Pilgrim Descendants Help Plymouth Celebrate

Times Staff Writer

“Thanksgiving has more meaning here where it all started than anywhere else in America. It’s our biggest day of the year,” said Jeannette Holmes, a direct descendant of two Pilgrims who arrived here on the Mayflower in December, 1620.

Holmes, 83, along with several other women, was busy preparing the First Parish Church in Plymouth for the traditional Thanksgiving ecumenical services.

Many descendants of the Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving 364 years ago still live in the Plymouth area.


Plymouth is a beehive of activity each Thanksgiving. Thousands pour into the town of 36,000, from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and other parts of the nation.

Pilgrim Progress

They come to partake in the pageantry, to feast on turkey, locally grown cranberries and all the trimmings. They come for the re-enactment of the Pilgrim Progress, a march from the original settlement to their church, and much, much more. “It’s like returning to Mecca, that sort of thing,” said Tony Lonardo, 51, a local civic leader.

Townspeople of Plymouth invited President Reagan this year to have his Thanksgiving dinner where it all began. No President has ever been here to celebrate the anniversary of America’s first harvest feast. The President, who is visiting his Santa Barbara ranch for the holiday, sent his regrets, saying he had other commitments. He asked for a rain check.

Reagan won’t make it, but scores of Indian activists from Massachusetts and other states will.

Indians are always part of the Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Plymouth, but not to join in the festivities. For the Indian activists it is a day of fast, not feast, a day of mourning.

Heroic Bronze Statue

They assemble in front of the heroic bronze statue of Massasoit, the Wampanoag Indian chief who signed a peace treaty with the Pilgrims. The statue is on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock and Harbor.


Each year the Indians tell how the Wampanoags befriended the Pilgrims only to have the Pilgrims and others who came after them take their land.

“The white man stole our land, desecrated it, polluted it,” the Indians contend each year in their Thanksgiving Day statement. Ironically, some of the Native Americans who gather at the Massasoit statue are descendants of both Pilgrims and Indians who were here in 1620.

Most of the Wampanoags today have more white blood than Indian blood.

“The peaceful Indian demonstration is part of the Plymouth Thanksgiving tradition. Non-Indians stand around and listen to the Indian speakers and agree with them,” said Mary Rondileau, 59, who runs the local wax museum, which depicts the Pilgrim story with historical accuracy in 150 wax figures in 26 scenes.

The first thing everyone looks for on arrival in Plymouth is Plymouth Rock.

Some people expect Gibraltar. Some Californians anticipate something on the order of Morro Rock.

Plymouth Rock on the water’s edge is only 4 or 5 feet long and a couple of feet high. Winter storms still break over the rock as in Pilgrim times. The Pilgrims used the rock to step on from their small boat to get ashore. The rock is protected by a huge granite canopy erected by the Society of Colonial Grand Dames of America.

Thanksgiving Day in Plymouth begins with the annual re-enactment of the Pilgrim Procession from Plymouth Rock to the town’s two historic churches, the Church of the Pilgrimage (Congregational) and the First Parish Church (Unitarian). Both congregations trace their beginnings to the Mayflower Pilgrims, to Leyden in the Netherlands where the Pilgrims had stayed 12 years, and to Scrooby, their home in England.


The original Plymouth congregation split in a theological dispute in 1801.

Marching to the beat of a drum, townspeople dressed in Pilgrim garb depict the 51 men, women and children who survived the first winter in the New World. Fifty-three who arrived on the Mayflower perished the first year from cold, exposure, lack of nourishment and disease.

The marchers trudge up the steep hill from the harbor passing the Massasoit statue and the sarcophagus with the names of those who perished that first winter. Inside the concrete tomb are the bones of Pilgrims who perished in the winter of 1620, remains found over the years in unmarked graves at the original settlement site.

Leading the procession through town each Thanksgiving are local residents portraying Elder Brewster, Gov. William Bradford and Miles Standish. Others representing the small band of brave colonists include the Brewster children Love, a 9-year-old boy, and Wrestling, his 6-year-old brother; Humility Cooper, Resolved and Peregrine White.

And, of course, John Alden, 21 at the time of the first Thanksgiving, and Priscilla Mullins, 18, whose mother, father and brother died that first winter. Priscilla later married John Alden and they had 11 children. Often descendants of the Aldens portray them in the procession.

At the old stone First Parish Church where stained-glass windows depict episodes of the Pilgrim story, ecumenical services are officiated by ministers, priests and rabbis from the Plymouth area.

For 13 years a highlight of the ecumenical Thanksgiving Day service has been the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in the Wampanoag tongue by Russell Gardner whose Indian name is Chief Great Moose.


“Naushon kee-su-qupp (Our Father who art in Heaven)” begins Gardner, 60, a descendant of one of Massasoit’s chief advisers. Gardner, who is one-eighth Indian, lives on the same land as his Wampanoag family did dating back before the arrival of the Pilgrims. At the ecumenical service he wears a turkey feather in his headband, an apron of deerskin, moccasins and a wooden pendant in his family for more than 300 years.

Like others with Wampanoag bloodlines, Gardner resents the activist Indian Thanksgiving Day demonstration at the Massasoit statue. “They ought to be thankful to live in such wonderful country,” he said.

There are four seatings in Memorial Hall for the traditional dinner in order to accommodate the large crowds of out-of-towners who journey to Plymouth to celebrate Thanksgiving where it all began.

Karen Howland, owner of the May Flowers Catering Co., the firm preparing and presenting the meal served by waiters and waitresses in Pilgrim dress, is a direct descendant of Mayflower Pilgrim John Howland.

Cranberry juices, cheese and crackers are served throughout Thanksgiving Day at Pilgrim Hall by members of the Pilgrim Society dressed in Pilgrim costumes.

Pilgrim Hall, the museum of Pilgrim treasures, a stately porticoed granite building in the Greek Revival style, is one of the oldest U.S. museums and holds the nation’s largest collection of Pilgrim possessions.


The Pilgrim Society was founded in 1819 to collect Pilgrim memorabilia. Five years later Pilgrim Hall was erected. The wreck of the Sparrow Hawk, the only 17th-Century colonist vessel in existence, is here. Half the size of the Mayflower, the Sparrow Hawk went aground at Plymouth in 1626 with no loss of life.

On exhibit are 12x12-foot early 19th-Century paintings of the arrival of the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving.

John Alden’s halberd, Miles Standish’s sword and Peter Brown’s tankard are here. So are furniture, clothing, books, documents and Bibles that belonged to the Pilgrims.

Many who come to Plymouth on Thanksgiving will board the 104-foot, square-rigged Mayflower’s replica that sailed across the Atlantic from England in 1957. The crew dressed in Pilgrim garb tell the story of the original’s historic crossing on stormy seas in 1620.

Others will be visiting Plimoth Plantation, the 100-acre re-creation of what Plymouth village was like in its seventh year. In the village are 15 thatched-roof structures reproduced from descriptive writings and sketches by the Pilgrims.

Plimoth Plantation is a living museum of 17th-Century Plymouth. From April through Dec. 1, actors dressed in period costumes depict the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, portraying historic characters through dress, speech, manner and attitudes.


“Good morrow,” greeted Henry Roach, 38, in the role of Pilgrim John Howland. Asked how long he had been at Plimoth Plantation, Roach replied as Howland would have: “Come up on the Mayflower in 16 and 20. I’m from Fen Stanton.” He wore a wool jerkin, breeches and boots. Indian corn hung from the wall of his thatched house, grain from the ceiling.

At the village’s common oven, a Pilgrim woman who identified herself only as “Good wife Mary Winslow, one of the poor common folk” was baking bread and a pork pie. What year is it she was asked. She replied: “20 and 7. What you see has taken us seven years.” Across the way Peter Slevin, 70--that is his real name and he is from Donegal, Ireland--was busy thatching a sheep house. Slevin has spent the past 17 years at Plimoth Plantation portraying one of the shipwrecked colonists from the Sparrow Hawk.

The inhabitants of Plimoth Plantation (from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) take on the personalities of the original Pilgrims and Indians.

They plant and harvest crops, tend animals, work on thatched-roof dwellings, prepare and eat meals, slaughtering pigs, for example, in the old way, salting the meat to keep it from spoiling.

Jim Baker, 41, historian at Plimoth Plantation, where historic accuracy is of prime concern, told how the original Thanksgiving occurred between Sept. 21 and Nov. 9, 1621.

“It was a three-day harvest celebration during which the Pilgrims ate cod, sea bass, ducks, geese, swans, wild turkeys, bread, edible plants and five deer brought by the Indians,” said Baker.


In his diary, Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote: “We entertained King Massasoit and 90 of his men at our three-day feast and they (the Indians) went out and killed five deer.”

Jeannette Holmes, the 83-year-old descendant of Pilgrims Richard Warren and Edward Doty, recalled that all her life Thanksgiving in Plymouth “has been special in so many ways.

“When I was a little girl if it was cold enough, all the children in town would be out ice skating. It was a day to go to our grandparents’ house for the Thanksgiving dinner with all the women in the family preparing various dishes for the meal. It was a day we wore our new fall dresses for the first time.”

For Jeannette Holmes and nearly everyone else in Plymouth, Thanksgiving dinner isn’t complete unless Indian pudding is served. Indian pudding became a favorite Pilgrim dessert early on. How do you make Indian pudding? If you are a purist, you would follow this old Plymouth Colony recipe:

“Take the morning’s milk and throw it into as much cornmeal as you can hold in the palm of your hand. Let the molasses drip in as you sing ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ Sing two verses in cold weather.”