Tercentenary celebration and a new canopy donated by the Colonial Dames of America dedicated in November 1921.


The grandest Pilgrim commemoration to date occurred in Plymouth between Forefathers’ Day, Dec. 21, 1920 and September 5, 1921. The Plymouth Tercentenary officially began with a public ceremony in the Old Colony movie theater (now the Landmark Building) on Main Street Extension. Speeches by Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge and others were accompanied with musical selections and a symbolic long-distance telephone call received from California Governor Stephens, an unusual technological feat at that time.

There followed an observation for the “return of the Mayflower” anniversary on April 15, the dedication of the Cole’s Hill Sarcophagus containing Pilgrim bones on May 23, and the placement of Plymouth Rock in the new portico on June 25, but the impressive heart of the tercentenary celebration was the massive “Pilgrim Spirit” pageant composed and directed by George P. Baker of Harvard, which ran daily from August 1st to August 13th, 1921. The pageant employed 1,300 costumed participants from Plymouth and nearby towns, and a chorus of 300 voices. It was presented on newly-filled land near Plymouth Rock and below Cole’s Hill (on which seating for 10,000 spectators had been installed) that had earlier the site of Plymouth’s commercial wharves and warehouses, all of which were removed for the purpose.

The “Pilgrim Spirit” began with the amplified “Voice of Plymouth Rock” and a recapitulation of the Pilgrims’ predecessors, including the Norsemen, Martin Pring, Samuel Champlain, Adrian Blok, John Smith and Thomas Hunt. It then surveyed the Pilgrim story from William Tyndale in 1523 and the London Separatist martyrs of 1593 to the Scrooby contingent in 1602 and the flight to Holland in 1608. The scene then moved to the Holland of 1609, and the departure from Delftshaven in July, 1620. This was followed by the Mayflower as it arrived off Cape Cod on November 11, 1620, the exploration of the Cape, the landing at Plymouth, the treaty with Massasoit, the departure of the Mayflower in April, 1621, the arrival of the Ann and Little James in 1623, and the trial of Lyford and Oldham in 1624. It closed with a grand finale involving again the “Voice of the Rock”, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and a procession of women representing the 43 American states of that era.

On August 1, President Warren G. Harding arrived on the presidential yacht Mayflower, and was greeted by Massachusetts Governor Cox, Chief Marshall Whipple and other dignitaries, and was driven in a lengthy parade that included motorized floats for the first time, with 32 floats contributed by the towns in the Old Colony (Plymouth, Barnstable and Dukes but not Bristol counties) and local businesses, as well as marchers and bands from the usual military units and societies. After a much smaller official dinner (60 guests) at the Samoset House hotel, officials and the public met again on the waterfront for speeches from Gov. Cox, President Harding, Vice President Coolidge  and representatives from England and Holland. Attendance averaged 100,000 each day (with all 10,000 seats sold out each time); the biggest day of August 10 had 110,000 attendees. Numerous monuments were dedicated as well, ranging from the new Plymouth Rock portico and Cyrus Dallin’s bronze Massasoit to various granite and bronze memorials and plaques.

Information provided by Jim Baker