Ninety nine men, women and children alighted onto the rocky shore of what was to become Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 21, 1620. They could not have chosen a worse time to start their venture. The Mayflower, an old merchant ship, set out with 102 passengers, but by the time it anchored off Plymouth the number of settlers aboard had fallen to 99.
A Time Machine to the Seventeenth Century
Recalling the harsh and uncertain world they stepped into, Plimoth Plantation re-creates the first Pilgrim settlement. The brainchild of archaeologist Henry Hornblower, II, this historic re-creation provides acres of real-life exposure to the experiences of the 1620s. The time period chosen is 1627, long enough after the first tragic year, when almost half of the settlers had perished, for the community to have become settled. Additional ships have brought new settlers and the fear of starvation has been diminished. But, the primitive nature of the settlement remains and the time for larger and more permanent homes is still in the future.
It is a little known fact that as many as a third of the passengers on Mayflower were not members of the Separatist movement referred to as Pilgrims. Yet they too were signatories to the Mayflower Compact that established the governance of the new colony, a model for this county’s founding documents one hundred and fifty years later. Early on, several of these other settlers moved on to establish other settlements elsewhere, as was the case with Miles Standish who started a settlement further up the coast at Duxbury.
Life in a harsh, primitive environment
At Plimouth Plantation a rough eight foot tall plank stockade fence runs downhill in two lines forming an elongated diamond-shaped fortified community. At its head, on top of the hill, a square two-story fort and its cannons provide protection from the unknown enemies outside the stockade. A broad dirt street, Leyden Street, runs directly from the fort to the lower end of the settlement, passing the rough houses of named settlers along the way. Along it are the houses of the Reverend Brewster, the house of Governor Bradford, the first home of Miles Standish and the homes and farms of the other families engaged in this venture.
Each home has a frame of small beams held together with wooden pegs, the spaces between them filled with a mixture of reeds and mud — a building style known as wattle and daub. To protect these walls, a layer of clapboards, hand-split from logs, has been nailed to the frame’s exposed side, using scarce wrought nails. The roofs of these basic homes are framed in timber and covered with thick layers of reeds from nearby marshlands. At one end of the single room inside each one, stones set into the earthen floor provides base for a fire for warmth and cooking. Behind the fire, a thick layer of dried mud daub protects from the danger of fire, and smoke rises up to escape through a hole in the roof that serves as a chimney.
Seventeenth century life, lived as it was
Life in this settlement exists as though it were still the early 17th century, and the people who inhabit this world live the roles of the actual people who originally settled here. Each docent takes on the character of a settler, living as they did in the mid 1620s, and performing the chores required by daily life in the early years of the colony.
On the streets and in the yards, men build fences, even houses. Gardens are tended, animals cared for and housekeeping chores are performed, all in period. Each interpreter is a real person, speaking in 17th-century English and talking of then current events. Ask any docent about their voyage, their daily life, relations with the Wampanoag or even for gossip about other settlers and you will get an authoritative answer. Ask about a comparison with 21st century life, however, and you will get a quizzical look. It can be unsettling, but they know nothing of later times, of the visitors’ time. These settlers do know of the other settlements that developed from their own, and of other settlers, and they speak knowledgeably about their community, its commerce, and the affairs of the other settlements and of events back home in England.
Plimoth Plantation is immensely popular as a destination for school field trips but it is also a wonderful place for adults as well. It is a place to learn and experience the earliest years of the English presence in North America, a place to stretch the imagination on a journey back to the first years of New England. A full list of programs happening daily is posted in the Hornblower Visitor Center. Be sure to visit the Craft Center where craftsmen recreate household items of the seventeenth century, both English and native American. Access directions are available on their website.