PLYMOUTH, MA – A LIVING HISTORY

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PLYMOUTH, MA – A LIVING HISTORY

Plymouth is a town located in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, United States. Plymouth holds a place of great prominence in American history, folklore and culture, and is known as “America’s Hometown.” Plymouth was the site of the colony founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims, passengers of the famous ship the Mayflower. Plymouth is where New England was first established. It is the oldest municipality in New England and one of the oldest in the United States. The town has served as the location of several prominent events, the most notable being the first Thanksgiving feast. Plymouth served as the capital of Plymouth Colony from its founding in 1620 until the colony’s merger with the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1691. Plymouth is named after Plymouth, South West England, United Kingdom.

Plymouth holds the unique distinction of being the first permanent settlement in New England, and one of the oldest settlements in the United States.   Plymouth has played a very important role in American colonial history. It was the final landing site of the first voyage of the Mayflower, and the location of the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony. Plymouth was established in the December of 1620 by Anglicans and English separatists who had broken away from the Church of England, believing that the Church had not completed the work of the Protestant Reformation. Today, these settlers are much better known as “Pilgrims”, a term coined by William Bradford.

Plimoth Plantation, founded in 1947, is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that exhibits the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony established in the 17th century by English Colonists, some of whom later became known as Pilgrims. They were among the first people who immigrated to America to avoid religious persecution and to seek religious separation from the Church of England. It is a not-for-product museum supported by admissions, contributions, grants and volunteers.

As one of the country’s first settlements, Plymouth is well known in the United States for its historical value. The events surrounding the history of Plymouth have become part of the mythology of the United States, particularly those relating to Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims and the First Thanksgiving. The town itself is a popular tourist spot during the Thanksgiving holiday.  I remember going the Plymouth Plantation with my family when I was younger on one of our summer trips.

Prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims, the location of Plymouth was a village of 2,000 Wampanoag Native Americans called Patuxet. This region that would become Plymouth was visited twice by European explorers prior to the establishment of Plymouth Colony. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain sailed to Plymouth Harbor, calling it Port St. Louis. Captain John Smith, a leader of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia, explored parts of Cape Cod Bay; he is credited with naming the region which would become the future Plymouth Colony as “New Plimouth.”

The 17th-Century English Village is a re-creation of the small farming and maritime community built by the Pilgrims along the shore of Plymouth Harbor. The English Village brings colonial Plymouth vividly to life. Here, you will find modest timber-framed houses furnished with reproductions of the types of objects that the Pilgrims owned, aromatic kitchen gardens, and heritage breeds livestock. Engaging townspeople are eager to tell you about their new lives in Plymouth Colony.

Today, the people you meet are costumed role players portraying actual residents of Plymouth Colony. They have adopted the names, viewpoints and life histories of the people who lived and worked in the Colony. Each has a unique story to tell. Their viewpoints might shock or fascinate you, educate or entertain you. Imagine you have travelled back in time and can hear directly from the Pilgrims about the Colony’s difficult beginnings. Ask about religious beliefs, education and child rearing, relations with Native People, gardens, cooking, or any topic of interest to you. Or simply rest on a bench and enjoy the unique atmosphere of 17th-century Plymouth Colony.

The re-creations are sourced from a wide variety of first and second records, accounts, articles and period paintings and artifacts, and the museum conducts ongoing research and scholarship, including historical archaeological excavation and curation locally and abroad.

In the 1627 English Village section of the museum, interpreters have been trained to speak, act and dress appropriately for the period. At Plimoth Plantation they are called historical interpreters, and they interact with their ‘strange visitors’ (i.e. the modern general public) in the first person, answering questions, discussing their lives and viewpoints and participating in tasks such as cooking, planting, blacksmithing and animal husbandry. The 1627 English Village loosely follows a time line, chronologically representing the calendar year 1627 from late March through November (the months the museum is open), depicting day-to-day life and seasonal activities as well as featuring some key historical events such as funerals and special celebrations.   Alongside the settlement is a re-creation of a Wamanoag home site, where modern Native People from a variety of nations (not in period character, but in traditional dress) explain and demonstrate how the Wampanoag’s ancestors lived and interacted with the settlers.

The museum grounds at Plimoth Plantation also include Nye Barn, where historical breeds of livestock are kept; a crafts center where many of the objects used in the village exhibits are created; a cinema where educational videos are shown, a Colonial Education site for youth and adult groups, and visitors’ center with indoor exhibits and educational programs. The two houses on the Colonial Education site were built by Plimoth Plantation for the PBS show Colonial House filmed in Maine. Following the filming, the museum disassembled the houses and reconstructed them at Plimoth Plantation. The roof of one of these houses, the Cook House, was destroyed by a fire from a fireplace on November 19, 2011. The building had to be torn down.

The Mayflower II, docked near the purported Plymouth Rock, is also under the care of the museum. Colonial first-person interpreters represent the sailors and officers of the ship circa the 1620s. At some times, the “sailors” go on week-long trips to experience what it was like for Pilgrims.   The Mayflower II is a full-size replica of the Mayflower, the ship which brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620. It is located at the State Pier in Plymouth Center. The ship is open as a museum about the Pilgrims’ historic voyage from Plymouth, England, and is considered a faithful replica of the original Mayflower. It is officially a part of Plimoth Plantation. The ship is still seaworthy, and routinely takes voyages around Plymouth Harbor.

The Mayflower first anchored in what would become the harbor of Provincetown, Massachusetts on November 11, 1620. The ship was headed for Virginia, but eventually reached New England. There are varying theories as to how this happened. They include: violent storms threw the ship off course; a navigation error; the Dutch bribed the captain to sail north so the Pilgrims would not settle near New Amsterdam; and the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, who comprised only 35 of the 102 settlers aboard the Mayflower, hijacked the ship to land far from Anglican control. The Pilgrim settlers, realizing that the party did not have a patent to settle in the region, subsequently signed the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrims went on to explore various parts of Cape Cod, but soon a storm and violent fights with local Native Americans forced the migrants to sail westward into Cape Cod Bay. The Pilgrims eventually came across the sheltered waters of Plymouth Harbor on December 17th. The appealing and protected bay led to a site in the present-day Harbor District being chosen for the new settlement after three days of surveying. The settlers officially disembarked on December 21, 1620. It is traditionally said that the Pilgrims first set foot in America at the site of Plymouth Rock, though no historical evidence can prove this claim. The settlers named their settlement “Plimouth” (also historically known as “Plimoth”, an old English spelling of the name) after the major port city in Devon, England from where the Mayflower sailed.

Plymouth faced many difficulties during its first winter, the most notable being the risk of starvation and the lack of suitable shelter. From the beginning, the assistance of Indians was vital. One colonist’s journal reports: ‘We marched to the place we called Cornhill, where we had found the corn before. At another place we had seen before, we dug and found some more corn, two or three baskets full, and a bag of beans….In all we had about ten bushels, which will be enough for seed. It is with God’s help that we found this corn, for how else could we have done it, without meeting some Indians who might trouble us.’

Even greater assistance came from Samoset and Tisquantum (better known as Squanto), an Indian sent by Wampanoag Tribe Chief Massasoit, as an ambassador and technical adviser. Squanto had been kidnapped in 1614 by an English slave raider and sold in Malaga, Spain. Having learned English, he escaped slavery and returned home in 1619. Teaching the colonists how to farm corn, where and how to catch fish, and how to make other necessary items, he was instrumental in the survival of the settlement for the first two years. Squanto and another guide sent by Massasoit in 1621, Hobomok, helped the colonists set up trading posts for furs and pay off the cost of establishing the colony. Chief Massasoit later formed a Peace Treaty with the Pilgrims. Upon growing a plentiful harvest in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims gathered with Squanto, Samoset, Massasoit, and ninety other Wampanoag men in a celebration of food and feasting. This celebration is known today as the First Thanksgiving, and is still commemorated annually in downtown Plymouth with a parade and a reenactment. Since 1941, Thanksgiving has been observed as a federal holiday in the United States.

Plymouth Rock is one of Plymouth’s most famous attractions. Traditionally, the rock is said to be the disembarkation site of the Pilgrims. However, there is no historical evidence to support this belief. The first identification of Plymouth Rock as the actual landing site was made in 1741 by 94-year-old Thomas Faunce, whose father had arrived in Plymouth in 1623, three years after the arrival of the Mayflower. The rock is located roughly 650 feet (200 m) from where the initial settlement was thought to be built.

Plymouth Rock became very famous after its identification as the supposed landing site of the Pilgrims, and was subsequently moved to a location in Plymouth Center. During the process, the rock split in two. It was later moved to Pilgrim Hall and then to a location under a granite Victorian Canopy, where it was easily accessible and subject to souvenir hunters. The rock was finally moved back to its original location along the town’s waterfront in 1921. “Plymouth Rock”, a large boulder, now sits under the historic Plymouth Rock Portico. The Neo-Classical Revival structure was designed by the highly influential architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, designers of the Boston Public Library, Rhode Island State House and the former Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Built in 1921 the existing granite portico replaced an earlier Gothic Revival style monument designed by Hammatt Billings (who also designed the National Monument to the Forefathers). In 1970 the Plymouth Rock Portico was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The rock and portico are the centerpiece of Pilgrim Memorial State Park. The park is the smallest park in the Massachusetts state forest and park system, but is also the most heavily visited.

Pilgrim Hall Museum, founded in 1824, is the oldest continually operating museum in the United States. It is located in Plymouth Center. Plymouth also features the National Monument to the Forefathers, which was dedicated in 1889. Standing at 81 feet (25 m) tall, it is the tallest free-standing solid granite monument in the United States. Other notable historical sites include the Jenney Grist Mill, a working replica of an original mill built in 1636, as well as the 1640 Richard Sparrow House, the oldest house still standing in Plymouth.

Kathy Kiefer

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