The pilgrim’s Thanksgiving feast of 1621 at Plymouth Plantation with Native Americans is often referred to as the original meal that later began the holiday of thanks. This is an often-mythologized scene from American history that has been taught to elementary school children for generations. Few are taught, however, that a tangible link to that first Thanksgiving—a gun to be precise—is still here as a reminder that American’s from the first days had firearms for self-defense.
This particular gun is affectionately known as the “Mayflower gun,” as it came over the Atlantic from England on the Mayflower. It now rests in the NRA’s National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Va.
This Italian-made wheel-lock carbine was found during a home renovation in Duxbury, Mass., in 1924. It was in a secret compartment next to the front door—likely first stored there to be used to defend the home. The home was built in the 1650s by members of the Alden family, a family whose roots date back to John Alden, one of the Pilgrim leaders of Plymouth Colony who came over on the Mayflower in 1620.
Phil Schreier, senior curator for the National Firearms Museum, says, “Alden’s occupied the house from 1653 through 1896. This home survived nearly 350 years without being ravaged by fire, a common fate of early American residences.”
Schreier says there is no doubt this gun was at the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony in 1621. It was also undoubtedly used by Alden to hunt with (perhaps it was even used to kill a wild turkey) and to defend the young colony.
Alden, who signed onto the Mayflower as a 20-year-old cooper, joined Capt. Miles Standish’s Militia to defend the settlers from attacks. He was also a signatory of the original Mayflower compact. His rifle was a single-shot originally chambered in .50 caliber, says Schreier, but extensive use removed almost all traces of its rifling. Today, after years of use, repairs and modifications, the gun would require a .66-caliber ball.
According to curators at the museum, markings on its barrel and lockplate indicate this gun is connected to the original Beretta family of armorers. The surviving detail of its wheel-lock device—the rotating mechanism, which provides spark and ignition—is a thing of fine craftsmanship and a link to our first Thanksgiving.