Yes, we know we're not sending out many travel reports! We allowed ourselves six weeks to hide away and do nothing but type up the rest of the genealogy photocopies we made last fall. We're almost four weeks into that, and still have a bunch of stuff left to do, so our estimate was not too far off. But there's only so much reporting we can do about the genealogy - lots of gee whiz statistics. Our 10 megabyte data file has over 6800 people now, and we've consulted about 1000 source documents. Since one's ancestors double in number at every generation (assuming one can find them) then it's not so surprising that we have more ancestors in the nineteenth century than the twentieth, more in the eighteenth than the nineteenth, and, especially, more in the seventeenth than the eighteenth. Replica of the Mayflower
So what do we know about seventeenth and eighteenth century America? Well, it turns out that people of our age know next to nothing about the Colonial period, and a lot of what we do know is pure myth, like the Thanksgiving story. The other thing we've been doing recently is reading a lot of books on the subject - let us know if you're interested and we'll be sure to send you our next reading list, with many titles on colonial New England.
One of the books was written by a former director of Plimoth Plantation, where the year 1627 is renacted. So we headed for Plymouth, Massachusetts.
In some ways, the whole town resembles a theme park. You can eat in the Miles Standish Diner (or something similar); you can shop for Genuine Antiques; you can climb aboard the replica of the Mayflower and take a look at Plymouth Rock which lies under a stone temple-like covering (remarkably complete protection for a lump of rock). You can visit a wax museum and you can view statues: Indians, Pilgrim fathers and mothers, etc. No doubt in the summer season it's jammed with tourists. There are also some good historians and antiquarians around, and the General Society of Mayflower Descendants has a small, but high quality genealogical library.
The Plimoth Plantation comes much closer to the theme park idea, because it is a reconstruction of the original village established by the Pilgrims of 1620 (we'll use the word Pilgrim, even though it wasn't generally applied to the settlers of Plymouth colony until the nineteenth century.) It's well worth Replicas of Wampanoag boats the $20 admission because of the careful attention to recreating the known historical details and the skill of the employees. They are constantly working to improve their buildings, displays and performances, and they've changed tremendously since the Plantation was started in the 1960s.
The entrance to the village is down the hill from the visitors center, on a dirt path through a grove of trees. A rough fence of tall boards protects the settlers from wild animals and Indians. In the village, the main street is bordered on both sides by houses, kitchen gardens and livestock pens. At each house, a re-enactor, portraying the person who actually occupied that house in 1627, goes about his or her daily chores, greeting visitors and happy to stop for a chat. These Pilgrims don't just answer the specific question: they are prepared to embroider on the topic, or to talk about other things as long as the visitor's time and interest allow.
For example, at the first house, we asked the young woman whether the thatched roofs could catch fire. We had heard that ladders were propped up nearby, but we didn't see any. Oh no, was her first response. You don't want a cooking fire that has high flames. To properly cook your food, you want a hot fire of coals. You wouldn't have flames anywhere up near the roof.
So far, so good. But it got better. She proceeded to talk about one fire a few years earlier, where a bunch of sailors had been allowed to spend the night indoors and they lit a bonfire which burned the building and threatened some others -- was it ignorance (because sailors don't often work with fire) or malice? Nobody knew. Then she told another story about a fire in a storehouse, and this story was full of suspense and lots of details about the mystery of whether somebody had set the fire in order to steal goods from the storehouse.
Down the road, Governor Bradford was clearing the ground between a couple of patches of vegetables. Just because he is the governor, he isn't excused from his chores -- in fact, he maintains he is really a farmer, like all of them. He just has a few extra jobs to do. Plimoth Plantation
Later on, a servant who was hauling straw and dung for fertlizer told a story about a fight he had had with another servant, and how Governor Bradford had to decide how to punish the two of them. He sentenced them to being tied, feet to neck, for twenty-four hours, but shortened the sentence to one hour upon the entreaties of their master, Mr. Hopkins.
The tools, the furniture, even the clothing, is as close as possible to the originals (wool skirts for the women, because the other available fabric is linen, too apt to catch fire if it gets too close to the hearth).
The participants speak in an accented English, which has been developed by study of the vocabulary and grammar of the seventeenth century, and inspired guesses on some of the pronunciation. This, of course, adds to the overall impression of being on a time trip.
A word of advice if you plan to make a visit: don't go on the first sunny morning after a rainy day, and try to go at mid-day or early afternoon. We shared the park in the morning with 1200 schoolchildren -- 900 third-graders and 300 highschoolers, from schools as far away as West Virginia (Massachusetts third graders study Colonial America). Several groups had re-booked because of the weather the previous day. The visitor center staff, clearly somewhat overwhelmed by this number, says that by lunchtime most of the busses leave, and that was the case this day.
In addition to the Pilgrim village, a Native American village has been developed close by. Here, the staff, in native dress, discuss crops and customs and answer questions, but in contrast with the humor and polish of the Pilgrims, it seems a bit stiff and earnest.
Because it's set in the year 1627, the Plimoth Plantation emphasizes the rather primitive technology available to the early colonial settlers, who had to rely on ships to bring manufactured goods and new settlers to replace those who had died the previous winter. But by the end of the seventeenth century, there were some sixty-odd settled towns in New England, and some measure of prosperity had been established.
Although many New England immigrants were fleeing from religious struggles in England (some as Separatists, others as Puritans hoping to reform the established church of England by setting a model) economic motives were important from the very beginning. The key to the economics was land ownership, which also conveyed a social status that was unattainable to many of the immigrants in Europe.
As we study one family after another in our genealogical research, we find a repeating pattern. Move to a new town, become involved in civic affairs Governor Bradford reenactor and the church, be accepted by the town leaders, receive, at no cost, grants of land from the town, buy more land with the money made from surplus agricultural produce, raise a large family, and watch the children move out to new towns and repeat the cycle.
Those sons who were studious, and whose fathers could afford to support them, attended Harvard (and much later, Yale), which was established to provide a steady supply of ministers for the new townships. A seventeenth-century New England minister generally became a man of power and wealth, with a generous allocation of lands as well as a cash salary from the town.
Some of the immigrants continued to evolve their religious thinking, departing from the orthodox, governmentally established congregational Puritan churches. These often found their way to Rhode Island, where the Baptists, Quakers, and Seventh-Day Baptists established early churches, and where religious toleration was (generally) practiced.
Among the thousands of relatives we've discovered so far are great folks and small, saints and sinners, winners and losers. We enjoy learning all the stories, and are just as fascinated with the life of a notorious murderer as we are with a colonial governor.
Now that we're studying the colonial period, we find less to talk about with everyday folks in the year 2002. Lots of the historical museums we've seen have mainly nineteenth and twentieth century artifacts on display, and the staff often have not studied the colonial period very closely themselves.
Which was a big reason we enjoyed Plimoth Plantation, where the staff has thrown themselves wholeheartedly into a challenging reenactment of nearly 400 years ago.