I’ve visited the Plimoth Plantation many times, but it had been a few years since my last visit. Recently, having been housebound because of Covid, all of us needed a bit of stimulation. So after picking up the grandkids, off we went to experience, once again, the living history museum replicating where the Pilgrims first settled.
If you are unfamiliar with the story of the pioneers who came to America for religious freedom, its a fascinating tale of how people, feeling so strongly about their need to make their own decisions, felt forced to leave the only country they had ever known and a life where everything was very familiar to them, and risk everything for what they believed. Their journey, however, was far more difficult and complex than we were taught in school.
~ ~ ~
In England in the late 16th century, a group of people, who had finally come to the decision that the Church of England was not a true church, banded together and formed a “separate” congregation. Then, after years of persecution, in 1608 (twelve years before sailing for the new world), more than 300 of these Separatists left England and settled in Holland, a much more religiously tolerant country. But, as foreigners, regardless of their wealth or previous positions, they were all forced into accepting the most menial of jobs and living in squalid conditions. Prejudices against this group were evident everywhere. Even more abhorrent to these Separatists was the fact that their children were becoming “Dutch”.
These people were families, laymen, farmers with no prior experience for what lay ahead. What they did have was a powerful connection and belief in God. Going to the New World was not, however, going to be as easy as they originally thought. They needed a strong leader, a sound ship, an experienced captain and crew, and funding. Also, negotiations had to be made with England giving these settlers the right to establish a colony in a world which England had already claimed.
Now ready for their adventure, in May of 1619 the Separatists began preparing for their voyage. After accumulating all the necessary provisions, fishing supplies, tools, clothing and food, on three different occasions they were duped by ‘carpetbaggers’ who took advantage of their naivety. After months of disappointment and frustration, running out of resources and time, they somehow continued to forge ahead.
Finally, in July of 1620, leaving many of the original Separatists behind, the remaining Pilgrims sailed from Holland to Southampton England, on board the Speedwell. This ship proved to be ‘as leaky as a sieve’ with water spouting through every plank. Many of them had, by this time, lost everything and were willing to abandon their quest. After trying three more times to set sail, they put in at Plymouth as the Speedwell went in for repairs. The weeks turned into months. Time was running out and if they didn’t leave immediately, they’d have to wait until Spring.
Then finally on September 6th, after twelve long years, having given up on the Speedwell and now on board an older, much-smaller, cargo ship known as the “May floure“, 50 of the original 320 Separatists, along with 52 others, set out for the two month, 3,000 mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
~ ~ ~
Although our visit to this historic re-enactment village was much-needed, it was both a good and disheartening visit, as the effects of Covid were evident everywhere. Yes, it was still the authentic reproduction of the first village the Pilgrims had created when they came to start their new life in America. Seven timber-framed, thatch-roofed cottages on either side of the dirt road, each encased by a roughly-hewn wooden fence surrounding their modest kitchen gardens. But, everything needed a little bit of love, as the homes, the grounds, the gardens were all showing signs of wear and tear. Since Covid, attendance is practically none existent, and the subsequent lack of income is starting to show.
The characters are still authentic in their dress and their interaction with visitors. None were ‘tripped up’ when we asked about current events. But there were just a few. In the past, each tiny cottage would have had a ‘goodwife’ preparing a meal at the open hearth, or tending to the kitchen garden, eager to share with you their recipes or what herbs were best for chilblains. Children would have been tending the pigs, or rolling barrel staves down the hill. The men would have been standing guard at the fort, or mending the thatch on a roof. It was truly an interactive experience.
Now the houses are roped off . . . no entrance allowed. You may ‘look’ in, but not enter. Just six short months ago, visitors could go into each home, sit on a chair by the hearth, sample the homemade butter, learn how to card wool. The children could put on period clothing, lie on the straw-filled mattresses, climb the rickety ladder to the loft. Visitors once came from all over the country, and the world, to experience how these pioneers lived and survived in the 1600s. For some, they may never get the chance to visit again. What a shame, it can’t be experienced the way it was meant to be.
The Wampanoag village is still there, in its entirety. Here, you can enter the mat-covered wetu (house), and the bark-covered nush wetu (large house) where an entire family would live. And, a male member of the Wampanoag tribe was in full dress, busy burning the inside of a pine log to create a mishoon (canoe). He was lean, proud and eager to answer any and all questions and share unknown facts about how his ancestors lived at that time. But … the mask! It was so distracting … and so difficult for the little ones to hear and understand. Was it really necessary? I guess so, but the few visitors who were there were very respectful, keeping the required distance from each other.
Plimoth Plantation really can transport you back to another time. It can give you an appreciation of what life was truly like for these brave people. I know there is an aggressive campaign to raise funds for the recent restoration of the Mayflower II, the on-going educational programs, as well as to help cover the ever-increasing operational costs. I’m also aware that the museum is growing and wants to provide new residences for interns and a research center, but it just seems to me, that the main attraction “The Plantation” is being neglected and perhaps care and attention should be given to it before some of these other projects.