The Pilgrims' welcome mat is just one historical sight (and perhaps not the most impressive) in the famed Massachusetts town
(CNN) -- More than 375 years ago, the Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution, traveled aboard the Mayflower for more than two months, stepping ashore in the new world at Plymouth Rock. The group of just over 100 people endured a horrible winter, losing about half its number that first year. In the end, survivors celebrated good fortunes, a good harvest, and good friends -- the Wampanoag Indians -- with a fall feast we now call Thanksgiving.
At the site of these historical events, there's a rock inscribed "1620," a reproduction of the famed ship that brought those settlers across the Atlantic from England, and an annual celebration of their feast -- all part and parcel in the legend of the land that became the United States of America.
But all is not quite as it seems in Plymouth, Massachusetts -- the infamous Plymouth Rock is small, about the size of a storage trunk, dwarfed by a Greek-looking canopy built over it. And nobody knows for sure if it indeed was the rock that provided the new world's welcome mat. The replica ship in the harbor nearby is but a close approximation of the Mayflower -- no representations of the actual ship survived from the 17th century. And careful study of Pilgrims' accounts of their landing indicates that the first steps on land likely occurred from a 20-30 foot boat (called a shallop) that was used for traversing shallow waters.
The first Thanksgiving feast? Well, it was a three-day affair in 1621 that the participants called a harvest feast. It probably included turkey (but might not have), and it wasn't repeated. Massachusetts proclaimed a day of thanksgiving in June 1676, and all 13 colonies celebrated a day of thanksgiving in 1777 to mark their victory over the British at Saratoga. Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November an official national day of Thanksgiving, after a 40-year campaign by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale of "Godey's Lady's Book."
But Plymouth's appeal as a tourist destination is certainly not diminished by the mythical tone of its fame. This, after all, is the place the United States was born, in a sense -- the place where, at least for one shining feast, Europeans and Native Americans met harmoniously at the dinner table. Nearly 400 years later, the country still celebrates the occasion.