In the month of November, the walls of nearly every American elementary school are covered with construction paper turkeys, headdresses, and Puritan pilgrim hats. Second graders from California to New York don costumes made from grocery bags and wait anxiously until it’s their turn to speak during their recreation of the first Thanksgiving. In high schools, the answer to an extra credit question on a history quiz is 1621- the date of the very first Thanksgiving. It would be nearly 200 years before the Big House by the Sea made its appearance as America’s first seaside resort. The legacy of the Mayflower would travel down the coast, finding its way into the family of Congress Hall’s first proprietor.
In 1921, Rev. Paul Sturtevant Howe, the Rector of the Church of the Advent in Cape May, published a book to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. The book was called Mayflower Pilgrim Descendants in Cape May County, and in it Dr. Howe claims: “On this the three hundredth anniversary of the Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, when all things pertaining to the Pilgrims and the descendants are in the thought of the whole nation, I express this belief, that there are more descendants of the Mayflower in Cape May County, New Jersey, than in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, the landing place.
One hundred and five years before Dr. Howe put this bold statement into print, a businessman in Cape May by the name of Thomas Hughes completed the construction of a hotel known as “The Big House by the Sea.” In 1828, Hughes would be elected to Congress, inspiring his successor, Samuel Richards to rename “The Big House by the Sea” Congress Hall, in honor of Hughes’ accomplishment. In Dr. Howe’s book, an inhabitant of Cape May known as John Whilldin was a descendant of John Gorham, one of the Mayflower Pilgrims of 1621. Through various wills, testimonies, and information provided by Hughes family (including Thomas Hughes himself), Dr. Howe draws on a very important conclusion connecting Congress Hall to the Mayflower: “That Memucan and Ellis Hughes were grandchildren of Joseph Whilldin 2nd and are Mayflower descendants cannot be disputed.”
In 1621 as the Puritan Pilgrims were enjoying a Thanksgiving feast with the Wampanoag Indians, Cape May was being charted by its namesake- a Dutch explorer by the name of Captain Cornelius Mey. The Kechemeche Indians were the inhabitants of the peninsula, living off of the fertile soil and abundant game. As a nation, we are a few short years away from celebrating our 400th Thanksgiving. In a few short months, Congress Hall will celebrate its 200th anniversary, and soon Dr. Howe’s book, published in 1921, will be a hundred years old. All of these milestones, separated by time are connected by this special place. Today, Cape May attracts visitors from near and far for its abundant natural beauty and deeply rooted American history. Whether it’s preserved with paper turkeys made from construction paper, or in libraries saved in cyber space, the history marks the memories that we share today.