About an hour’s drive south of Boston is a little place called Plymouth. Home to another natural harbour, although not one quite as well-suited as Boston’s, Plymouth marks the site where the Mayflower eventually landed in 1620. The first group of people to have come to New England with the intention of settling here, rather than simply making use of the financial opportunities available in the New World for a year or two and then returning, the pilgrims had a rather rocky beginning.
Originally the Mayflower was one of two ships that set off from England in July, but after the Speedwell sprung a leak – twice – the Mayflower set off alone in September. The ship then went off course as winter approached (navigation was a long way from the pinpoint GPS devices of today) and instead of arriving around the Hudson River and present-day New York, they hit land on the Cape Cod peninsula, where the local Indian tribes were not too happy to see them. Trying to make their way south to where they had a permit to land and settle, they ran into shoals, and eventually turned around and went north. By this point, finding anywhere they could make land was of paramount importance, and so they decided on Plymouth, the first remotely possible landing site, a few days before Christmas.
Plymouth Rock, a literal rock around which a Greek pavilion has been built, is supposedly where the pilgrims first touched land. Whether that is literally true is another question – Plymouth Rock only acquired that distinction in 1741, over 120 years later, although at the word of a 95-year-old elder who knew some of the original settlers. But regardless of the truth, it still has symbolic value as a marker. Plymouth harbour also houses Mayflower II, a faithful replica of the original Mayflower which was built over 300 years later and sailed across from Britain, as the original Mayflower did, in 1957. Mayflower II, however, remained in Plymouth: the original Mayflower sailed back to England in 1621 and did a few more merchant trips up and down the Bay of Biscay, but never crossed to the New World again and was consigned to scrap in 1624.
In fact, Boston would have been a much better place to settle, but in ignorance of its existence and with winter well and truly present, the settlers decided to cope with the flat beach at Plymouth. It was certainly cold enough on a foggy May day – what it would have been like in late-December I don’t like to imagine! But the flat beach meant a journey of well over a mile in small rowing boats from the Mayflower to the coast line, and in temperatures of -20C, which probably contributed to the pneumonia that was rife in the first winter. Half the pilgrims died in the first winter, although with no shelter other than the ship, little food and water, and no heating, life was always going to be difficult. Arriving in December was also probably the worst possible point at which to arrive. Despite this, however, the pilgrims succeeded in building a community at Plymouth that lasted until well after Bostonhad been colonised and settled and consequently, with its much better harbour and more fertile soil, taken all the trade.
Three miles outside the modern-day town of Plymouth is Plimouth Plantation, a recreation of the original village of the settlers. It is set in 1627, seven years after the Mayflower’s arrival and a year before Boston was settled, and it is a living history model – actors dress and speak as if they were the original inhabitants, and you can interact with them. I had several interesting conversations about conditions then, or the crossing of the Mayflower, but did commit one faux pas – I made the mistake, when talking to one woman about the food she was cooking and what they ate, of asking about tea. She had told me they had little milk as the cows were more valuable as breeders to increase the herd so they tended to get little milk from them, and so I asked whether they took tea without milk. It seemed a natural question after travelling everywhere and always encountering the (probably justified) stereotype held by everyone else that the British are a little obsessed with tea and can’t cope without it. I figured the settlers would have had a similar mindset, but clearly my knowledge of historical dates failed on this occasion – she looked at me a little puzzled and informed me that to her, tea meant the letter T. So much for that stereotype – clearly tea had not yet found its way from India to England in 1627!
The village is recreated as it would have been then, and visitors can wander around it – watching the blacksmith cast nails, or tripping over chickens (Hillary, my four-year-old cousin, was considerably more enchanted with the chickens and the cows than the rest of the village re-enaction!), or wondering at the interesting location of the canons on the upper floor of the building which housed the church on the lower floor. The logic of that did become apparent though – the church was also the main meeting place in the village, and the only building with an upper floor, so it did make logical sense to have the village’s defence there. The canons were intended as defence against the Dutch, French and Spanish who were also trying to settle the new world, rather than Indian tribes as might be assumed – against the natives muskets were sufficient, although generally the inhabitants of Plimouth had, if not a harmonious relationship with the Wampanoag, at least not one of outright hostility.
There is also a recreated Wampanoag village at Plimouth Plantation, showcasing how the Wampanoag lived in 1627, although the natives there, while dressed in traditional Wampanoag garb, speak as if in the present day. Given that the average visitor’s understanding of 17th Century Wampanoag is probably nil, that decision is understandable! It was really interesting to wander round, however, and speak to those there – one Wampanoag man was making new dug-out canoes, or perhaps more literally burnt-out canoes, as the manner is simply to cut down a tree and then burn away all the inside. Apparently they know when to put the flames out by when the underneath (on the outside) gets hot! We also took Hillary to see a Wampanoag girl who showed her all the toys the Wampanoag children would play with – and demonstrated the only flaw in the costuming: I doubt the Wampanoag of 1627 wore turquoise nail varnish!