What better way to herald a 20th-century Portuguese fishing village of 18th-century Yankee heritage and a landfall for 17th-century English immigrants (and perhaps 11th-century Norse sailors), than with a tower out of 14th-century Tuscany? The monument, designed by Willard T. Sears and modeled on the Torre di Mangia in Siena, has symbolized Provincetown ever since its dedication on 5 August 1910. It is a 252-foot-7½-inch exclamation point at the cape tip; a granite landmark embellished by corbeled vaults, high arches and bristling crenels — “not a monument, but a flight,” as William Dean Howells said of the Torre di Mangia, which also inspired towers in Boston (Fire Department Headquarters, now the Pine Street Inn), New York (the 71st Regiment Armory), Baltimore (the Bromo Seltzer Tower) and Waterbury, Conn. (Union Station).
But why was it built at all? The real answers to that question seem to have been swallowed up in the conventional telling of a town determined first, to stake its claim in the sky to the honor of having been the Pilgrims’ landing spot, and second, to appropriately commemorate the embryonic democratic principles embodied in the Mayflower Compact, which was signed in Provincetown Harbor. It’s not that this account is wrong, mind you, but I don’t think it entirely explains the impetus behind this stupendous construction project, quite without rival on the lower Cape. There seems to be no question that the chief mover behind the project was Capt. J. Henry Sears (1831-1912) of Brewster, the son of Joseph H. Sears and descendant of an old Cape Cod settler, Richard Sears. Captain Sears had once owned 37 full-rigged vessels. In 1901, he was 70 years old when he heartily endorsed the proposed monument at a meeting of the Pilgrim Club of Brewster.
“Here in this harbor was the first landing made, the first prayers said, the Compact — that immortal charter of civil liberty — drawn and signed,” Sears told the meeting, as paraphrased by Edmund J. Carpenter in The Pilgrims and Their Monument, published in 1911. “Here the first white child saw the light and breathed New England air. Here in this soil lie buried the first of the Pilgrims to succumb to the hardships of their journey. Here on Cape Cod the Pilgrims drank their first draught of sweet New England water.”
That “first white child” business is key. (It’s a reference to Peregrine White, born aboard the Mayflower.) By the 20th century, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the Massachusetts seacoast felt outnumbered and outmaneuvered in certain towns by Catholic Portuguese immigrants. Starting with a trickle, immigration from the Azores, Cape Verde and the mainland had grown into a steady flow. In the 1860s, some 5,000 Portuguese arrived in the United States; in the 1890s, there were more than 60,000 arrivals. Portuguese residents made up 30 percent of Provincetown’s population in 1875 and were clearly headed toward becoming a majority. The 1901 directory listed 10 people in town with the name Sears but 62 people with the name Silva. New England was becoming the second-biggest Portuguese-speaking colony in the world. Only Brazil was larger. And the Portuguese had clearly supplanted Yankees as masters of the fishery, a fact that would find symbolic expression in the victory of Marion Perry’s Rose Dorothea in the Fishermen’s Race of 1907 — the year that the monument’s cornerstone was laid.
The rise of interest in the Mayflower landing can be seen against this backdrop, for it must have been at least a subconscious purpose of the monument’s builders to declare tangibly and impressively — far out to sea for all the fleet to behold — that “we were here first” (“we” being Anglo-Saxons). There was a powerful backlash in the late 19th century to the overall immigration wave from southern and eastern Europe, of which the Portuguese were numerically a small fraction. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts was a leader in the movement to curtail immigration radically. His goal was to bar entry to the illiterate. A large majority of Portuguese immigrants would have been turned away had they been asked to prove they could read. But Lodge assured the Senate in 1896 that
“the races most affected by the illiteracy test are those whose emigration to this country has begun within the last 20 years and swelled rapidly to enormous proportions, races with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States. …
“When we speak of a race … [w]e mean the moral and intellectual characters, which in their association make the soul of a race, and which represent the product of all its past, the inheritance of all its ancestors, and the motives of all its conduct. … It is on the moral qualities of the English-speaking race that our history, our victories and all our future rest. There is only one way in which you can lower these qualities or weaken these characteristics, and that is by breeding them out. … [Y]ou are running the most frightful risk that a people can run. The lowering of a great race means not only its own decline, but that of civilization.”
Whom Lodge regarded as the people at the pinnacle of civilization was evident enough. In an 1888 speech, he had described the Pilgrim and Puritan as “the strong race which clung to the rocky coast until they made it their own, and whose children and whose children’s children have forced their way across the continent, carrying with them the principles and beliefs of their forefathers.” Reflecting that exclusivity, the roster of officers and directors of the Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association in 1907 did not include a single evidently Portuguese surname: Atwood, Bacon, Baker, Crocker, Freeman, Gifford, Greene, Grozier, Hale, Hopkins, Keith, Lawrence, Lord, Lovering, Nickerson, Pratt, Sears, Simpkins, Standish, Taylor, Thacher, Thorndike and Tobey.
We can reasonably infer the nativist streak undergirding the monument. But there’s an even greater mystery, for which I have yet to find a satisfactory explanation. Why would the association have concluded that the finest way to express the arrival of the Pilgrims and signing of the Compact was through the architecture of 14th-century Siena?
When it solicited ideas from the public, the association received more than 100 designs. “These were for the most part in the form of an Egyptian obelisk,” Carpenter wrote in The Pilgrims and Their Monument, “a form which it had been determined not to follow, since the monument upon Bunker Hill and the Washington Monument at the national capital were both of that type; and the Pilgrims certainly had nothing in common with Egyptian civilization.” (Unlike their extremely close kinship to the people of Tuscany.)
“It seemed best, after long consideration, to adopt the form of a campanile, or bell tower, and long and careful search was made for a suitable design,” Carpenter wrote. “Thorough search was made in the parts of England from which the Pilgrims came, but no tower in the least satisfactory was to be found. Search was then made throughout the towns and cities of Holland, but still without success. It was evident that there was no distinctive Pilgrim monumental architecture, and certainly none which was indigenous to the region in which the structure was to be built. The problem was at length solved by the adoption of the design of the beautiful tower of the Italian Renaissance type, several examples of which are to be found in the mediaeval cities of Europe.”
Still, Carpenter fails to answer exactly why the directors thought this solved the problem. The architect, Willard T. Sears (1837-1920) of Cummings & Sears, was accustomed to working in the Italian mediaeval vernacular, witness his spectacular Old South Church of 1875 in Boston. Perhaps he persuaded the board. Or perhaps the explanation is as simple as the fact that Capt. Lorenzo Dow Baker of Wellfleet, a director, had a print of the Torre di Mangia in his possession. Perhaps he broke the long stalemate one evening after a few draughts of sweet New England water by saying, “Say, fellows, why don’t we do one of these?”
The reaction abroad was muted. “Why this old tower of the late Gothic period in Tuscany should be selected as a model for the memorial to the Pilgrim fathers down on Cape Cod puzzles the architects of this city,” The Boston Globe reported on 27 January 1907, “one of whom said: ‘If all they want is an architectural curiosity, why not select the leaning tower of Pisa and be done with it.'”
But in Provincetown, considerable excitement greeted the prospect of a cornerstone laying that year, not among the least reasons being that President Theodore Roosevelt was scheduled to attend in person. The ceremony, on 20 August 1907, was under the direction of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts. Roosevelt traveled from his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower — appropriately enough — which passed by eight battleships in the harbor and was given a 21-gun salute. Captain Sears, the selectmen and a welcoming committee greeted the president, who was taken straightaway to the top of High Pole Hill. For his part, Senator Lodge kept tactfully silent about his theory of Anglo-Saxon eugenics when he addressed the crowd.
And whatever nativist strains may have animated the development of the monument, President Roosevelt put forcefully to rest in his speech:
“That liberty of conscience which [the Puritan] demanded for himself, we now realize must be as freely accorded to others as it is resolutely insisted upon for ourselves. The splendid qualities which he left to his children, we other Americans who are not of Puritan blood also claim as our heritage. You, sons of the Puritans, and we, who are descended from races whom the Puritans would have deemed alien — we are all Americans together. We all feel the same pride in the genesis, in the history, of our people; and therefore this shrine of Puritanism is one at which we all gather to pay homage, no matter from what country our ancestors sprang.”
When it came time three years later to dedicate the Pilgrim Monument, on 5 August 1910, the president of the United States — now William Howard Taft — was once again on hand, giving some sense of the enormous symbolic importance that was then attached to the Pilgrims. He, too, arrived aboard the Mayflower, having sailed from his summer home in Beverly, Mass. Senator Lodge was up to a bit of his old eugenic mischief again, seizing on Taft’s purported descent from Francis Cooke to say, “The blood of a signer of the Compact flows in the veins of the president of the United States.”
Taft, to his credit, made light of the fact in his remarks at a dinner in Town Hall that evening. He confessed that he had been unaware of his Mayflower descent until recent months. “You may think that shows great ignorance and blindness to possibilities of greatness, but one of the features of ‘genealogicalicy’ is that the disease does not strike you until you get pretty well along in life, and as I have not attained the age which inspires you to look up your ancestors [he was just shy of 53], I had supposed the first of my family came over in 1679.”
In certain quarters, the monument was slow to lose its curse of exclusivity. In a poignant aside in the novel Leaving Pico, Frank X. Gaspar describes the day that the young Portuguese-American protagonist is supposed to be taken to the Pilgrim Monument for the first time, by his mother’s new beau. To the reader, the boy confesses that his grandfather had already initiated him. “My grandfather and I had kept this trip to ourselves because he told me Great Aunt Theophila would give him trouble about it. She saw the monument as something for the summer people, something our people had no business visiting.”
It seems safe to say that by the time of the centenary, the notion of the monument as a WASP bastion was all but forgotten. The rededication ceremony on 5 August 2010 did not include President Barack Obama, but it did feature Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts. The Cape Cod Pilgrim Memorial Association was now headed by Charles W. Silva. And the representative of Plymouth was the Rev. Prof. Peter J. Gomes (1942-2011) of Harvard University, whose father had come from Cape Verde. “I do not have, to my knowledge, one drop of Pilgrim blood in me,” he told the crowd, which laughed appreciatively. “And no one in my family has. I do not look like a typical former president of the Pilgrim Society, which i know has confused many over the years.”
In his charming and heartening address, which can be seen on YouTube, Professor Gomes began by disarming the crowd, then continued to a witty, knowing assessment of the town:
“Let it be perfectly clear to all who hear me that we in Plymouth acknowledge the fact that the Mayflower landed here first. We have known that fact for a very long time. It is not new news to us. But it is probably new news to you that it is not new news to us. And so, as Plymouth’s ambassador on this occasion, I thought I should start out on that positive and affirmative note. …
“Provincetown has always been a great mystery to me. And so I was pleased to have an opportunity to plumb the depths of this mystery. When I tell people that I was coming here for these purposes, they smiled — ruefully. When I said that I would be riding in a parade through the streets of Provincetown, they were horrified. …
“I like to think of Provincetown in its remarkable incarnation as the expression of lusty liberty. And you are that. Lusty liberty, which celebrates the power of the individual, which gives life to autonomy, which suggests that people are perhaps the most important commodity with which we work. It is that air of freedom and creativity which has marked this town and made it a byword.”
“All of us are involved in this Pilgrim business,” Professor Gomes said. “It is too important, too grand to belong to any one of us. It belongs to us all.” ¶ Posted 2013-01-28
The 100th Anniversary Rededication, 5 August 2010