Forefather's Day

By Stacy B.C. Wood, Jr.

The following poem is without author attribution (but see below). It appeared in the March 1846, Vol. III No. III issue, pages 249-50, of The American Review – A Wig Journal of Politics, Literature, Art and Science To Understand the Constitution. You may find it to be a “dance macabre.”


Written upon the occasion of the celebration, at Plymouth, of the two hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims – being the twenty-second of Dec., 1845 – which day was concluded with a “Pilgrim Ball.”

Forefathers Gala Ball

A Gala Ball Circa 1840, painted by Victor Gabriel Gilbert

The moon shone cold and brightly,
But brighter still within,
The lights beamed full on jeweled head,
And blazed from diamond pin.
Gay music rings upon the ear,
The beating pulses thrill,
And, hand locked close in twininghand,
The heart beats faster still.
And low the silvery laugh went round,
And loud the prompter’s call,
And gaily gleamed the twining dance—
It was the “Pilgrim Ball.”

The moon shone cold and brightly
In the church-yard on the hill,
But there, within that blazing hall,
The lamps shone brighter still:—
But now, why is the music hushed?
Why stops the woven dance—
And maids and youths stand still and gaze,
As they were in a trance?—
Wide swings the door — a ghastly train
Slow sweeps along the hall—
I wot they were strange guest to see
Gracing the “Pilgrim Ball.”

The moon shone cold and brightly
On the hill-top and the plain;
But no man watched their coming thence,
Nor saw from whence they came.
Dim forms they were, of ancient days,
As living eyes ne’er saw,
Save in Pictures grim and old
That cunning limnets draw.
“Give way!”—in hollow tone sounds out,
“Give way now, one and all,
And we will dance an olden dance:—
It is the ‘Pilgrim Ball !’”

And then those dusky figures,
Moved mournfully around;
And broad-brimmed had and matron’s hood
Bent, as in sorrow, down,
A strain of music, low and deep,
Went with their solemn tread;
And words, unbreathed, were mingling in,
As by the music bred.
Though almost lost in that deep strain,
Those words were heard by all—
“We tread the Exiles’ march!—It is
Fit step for ‘Pilgrim Ball!’”

Then sank that solemn music,
The pageant ceased to move,
And knelt those forms with upraised hands,
As sending thanks above.
In vain the chorded strings began
A fresh and lively air;
Strange husky words were mingled in,
“We pray the Exiles’ prayer!”
They prayed—their hollow voices rose
Above the prompter’s call,
The rising, noiselessly they went
Forth from the “Pilgrim Ball.”

The moon shone cold and brightly,
On the hill-top and the plain;
But no man saw from whence they came,
Nor whither went again.
Those dusky forms passed like a dream,
That low strain died away,
And as the strange sight vanished thus,
Moonlight gave place to day.
God’s mercy now!—I think it would,
A brave man’s heart appall,
To see the sight that awed the Night,
And hushed the “Pilgrim Ball.”

Forefather Pilgrim Hall

The Original Pilgrim Hall

Since 1769 there have been celebrations of the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth. The earliest was that by the Old Colony Club on December 22, 1769 on the 149th anniversary. Historian James W. Baker, in his 2009 history Thanksgiving – The Biography of an American Holiday, says that Forefathers’ Day was created “as a celebration of Plymouth Colony’s independent origins and in response to oppression by the English Crown that the club members, like their forefathers, found objectionable.” According to Plymouth’s famous historian William T. Davis (1822-1907) in his 1906 Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, the 1769 celebrants dined on “A large baked Indian wortleberry (bilberry) pudding, a dish of sauquetach (succotash), a dish of clams, a dish of sea fowl, a dish of cod fish and eels, an apple pie, a course of cranberry tarts and cheese.” Later celebrations were held by the town, the First Parish Church, the Pilgrim Society, the Third Parish Church, and the Fire Department.

Perhaps the most notable celebration was that of 1820 held by the newly incorporated Pilgrim Society at the wooden First Parish Church (their Pilgrim Hall was not erected until 1824). Daniel Webster was selected for orator. Davis writes that the day was as mild as Indian summer and that:

The galleries reserved for the ladies, seemed with the mingling of colors in dress and hats and fans like banks of flowers mellowing the somber garb worn by society and their guests on the floor below. Mr. Webster wearing small clothes and buckles and shoes, and over all a silk gown, stood on a raised platform in font of the high oak pulpit and began his oration with words to which his audience was in the spirit to heartily response ,”Let us rejoice that we behold this day.”

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852)

Webster used part of his oration to denounce the slave trade:

I hear the sound of the hammer. I see the smoke of the furnace where manacles and fetters are still forged for human limbs. I see the visages of those who by stealth and at midnight labor in this work of hell, foul and dark as may become the artificers of such instruments of misery and torture. Let that spot be purified, or let it cease to be of New England.

He also addressed military achievements, the War of 1812 having ended only five years previously:

Of the ten thousand battles which have been fought; of all the fields fertilized with carnage; of banners which have been bathed in blood; of the warriors who have hoped that they had risen from the field of conquest to a glory as bright and as durable as the stars, how few that continue to interest mankind. The victory of yesterday is reversed by the defeat of today; the star of military glory rising like a meteor, like a meteor has fallen; disgrace and disaster hang on the heels of conquest and renown; victor and vanquished presently pass away to oblivion, and the world goes on in its course with the loss only of so many lives, and so much treasure.

The dinner and the supper for the ball were served in the then under construction Court House. Edward Everett, the Eliot Professor of Greek at Harvard, was to deliver a poem after the oration.

The 1845 celebration, for which the unattributed “Pilgrim Ball” poem or ballad was written, was held by the Pilgrim Society. It was held without the usual oration and consisted of a short service at the First Parish Church (not the current structure) with dinner held in the passenger station of the Old Colony Railroad “floored over for the purpose.” This writer’s great great great grandfather assisted the presiding Pilgrim Society president. The dinner consisted of “a baron of beef from Daniel Webster, and a turbot and saddle of mutton brought from England in the Cunard Steamer Acadia, from S. S. Lewis, the agent of the Cunard Company. “ Oliver Wendell Holmes read a 17 stanza poem or ballad written for the occasion, entitled “The Pilgrim’s Vision.” It is not “The Pilgrim Ball” and its first lines are “In the hour of twilight shadows the Pilgrim sire looked out”

Edward Everett

Edward Everett (1794 – 1865)

Professor Edward Everett, a frequent Pilgrim Society orator, was the after dinner speaker. Everett, due to his Whig party having lost the election to the Democrats, had just lost his position as the ambassador to the Court of Saint James (Great Britain). He had previously served in the US House of Representatives representing Massachusetts and served as Governor of his Commonwealth. In later years he would serve as US Secretary of State and in the US Senate. Since “The Pilgrim Ball” was published in the Whig publication, perhaps, even though it has not been found in his works, he was its author and perhaps this was the poem written for the Society’s first meeting but not delivered a quarter of a century earlier. As he finished his speech “after refuting the charge that the Pilgrims were narrow and bigoted” he picked up an orange and said:

By their fruits ye shall know them; not by the graceful foliage which dallies with the summer breeze; nor by the flower which fades and scatters its perfume on the gale; but by the golden, perfect fruit (seizing the orange and lifting it above his head) in which the genial earth, and ripening sun have garnered up treasures for the food of man, and which in its decay leaves behind the germs of a continued and multiplying existence.

The Pilgrim Society continues to hold annual Forefathers’ Day celebrations in conjunction with its Annual Meeting on the subsequently corrected landing date of 21 December, but without a ball since at least 1920. Attendance recently has been between 200 and 250. Last year the speaker was the Commonwealth of Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick. The previous year the governor had signed an Executive Order creating a State Commission to plan the celebration in 2020 of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, The Pilgrim Society, the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, the various state Mayflower Societies, and Plymouth itself are now planning for the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. Perhaps, unlike the 300th that took place in 1921, it will take place in the proper year!

There are two major histories of Plymouth after the 17th century. The earliest is the 1835 History of The Town of Plymouth From Its First Settlement in 1620, To The Present Time by James Thatcher, M.D. The second is the 1906 Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian by William T. Davis. In addition to these, James W. Baker’s 2008 A Guide to Historic Plymouth includes much history about the various sites.