Last week, I had the good fortune of trekking off to Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Ali’s dad and little brothers. That’s right, the home of “The Rock.” Nearly four-hundred years ago a handful of pilgrims headed west from Europe in search of religious freedom. Soon after the surviving pilgrims befriended the Natives and had a great Thanksgiving. At least this is the story, most of us learned.
The reality is slightly different and Plimouth Plantation explores those differences in a fascinating way. It is a living history museum, in the mold of the popular Colonial Williamsburg. So, there are recreators walking around ready to interact with anachronistic visitors. Although I had been informed that the historical role players had a tendency to be a bit aggressive, this bunch was pleasant.
We set out first to see the Mayflower II. A reproduction of the 16th century vessel, it sits seaside a few miles from the plantation. I always find it fascinating to experience actual spaces. Although it seems pretty large at first, the ship has remarkably little room when you consider the number of people that would travel on it. Just being on the ship with other visitors was crowded. I can’t imagine what a voyage across the Atlantic with full crew, cargo, and passengers would have been pleasant.
Anyone that has watched the recent PBS Colonial House has gotten a glimpse of the kind of life that greeted arrivals to the New World. In fact, that show was hosted by Plimouth Plantation. It is very akin to the pilgrim village. Again, the scale of space is remarkable. The houses that the pilgrims built were pretty little and rustic. It had to have been a definite step backwards for the Europeans. No windows, dirt floors, and thatched roofs were the order of the day. Considering that the pilgrims landed in November, it is not surprising that only half of them made it through the first winter.
Unfortunately, we only had time to explore the pilgrim village. However, one of the more unique aspects of the museum is that it also contains a native (Wampanoag) homesite. It is a real testament that Native voices are preserved and included in the museum. Based on my interest with Native America, there is no question I will be heading back to explore that aspect more. More than anything, it is a more expansive point-of-view which reveals a vastly more interesting and compelling story.
Of course there is the romanticized story and the one a bit closer to reality. For instance not every individual that made the voyage was a religious Separatist. Nevertheless, those non-Separatists were required to attend religious services with everyone else. So much for religious freedom! Then there is the entrenched concept of Thanksgiving. It is no surprise that our national holiday has been manufactured and commercialized beyond any recognition of what occurred in 1621. Let’s just say that relations between the Wampanoag and the pilgrims were not as congenial as we were lead to believe. No surprise there; and George Washington didn’t actually chop down a cherry tree. I am truly puzzled as to why so many historical myths are continually perpetuated. We short change history and ourselves when we oversimplify the stories of our past.