In January, 1769, a group of seven young Plymouth men; Isaac Lothrop, Pelham Winslow, Thomas Lothrop, Elkanah Cushman, John Thomas, Edward Winslow, Jr. and John Watson, met together to form a club, probably after the developing London model, which would avoid "...the many disadvantages and inconveniences that arise from intermixing with the company at the taverns in this town of Plymouth...” They then established the Old Colony Club, which met on a regular basis on Wednesday evenings.
In December of that year, they decided to hold their annual meeting on the anniversary of the December 11, 1620, Landing on Plymouth Rock. This celebration, originally referred to as “Old Colony Day” and later as “Forefathers' Day,” was first observed on December 22, 1769. It should be noted that the use of the term “Pilgrims” to refer to the Plymouth colonists had not yet come into use. They were still just the local “forefathers” of the little community rather than the symbolic progenitors of the whole nation.
The December 22nd date was chosen to adjust to the discrepancy between the Julian or Old Style and the Gregorian or New Style calendars. Both systems had been in use at the time of the Landing. While Catholic Europe had adopted the corrected Gregorian dates, the Protestant English ignored the change because of the religious and political ramifications of accepting the Catholic rectification. When England and the colonies finally did accept the new system in 1752, eleven days had to be added to make the adjustment. With this recent event in mind, the Old Colony Club converted the Landing anniversary to December 22.
Unfortunately to adjust a date for the early 17th century it was only necessary to add ten days, since the two calendars had not yet diverged by eleven days as they had in 1752. Whether it served any purpose to adjust the dates in this manner was not questioned, and a similar adjustment was made to Washington's Birthday, for example. This resulted in odd juxtapositions in later history books where the Forefathers would arrive at Cape Cod and sign the Compact on (Old Style) November 11, but make their famous Landing on (New Style) December 22, 1620!
“On the morning of the said day (Dec. 22, 1769), after discharging a cannon, was hoisted upon the hall [Old Colony Hall, which once stood on Market Street south of the 1749 Court House, was built by Club member John Thomas, and was the place of meeting for the Club] an elegant silk flag, with the following inscription, 'OLD COLONY, 1620'. At eleven o'clock, A. M. the members of the club appeared at the hall, and from thence proceeded to the house of Mr. Howland, inn-holder, which is erected on the spot where the first licensed house in the Old Colony formerly stood [now the site of Fleet Bank on North Street] , at half after two a decent repast was served, which consisted of the following dishes, viz.
This is the first account of the original Pilgrim holiday, which soon became known as “Forefathers' Day”. By creating a specific anniversary for the landing of the shallop at Plymouth Rock (not the Mayflower, which only arrived in Plymouth harbor on December 16), the Club defined it as the pivotal event in the Forefathers' story, and provided a focus for much of the Pilgrim symbolism that was to follow.
The dinner itself incorporated a number of emblematic elements to emphasize the importance of the event. The food selected was intrinsically native and “...dressed in the plainest manner (all appearance of luxury and extravagance being avoided, in imitation of our ancestors, whose memory we shall ever respect.)” The president sat in a chair that had belonged to Governor William Bradford, and called for a dozen toasts to honor the memory of their ancestors, and to give assent to the need for liberty and prosperity. Among these were toasts to John Carver and the other governors; Nathaniel Morton, Secretary of Plymouth Colony and, until his uncle William Bradford's manuscript Of Plymouth Plantation was rediscovered in 1853, the author of the only available history of the colony; Myles Standish; Massasoit; Deacon Robert Cushman; the union of the Old Colony and Massachusetts; the sentiments against arbitrary power; the downfall of those opposing civil and religious liberty; the deliverance of the colonies from oppression; a lasting union with Britain and prosperity to all the colonies. After the toasts, the evening was spent “recapitulating and conversing upon the many and various advantages of our forefathers in the first settlement of this country, and the growth and increase of the same, — at eleven o'clock in the evening a cannon was again fired, three cheers given, and the club and company withdrew.”
In 1770, Forefathers Day was celebrated on Monday, December 24, in order to avoid the eve of the Sabbath. Youths paraded the streets of the town at daybreak firing off a cannon and small arms. The club members assembled at ten A.M. and were joined at their invitation by many of the leading citizens. Once again there was an entertainment at which “the history of emigrant colonies and the constitution and declension of empires, ancient and modern” was discussed over a meal “foreign from all kinds of luxury, and consisting of fish, flesh, and vegetables, the natural produce of this colony.” The company marched to Old Colony Hall accompanied by the local militia, where they were met by a well-disciplined group of schoolboys and their master, and Rev. Chandler Robbins of the First Church. A speech was given by Edward Winslow, Jr., who recited the usual remembrance of the Forefathers and closed with “...if we, their sons, act from the same principles, and conduct with the same noble firmness and resolution, when our holy religion or our civil liberties are invaded, we may expect a reward proportionate...”
A similar celebration occurred on December 23, 1771. Traditionally, the commemoration of any New England event was made from the pulpit, but three Forefathers Day observations went by before this was suggested. On this occasion, Rev. Chandler Robbins offered to deliver a sermon on the subject the following year, having, as he said, forgotten that the anniversary fell on Sunday in 1771 until he was reminded of the occasion after the fact. The club members gratefully accepted his offer “for proposing a mode of celebration for the future so exactly corespondent with our most sanguine wishes and expectations, as that of having a sermon preached on this solemn as well as important occasion.”
Robbins duly provided the club and its guests with an appropriate sermon in 1772, and from that time forward, a Forefathers' sermon or oration was a regular feature of the occasion, not only in Plymouth but elsewhere. The celebration of 1772 was noted by Samuel Adams of Boston, who congratulated the Plymouth Committee of Correspondence (Plymouth being the first town to respond to the call for the establishment of such committees that year) “on the return of that great Anniversary, the landing of the first Settlers at Plymouth”, without which England would not have had its restless American colonies.
In 1773 the revolutionary Plymouth Committee of Correspondence met with the Old Colony Club — there was some overlap in membership — and rather presumptuously informed the Club that they were determined to recognize Forefathers Day in their own way, and requested that the club “join with and conform thereto” their plans. Not surprisingly, the Club resented this unsolicited invasion of their territory and disruption of existing plans. They voiced a suspicion that the Committee's members had no more right to interfere in such matters than they would in “regulating or altering their creed, or their catechism” and that “This partial and extra-judicial way of proceeding, we apprehend, will have a tendency to promote parties and divisions (which have already too long harassed this once peaceful town).”
The Club voted to observe the holiday privately, which they did, and then disbanded. It was the Town of Plymouth which carried on the Forefathers' Day tradition in 1774, when inflamed partisan passions led to the following report of the celebration in the Boston Gazette (Jan. 2, 1775, p.2/3): “We the Posterity of those of those illustrious Heroes are now suffering under the galling pressure of that power, an emancipation from which, was the one grand object they had in view, in the settlement of this Western World... But, wonderful as it may seem, a pitiful number, who bear the names, and descended from the loins of these ever-to-be-revered Patriots, by their infernal intrigues, and persevering obstinacy, have involved their native Country, enriched with the Blood of their Fathers, in accumulated Calamities and Distresses...” For the time being, the radical patriots claimed the Forefathers for their own.
The Old Colony Club succumbed to the strains of the Revolution, which pitted the interests of the Loyalist members (the Winslows, Thomas, Cushman and White) against those of the Patriots (the Lothrops, Angier, Mayhew, and Scammell) with the result that the former fled the town while the latter remained influential in local affairs. Captain Adams died at sea in 1773 before the lines were drawn, and John Watson, while of Loyalist sympathies, avoided conflict and took the Oath of Allegiance. The holiday the Club had created was taken over by the Town, and eventually came under the direction of the Pilgrim Society, which was founded in 1820. The first Forefathers' Day under the auspices of the new Society was presided over by John Watson, the sole survivor among the founding members of the Old Colony Club, who became president of the Society from 1821 until his death in 1826.