RCG Blog To The Point

Plymouth won the ‘Founding’ PR war but Cape still place to be on July 4th

Assuming Tropical Storm Arthur doesn’t rain (and then some) on our parades and pyrotechnic displays, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to be for the Fourth of July weekend than right here on Cape Cod.

For starters, fireworks, beaches and barbeques go together like fish and chips. And we have some of the best beaches in the country – certified by none other than America’s foremost beach expert, Dr. Stephen Leatherman, aka “Dr. Beach.”

Besides ranking numerous Cape beaches on his annual Top 10 Best Beaches list over the years, here’s what the good doctor says of the state where the Pilgrims famously landed (http://www.drbeach.org/Massachusetts.htm): “Massachusetts is steeped in history; every school kid knows about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. While beaches adorn much of the shoreline, the best and most famous beaches are found on Cape Cod, the great arm of land that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean.”

Of course, you already knew Cape Cod beaches are all that and a plate of fried clams. What most folks don’t know – including Dr. Beach apparently – is that, at a time when we all reflect on the founding of our nation, the reason most of us associate the Pilgrims with Plymouth Rock is because Plymouth has done a better PR job, promoting itself as America’s birthplace.

But the truth is: the Pilgrims first came ashore just outside of Provincetown, having come to this sandy hook in search of cod, as Mark Kurlansky’s details in his critically-acclaimed book (http://www.amazon.com/Cod-Biography-Fish-Changed-World/dp/0140275010), “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.”

Kurlansky notes that while Bartholomew Gosnold literally put Cape Cod on the map, it was a map made by Capt. John Smith in 1616 marking the fishing hot spots in New England that convinced the Pilgrims to ask for a land grant to “where there was this Cape Cod.”

The “merchant adventurers” who financed the Pilgrim’s voyage “expected to make a profit on this plantation. They expected to get their money back through the fisheries,” is what Peter Arenstam, manager of the Maritime Artisans Department at the Plimouth Plantation, told me last year when I interviewed him for the Cape Cod Times.

The Pilgrims, however, were horrible fishermen who almost starved to death if not for the indigenous Wampanoag helping them survive until the settlers learned how to fish. Yes, the ancestors of those same Wampanoags who now call Mashpee home. And it just so happens the Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow is held every year on Fourth of July weekend.

With this year’s theme “Honoring Our Waterways,” this year marks the 93rd Annual Mashpee Wampanoag Pow Wow (http://www.mashpeewampanoagtribe.com/powwow), a display of native culture that includes dancing, drumming and something called “fireball.” (Think World Cup soccer, except the kerosene soaked ball is on fire as tribal men “play” this sacred game/healing ritual).

Oh, and if you’re a foodie, the Pow Wow is also where you can feast on some of the best clams, lobsters, quahog chowder – and even frog legs – on the planet. Once you taste Wampanoag-style seafood, you’ll understand why they were instrumental in helping the Pilgrims stay alive.

Or, as Arenstam went on to tell me, “it took them (Pilgrims) a long time to catch on but they were eventually successful. It’s not a stretch to say cod is our founding fish. It’s what made money for many New England settlers and provided a livelihood for thousands of families.” And that explains why there’s a solid-pine “sacred” cod hanging in the Statehouse (http://www.celebrateboston.com/strange/sacred-cod.htm) today.

Now, even though July 4th commemorates one of the most important days in U.S. history, we shouldn’t expect everyone to be a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian like David McCullough, who also happens to live on Nantucket. Still, there’s a 252-foot piece of evidence that Plymouth has done a better PR job than Cape Cod in enlightening people about where the Pilgrims first made landfall.

It’s called the Pilgrim Monument (http://www.pilgrim-monument.org/), erected atop High Pole Hill in Provincetown. The cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt and officially dedicated by President William H. Taft. It’s the tallest, all-granite structure in the United States but one that, ironically, gets overlooked in the retelling of America’s birth. The Pilgrims didn’t first land on Plymouth Rock. The Mayflower and its passengers first anchored in the waters off Provincetown.

Five weeks later, unable to survive the harsh winter on the outer Cape even with the corn they stole from the natives, they set sail for Plymouth — 24 miles (as the crow flies) across Cape Cod Bay. If you made that trip by automobile today, it’s about a two-hour drive with the traffic, give or take.

Historical footnote: I’m not sure if First Encounter Beach has ever made it onto Dr. Beach’s list, but, just so you know: the beach where the Pilgrims first encountered the Wampanoags is on Cape Cod in Eastham, not Plymouth.

But here’s the real kicker: Plymouth keeps getting the First Encounter credit, which isn’t just historically inaccurate, it’s insulting, too. As countless visitors have attested, Plymouth Rock is one of the most anti-climactic, disappointing historical sites in the country. There’s no replica Mayflower, pressed up against some magnificent boulder. It looks like a long forgotten Plymouth businessman or town “father” rolled a rock over from the nearest quarry, dropped it into a shaft next to the harbor, put a cage on top, and plunked down a plaque that declared: “Plymouth Rock.”

When I asked the Pilgrim Monument and Museum’s executive director James Bakker about this, he said, “We want to get beyond our-monument-is-bigger-than-your-rock. There was a time when Provincetown wasn’t really acknowledged as the first landing place. But that’s changing.”

OK, fair enough. Still, this wouldn’t have been an issue if Provincetown, in particular, and Cape Cod in general, had a good PR team working this back when the monument was built. But, in any case, for those who actually consider Independence Day to be a historically significant holiday and not just a day-off from work to watch fireworks and eat hot dogs, Cape Cod is THE place to be.

-SEAN GONSALVES

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