Plymouth – Time travel to early America
Suppose you could travel back in time to 1627 to become an early American colonist in the New World. Seven years earlier, you left your home in England, traveled for 66 days across treacherous waters, and landed on a new shore.
Although many of your fellow travelers died of cold and starvation during that first winter, you survived and are now making a home.
During a recent trip to New England, I visited Plymouth, Mass., and took this trip back in time. Plimoth Plantation (which takes its name from the original spelling) is l45 miles south of Boston in historic Plymouth. It provides a wealth of information about our early American beginnings.
Since it was founded in 1947, the museum has grown from one small re-created house on the Plymouth waterfront to include three major open-air exhibits: the 1627 Pilgrim Village, Hobbamock’s Wampanoag Indian home site and the Mayflower II.
In the Pilgrim Village, interpreters dress and play the roles of their 17th century counterparts, carrying out daily activities and conversing with visitors in 17th century English.
The interpreters undergo extensive training to play their roles. I saw one “colonist” give a visiting schoolboy a blank stare when the boy asked him a question about tomatoes, which were unknown to the colonists.
When I told an interpreter that my home is in California, his response was “Ah, yes! The island of California!” Amused by this response, I later discovered that 17th century maps depict California as an island, separated by water from the continent of North America.
Living-history museums present historical situations in context, combining people, livestock, plants and material culture in a reproduction of the actual physical environment. In addition to presenting the reality of day-to-day life, the exhibits at Plimoth challenge the typical myths and stereotypes about the early settlers.
In describing the first Thanksgiving, a museum guide states cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were not featured at the 1621 harvest celebration. Additionally, “there were no Indians with woven blankets over their shoulders or large, feathered headdresses cascading down their backs. There were no Pilgrims in somber black clothes and tall hats with silver buckles, either.”
Instead, visitors see staff in carefully researched clothing, wearing doublets and waistcoats in hues of red, yellow or purple.
Wampanoag Indian clothing is equally beautiful, fashioned from deerskin, elk hide and fur. Museum staff members pride themselves on thorough scholarship, authentic craftsmanship and careful attention to all the museum’s historical details.
Modern visitors enter the settlement through a rough wooden palisade, or fence. A scattering of thatched huts and clapboard houses, set off against the deep blue of the ocean, line the edge of a wide, dusty road that winds toward the sea.
The houses are recreations of the first Pilgrim homes, created by such renowned English colonists as MIles Standish and John Alden. The interiors are dark, with daub-paneled walls and household items stacked in corners. Visitors are free to wander through and may engage in conversation with a homemaker preparing a midday meal, or her husband preparing to go hunting.
Adjoining each house is a kitchen garden with neatly cultivated rows of carrots, turnips, spinach and onions. Colorful flowers and fragrant herbs line the paths. The air is salty, and seagulls circle overhead.
Farther down the road, a house is being built. There are no tape measures or electric saws. The tools, timbers and construction methods used by the builders are all representative of the 17th century.
Across the museum grounds near the Eel River is Hobbamock’s home site, the recreation of a Wampanoag Indian village. The Wampanoag Indians, or “People of the Dawn,” lived a cautious, peaceful coexistence with the colonists in the early 1600s. In this carefully recreated farm, American Indian interpreters discuss life among native peoples who lived in southeast New England in the 17th century.
A fire is burning inside a wetu, a house built of curved saplings covered with bark. Nearby, two young men wearing deerskins are burning out a log to make a mishoon, or canoe. Women are cultivating a garden, and fish roasts on a wood spit over an open fire.
Two more traditional museum exhibits housed in the museum’s visitors center depict important aspects of life among the colonists and Indians. The newest of these, which opened in August, is titled “Thanksgiving Myth and Meaning.”
This exhibit leads visitors from present-day celebrations and traditions back through time, “to let viewers see the true history of this holiday.” It takes a fresh look at the 1621 harvest feast from the perspectives of the participants, the Wampanoag and the English.
The exhibit features a video re-enactment of the first Thanksgiving,
based on the early historical accounts.
Another exhibit, “Irreconcilable Differences, 1620-1692,” explores the history of the Plymouth Colony over 72 years of its existence from Wampanoag and English viewpoints. Video and interactive computer technology allow visitors to experience the 17th century through the eyes of Mayflower passenger Mary Allerton Cushman and Wampanoag squaw Sachem Awashonks.
The Mayflower II is berthed in the Plymouth harbor, three miles north of the plantation site. This is a full-scale reproduction of the type of merchant vessels that brought the Pilgrims here.
The museum also has six shops that sell unique items, from 17th century reproductions to original native art. In the cafe that adjoins the main gift store, visitors can dine on soup, salads and traditional New England fare. American Indian dinners are offered on some nights
For the historian, student or curious traveler, Plymouth provides a cornucopia of information about our early American roots. History comes out of the books here, engaging the senses and challenging the mind.
Marilyn Terhune-Young lives in Grass Valley.
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