Cape Cod’s Pilgrim Trail

First Encounter Plaque

21 Oct Cape Cod’s Pilgrim Trail

You and your family can travel the Pilgrim Trail, stopping at museums and historic sites along the way. 
Click here for a narrated tour from Chatham to Provincetown, produced by Ron Nickerson and Bonnie Raine – and sponsored by the Chatham 300th Committee.


It’s a 55-mile tour that takes you from the Chatham Lighthouse and Atwood House to the Nickerson family estate and First Encounter Beach; to Corn Hill and Pilgrim Springs, all the way to Provincetown. As you read this story, as well, you can click on particular locations for directions. 

Only a series of fateful events on Cape Cod coalesced to give us Thanksgiving. Trace the Pilgrims during their first month in a new land before they eventually reached Plymouth.

Where else can you experience the Pilgrim experience more  intimately than on Cape Cod?

first-encounterWhile the first Thanksgiving was celebrated at Plymouth colony, the settlers landed weeks earlier right here in Provincetown. It’s also where they first met up with Native Americans in what today is Eastham – at First Encounter Beach.

A detailed description of that not-so-cordial first encounter can be found in Mourt’s Relation: a Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth 1622.

“By their noise we could not guess that they were less than thirty or forty, though some thought that they were many more. Yet in the dark of the morning we could not so well discern them among the trees, as they could see us by our fireside. We took up eighteen of their arrows which we have sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof were headed with brass, others with harts’ horn, and others with eagles’ claws.

Many more no doubt were shot, for these we found were almost covered with leaves; yet, by the especial providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us though many came close by us and on every side of us, and some coats which hung up in our barricade were shot through and through.

So after we had given God thanks for our deliverance, we took our shallop and went on our journey, and called this place, The First Encounter.”

The Pilgrim experience on Cape Cod actually began in Chatham.

In fact, Chatham plays a monumental role in the entire Pilgrim narrative – and the story of Thanksgiving.  It all began with the same treacherous sand bars and rips that have caused scores of shipwrecks over the centuries.

When the Pilgrims left England, they were not headed to New England, but to the Virginia colonies. Their nine-week journey, however, found them passing far north. They sighted Cape Cod just as early winter was arriving.

220px-chatham_light_maBuffetted by bitter winds, the Mayflower turned south heading toward what today is Nantucket Sound, passing right by where the Chatham Lighthouse and Coast Guard station stand today.

But destiny was determined as they encountered the rips.

Trying more than once to navigate them, the ship’s captain – fearful of hitting the shoals – chose to reverse course and head back north along the Atlantic coastline.

If the Pilgrims hadn’t turned around right there and then, the 132 people aboard may not have survived. At the very least, they would not have made their first landfall in Provincetown on Cape Cod Bay nor eventually reach Plimoth.

(See the Mayflower/Pilgrim plaque located across the street from the lighthouse).


They may not have had that first Thanksgiving at all.

Stand right there by the lighthouse today and imagine the Mayflower caught and lost to the rips.

Once they did make landfall in Provincetown, the Pilgrims spent a perilous month – from mid November 1620 to mid-December – before heading to Plymouth.

After 66 days at sea on a ship built for goods and supplies, its passengers couldn’t wait to come ashore. They had slept in the same clothes for the entire voyage; most were suffering respiratory ailments; the ship’s water was contaminated.

Imagine, though, a place with no friends to meet them, no knowledge of the natives living there, or the potential of wild animals. What they did know immediately was the harshness of the wind and cold.

On November 11, the passengers signed the Mayflower Compact right at Provincetown Harbor, giving them the right to establish a temporary government before hopefully receiving the approval of the king. Recall that they had planned to join an already established Virginia colony.

On the first day, passengers went ashore to gather wood, fortuitously finding junipers, whose aroma would fumigate the Mayflower. On the second day, they worshiped on the Sabbath and then went onshore to reassemble a shallop, a light sailboat with a flat bottom that could navigate shallow waters.

Children played outdoors while the women washed clothes.

Over the coming weeks, three expeditions occurred. With armor and muskets, they explored the strange new world, relying only on rudimentary charts developed years earlier by Samuel de Champlain.

During the first two discoveries, evidence of native Americans were encountered, but the settlers never actually encountered them. On the third and last discovery, however, a group led by Myles Standish, spied  natives along the beach apparently cutting up a small whale.


first-encounter-plaqueConsider driving early Thanksgiving morning to First Encounter Beach and standing precisely where Standish and his compatriots weathered arrows while shooting their muskets.

Imagine wearing helmets and armor, while carrying their muskets, ranging back and forth through unexplored thickets and marshes, from the bay side to the ocean, wondering every minute whether they would be attacked and killed.

As it turned out, there were about 4,000 Native Americans living on the Cape at that time, but they migrated from summer encampments by the coasts to inland areas during the harsh winter months.

corn-hillSo, when the Pilgrims discovered what today is Corn Hill in Truro, the encampment was abandoned. However, they found kettles of dried corn left behind, as well as fields that had been harvested.

Those Wampanoag were especially good fisherman, dependent on the Pamet River and Black Fish Creek that crossed the entire Cape (and was named presumably for the pilot whales that swam in its waters).

They also were excellent farmers, cultivating corn, squash and beans. They enjoyed a productive, laid-back lifestyle that included clam bakes and games similar to our football.

Strong and attractive people, they carved beads from shells and lived in circular homes with raised wooden beds and a central fire pit. (You can visit the Wampanoag Museum in Mashpee to experience a similar residence).

That discovered corn was a godsend to the settlers, although the Wampanoag probably were distressed to find it missing the following spring.

pilgrim-springAcross the Cape toward the Atlantic, another group of Pilgrims discovered springs of fresh water while tracking several Native Americans they had seen from afar.  Today, you can visit Pilgrim Heights and take a short walk to that precise location, overlooking the water and imagine that 66-day voyage from England.

From early November when the Mayflower passengers and crew arrive until they departed for Plymouth, the weather was constantly cold, windy and rainy – often turning to sleet and snow. One journal account talked of wet clothing freezing to bodies like armor in six inches of snow.

Virtually everyone was sick and half the settlers would die over the winter even once they reached and settled Plymouth.

dscn1394Today, the Pilgrim landing on Cape Cod is commemorated by the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, which features an entire gallery dedicated to the Mayflower colonists, including the list of passengers and the words of the Mayflower Compact.

Back in the winter of 1620, imagine rounding into Cape Cod Bay from the Atlantic to discover the verdant forests of pine, oak, sassafras and birch; the thousands of water birds and whales everywhere – more sightings than probably in Greenland, which already was a major whaling center.

Imagine too the Mayflower anchored off the harbor and passengers plus crew had to wade through the icy waters to shore since their shallop had not yet been reassembled.

Imagine a journey that began when their famous ship was blown off course to encounter Chatham, all the way to Provincetown.

And now give thanks for this impossible journey on Thanksgiving Day – right here on Cape Cod.


The Nickerson Family Association sells the Cape Cod Pilgrim Trail Driving Tour CD.  Please contact Ron Nickerson at for more information.







Post A Comment