In fall, the early settlers of the real Plimouth settlement would have been busy preparing for winter, digging root vegetables into cellars, salting fish caught in the remaining long days and checking the seams on their thatched roofs before the winter storms. Today, a visit to the Plimouth Plantation (a recreated village replete with role playing settlers and native guides) is like a jaunt into another time, when a handful of brave souls clung to a stern version of Protestantism on the edge of a clear blue bay.
Wandering the paths of the faux settlement, you meet men and women who “live” there and who talk directly to you, answering questions simple and complex about their journey to the new world, their motivations and daily life. The pastor told us all about the hardships, 12 years spent in Holland gathering funds followed by an epic sail across the Atlantic where nearly half the pilgrims died. He told us how they grew corn to trade with “Indians” who came from a northern place called “Maine.” These native people, he explained, lived in a place with a short growing season and counted on trade of furs for corn to make it through the winter. The furs were valuable back in England, so the Pilgrims traded them for olive oil, salt, gunpowder and many other staples that they did not have in the new world.
We explored the little clapboard houses inside and out. I was especially taken with a lovely garden, filled with rhubarb and chard and the old fashioned split rail fencing that kept a big black cow grazing in a meadow nearby. It is hard to imagine the isolation of this little community perched on the edge of such a vast wilderness, so separate from their own culture. Many could not handle it and returned to England, we were told. Others were seditious and banished from the community. With so few people, it is no wonder petty issues had the possibility to become major problems.
The occupant of this little house was a feisty lass who told us about pub life in England and all the sacrifice she had made to come to the new world. Her authentic dirt floor, open hearth and simple wooden furniture made for a setting that Vermeer would have painted, and I was pleased how the iPhone captured the limited light from a small window:
Up at the top of the hill is a meeting hall, a church I guess, with a gorgeous view out over Plymouth Bay and the lighthouse in the distance. Built with cannon on the top, it is a fitting metaphor for the fire and brimstone church style of the rigid Pilgrims. This young woman told us she had just been married and was hoping to have children soon, if the Lord saw fit:
Around the bend, Native Peoples dressed in period garb work and play in a series of tents. The “winter house” of the Wampanoag looks like this:
Inside, a Wampanoag descendant sat on furs, weaving a colorful ribbon. The Native Peoples do not role play; rather they describe native lifestyles and culture when asked. There is a sign on the way in reminding visitors to be respectful. Some of the suggestions were so obvious as to be insulting (don’t “war whoop” or call someone “chief” or “squaw” — I mean please, who would do that?) But others are more subtle, for example, don’t ask what percentage native the people you see here are. OK, that’s fair.
We learned that Wampanoags spoke an Algonquin language that had common roots for all Native Peoples on the eastern seaboard. That they had a varied diet of meat in winter, fish in summer plus corn and many other vegetables both cultivated and gathered. That they made canoes from hollowed out tree trunks and larger vessels with pontoons that they used to catch whales off the tip of Cape Cod. Once captured, they would plug the blowhole of the whale and the whale would swell with air so they could drag it inland.
We learned that they lived in a simpler structure in summer, usually close to water they could fish but come winter they moved inland 10 miles or so to larger structures covered with bark. Around the outside of the tent were beds made of saplings lashed together and covered with many layers of fur. Whole families lived together this way, with a cook fire in the middle and a hole in the roof to let the smoke out.
Fall is the perfect time to step back in time and spend a few hours in the 17th century. Plimouth Plantation is about a forty minute drive from Woods Hole, and offers fun for the whole family.