Historic Destinations: Plymouth, Massachusetts

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August 1, 2009 by D Stack

Plimouth Plantation

Plimouth Plantation

I love visiting historic places, especially those that deal with early American history. Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, Boston’s Freedom Trail, Sturbridge Village, Plimouth Plantation. All places I’ve been to over the past few years. It’s nice living in Massachusetts for those sorts of destinations, though I wish I could get down to Virginia more often. And I’ve still yet to see Philadelphia.

If you ever want to get someone from Virginia worked up, mention that you visited “the place where America started: Plymouth, Massachusetts”. They will, in all probability, correct you, pointing out a mathematical problem with that statement. The colony of Plimouth was founded in 1620. Jamestown was founded in 1607. By the time Plimouth was settled Jamestown had been in existence for over 13 years and beyond the initial settlement of just men families had begun settling in Jamestown.

Yet Plimouth occupies a place in our imagination that Jamestown does not. It’s probably not fair. My wife theorizes it is because Jamestown was initially founded solely by men in search of a fortune whereas Plimouth was founded by people who fully intended to settle there. Tony Horwitz examines the myth of Americas founding and a history of European settlement prior to the Pilgrims of Plimouth in his book A Voyage Long and Strange. It’s an enjoyable work: part travelogue, part history text.

I took a day off from work last Friday for a family trip down to Plimouth. Family funds are a bit tight this summer so we’ve been doing more local stuff this summer as opposed to something involving overnight stays. My eldest daughter Vicki and I visited it last summer as well. This is the first time the whole family came along – we brought along my wife Patty and our youngest, Jasmine.

There’s three “classic” historic destinations in Plymouth. The first we visited was Plimouth Plantation, a recreation (relocated inland) of the original colony as it would have been in 1627. It’s evolved a long way over time. At present it has some twenty-odd buildings enclosed within walls – a recreation of the English settlement (the guidebooks freely indicate this is less than half the buildings of the actual settlement). There are character actors tending to their gardens and animals, work on new buildings, etc. Having visited Colonial Williamsburg several times, I am struck by the difference approximately 150 years make. Williamsburg feels far more comfortable to modern eyes – no electricity or running water, but the constructions feel more familiar. However the colonist buildings in Plimouth feel far rougher – most of them are a single room with windows without class – either open or covered with paper or wood. A single bed, a rough table and a few chairs make up most of the furnishings with the possible addition of a cradle. Above is an attic which can be accessed by a ladder. The fireplace is very rough and primitive. Though I’m told there are many who still live under such conditions…

Nearby (still within the museum) is a Wampanoag homesite. Though the staff is dressed in traditional Wampanoag attire, they are not character actors and interact with a 21st century perspective. Reading some of the literature, my impression is this is partially in repsponse to the greetings of “How” and “India war cries” the staff would often receive (neither of which would be accurate for the Wampanoag in any case).

There is also a crafts area and the obligatory restautaunt and giftshop. The kids liked getting candy there.

Fleeing some pouring rain we then went to visit the Mayflower II, a recreation of the original Mayflower built in the 1950s. There are character actors and staff aboard the Mayflower II and a small outdoor museum discussig the mechanics of the journey, who travelled aboard her, etc. While my youngest went up and down the stairs I had a chance to talk with one of the staff – he was incredibly knowledgeable about the ship, the recreation process, what they know from history and what they had to extrapolate or guess. Thanks Mrs. Publius for watching Jazzy while I spoke with him. He recommended a book which is now on it’s way from amazon – Mourt’s Relation, a day-to-day contemporary text about the Pilgrims’ journey and settlement.

We then made the obligatory trip to Plymouth Rock. Most people walked away with the sage observation “it’s a rock”. That about sums it up. Supposedly it is the first place stepped on by the Pilgrims. Technically that’s probably not true, as first landfall was at Provincetown, but it is possible that it was the site of landfall in Plymouth. The first reference to it was in mid-18th century and was identified by a 91-year old record keeper who indicated his father had indicated it was the place of landfall where they first stepped on American soil. But really, it is a symbol and that is  what gives it its power. A small group of people settling in a land thousands of miles away from their homeland. There’s a lot of grime on the story – the decimation of the Native American population, the legacies of American slavery, the fact that Plimouth was founded as a colony not welcoming freedom of religion. But the nation we are today got its start from English colonists, the first of which settled in Jamestown and Plimouth. Its hard to not feel some awe at relics from that time.

One closing note. Something I noticed on both trips I’ve made to Plimouth Plantation – I heard a ton of foreign languages and British accents. It seems to be a rather popular destination for foreign tourists.

Note – Plimouth Plantation has a website for any interested in making their own trip. It also covers Mayflower II.


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August 2009
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