Pilgrims’ Progress

On the 399th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, Mount Hope Farm asserts its own history

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Turkey, cranberry sauce, and buckled shoes – we are all familiar with “the first Thanksgiving,” as illustrated in a thousand children’s books. But what if that famous feast didn’t start in Plymouth, Massachusetts? What if the very first gathering took place in Bristol, Rhode Island?

“The rumor is that it was actually here,” says Gina MacDonald, managing director of Mount Hope Farm. “Primary sources indicate that there was a gathering in Plymouth. We don’t argue with that. But there was a harvest gathering here, and that has been well documented. So, the question is, when did Thanksgiving become Thanksgiving? We say that the harvest gathering here was probably the first.”

Skeptics may recoil at such an iconoclastic idea, especially the year before Turkey Day’s quadricentennial, but Gina points to some provocative facts. Mount Hope Farm is located next to King Philip’s Seat, a sizable cliff nestled in the woods, where the Pokanoket people would gather for important meetings. The same land might have made a natural meeting ground for the two disparate peoples.

Susan Maloney serves on the Mount Hope Farm board, and she speaks reverently of King Philip’s Seat. “It’s very quiet,” she says. “It’s almost spiritual. You can see how this would be sacred ground of the Pokanokets.”

The exact date of that feast is unknown, and no primary sources describe the celebration. But historians believe that the feast took place at the end of October, the traditional harvest season, and that Plymouth colonists attended. The story is still essentially tragic, since the feast was followed by war, disease, and broken treaties. Susan and Gina recommend Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, an exhaustive history of the Pilgrims and their aftermath. But for that one day, at least, folks seem to have overlooked their differences and broken bread together.

Mount Hope Farm is a storied property. Originally called Montaup, the land was cultivated by several different owners over the next 200 years, until the famous Haffenreffer family took over in 1917. Some of that estate now belongs to Brown University, but the remaining 127 acres has become a farm, an inn, and a wedding destination. Guests can stay in the same room that once quartered President George Washington.

Many visitors are unaware that the Mount Hope Trust is a nonprofit organization, neither private institution nor public park. Aside from its bevy of goats and chickens, Mount Hope has several raised beds, where volunteers and URI master gardeners raise thousands of pounds of produce for the East Bay Food Bank.

“It’s not a house museum,” adds Gina. “We’re not frozen in time. It’s a living organism. I look out there, and the land is being farmed as it was probably farmed 400 years ago. The crops are different, and the people certainly are, but the use of the land is the same.”