Forefathers’ Day

Alicia Crane WilliamsPlymothians invented Forefather’s Day in 1769 to mark the anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims, and to emphasize Plymouth Colony’s independent origins in response to what they felt was continued oppression by the English Crown. At different times the event has involved a ball, dinner, orations, and church services. Speakers have included the likes of Daniel Webster and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. For most of the last 200 years, the event has been hosted by the Pilgrim Society, whose Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth is the mecca for everyone interested in early New England history.

The date for the Forefathers’ Day anniversary has evolved into 21 December, except when that date falls on a Sunday, as it did this year, in which case the dinner is held on Saturday the 20th. Several hundred members of the Pilgrim Society, their guests, and other Pilgrimphiles gather for a banquet dinner and the enlightenment of a speaker. Before dinner there is the authentic cup of succotash made in the old tradition. During dinner the trustees of the Pilgrim Society are introduced and gather around the piano to sing, with gusto, and accompanied by the entire gathering, the full four verses of the hymn The Breaking Waves Dashed High. Trust me, the only way to sing that hymn is with gusto.

This year’s speaker was Ric Burns, brother of and collaborator with Ken Burns of The Civil War documentary fame. Ric is producing The Pilgrims: A Documentary Film, which is scheduled for broadcast next Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims will tell the story through William Bradford and his remarkable manuscript, Of Plimoth Plantation, with its equally fascinating history of having been stolen from New England during the Revolution, discovered later in England, and restored to America a century later to be embraced as the representative story of the founding of our country. The Forefathers’ Day audience was treated to a sneak preview of some tantalizing rough-cut scenes.

William Bradford is portrayed by Welch actor Roger Rees, most familiar to us here in Boston from his role as tycoon Robin Colcord in Cheers. Rees hypnotically portrays Bradford in his last years reflecting upon the events of the settlement of Plymouth Colony as he realizes that Plymouth is destined to be swallowed up by the more successful Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston and forgotten. Burns wants to tell the story of the real human beings who were the Pilgrims, and to explore why they are the ones we now remember while others have been forgotten. It seems certain to be a fascinating series.

Alicia Crane Williams

About Alicia Crane Williams

Alicia is the lead genealogist on the new NEHGS study project, Early New England Families, 1641-1700. Prior to joining the NEHGS staff, she compiled and edited numerous important genealogical publications including The Mayflower Descendant, the Alden Family Five Generations project, and the Harlow Family : Descendants of Sgt. William Harlow (1624/5-1691) of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Alicia has served as Historian of the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Assistant Historian General at the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, and as Genealogist of the Alden Kindred of America. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a master’s degree in History from Northeastern University. In October 2016, Alicia was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Genealogists.

10 thoughts on “Forefathers’ Day

  1. Alicia, great post – especially for those of us out here on the west coast who don’t always have easy access to these activities. – You know, I don’t think you ever have a bad post! Always most interesting.

    Wishing you a wonderful holiday – I look forward to reading your posts in the New Year!

    Merry Christmas!

    Jeff Record

  2. Rees was a pretty intense Tom Paine on a PBS series on the Revolution. He’s getting those Foundational Writin’ Rebels down one by one it seems. (A well as Dickensian Heros: also remember a TV highlight of “Nicholas Nickleby” where he has a short confrontation with Patrick Stewart as the Evil Uncle.)

    As to the other Mr. B of Plymouth, formerly of Peterhouse, Cambridge, I like to think he did remember with fondness how (quite possibly) QE1 teased him about his Latin facility when he worked for Davison. Hampton Court to Plymouth Court in One Degree of Separation.

  3. Fascinating gathering, and the forthcoming series sounds interesting too. But what is “the authentic cup of succotash made in the old tradition?” To this West Coast native, succotash was a mixture of canned whole kernel corn and lima beans. It used to appear on Thanksgiving tables, but I haven’t seen it in years. By calling it a “cup,” I assume you’re implying something to drink, rather than a vegetable dish!

  4. Enjoyed your post. Can’t wait for the documentary and I am going to look up the recipe for succotash. Thank you. Linda Standish

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