Coming inside from the chilling wind and stepping toward the fire provides welcome warmth, yet the thick smoke in the air compels one to move toward the open door and window for relief. Making a choice between these two conditions, combined with a dirt floor and no real place of comfort to sit down begs the question of how anyone could have lived this way. This was part of an experience from one of the best trips ever taken one November a few years ago. It was where visitors can learn about one of the first permanent settlements in the New World by walking through the primitive streets and homes while observing the inhabitants in the course of their daily lives. Where can you also explore the vessel that brought these people across the Atlantic almost 400 years ago and visit a nearby Native homesite? This place is Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts and the site of the "First Thanksgiving."
In a few days, most Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. It will probably include a traditional bounty of good food that has been easily acquired and prepared, time with family and friends in comfortable surroundings, and perhaps some effortless travel. During this time however, take the opportunity to revisit the historical context in which we celebrate this holiday by remembering the people and circumstances of Plimoth.
Studying our history through text books is one thing, but visiting a living history museum is like stepping into the book and traveling back in time to walk and talk with the real people of the past. From personal experience, this is exactly what it felt like when walking into the 1627 village; a portrayal of colonial life seven years after the arrival of the Mayflower. Suddenly, contemporary clothes, perspectives and even language feel very out of place. However, for those who love history, it's a dream come true. It doesn't matter what the weather is (it was cold when we visited); you're just happy to be there. Things you thought you knew are either debunked or confirmed, but with much more detail.
Living history reenactors enjoy a harvest celebration at Plimoth Plantation.
The living history volunteers, or role players, have taken on the names and life histories of real people from Plimoth and speak in first person. This means they talk in the dialect of the time and only know life up to 1627. The visitor has the opportunity to watch them as they do household chores, work the fields, tend the livestock, and play. You can just watch and listen to their conversations or, as a visitor, actually join in the work, converse with them and ask questions. It's surprising how many words are not in use today. If you were to ask these people about "Pilgrims," they would be perplexed and not know what you meant. That was a label attached to them many years later. They would be more likely to refer to themselves as a "planter," a settler or farmer. The villagers will readily share their viewpoints, which by today's standards can seem intolerant. Their devotion to God is woven into their daily lives along with a sense of humor. Those settlers living in Plimoth since the beginning in 1620 will tell the story of the first harsh winter and the loss of over half the group. They will tell how they had a "harvest celebration" the following fall because of the bountiful crops and progress in building the colony. A stereotype of a straight-laced group of people dressed in black and white is certainly not correct.
The other two destinations near Plimoth Plantation are the Native American Wampanoag homesite and the Mayflower II. Hobbamock was a Wampanoag man, who with his family, lived near Plimoth for many years providing guidance to the inhabitants of Plimoth about how to live in the new land. While everyone seems to know about Squanto, Hobbamock had a much longer association with Plimoth. Here the visitor can enter a two-fire house, observe daily life, and converse with the program guides, many of whom are dressed in native costume and tell the story of Plimoth and the surrounding area from the native perspective. A short distance away is the Mayflower II, a replica ship built in the late 1950s. Walking through the cramped and dark quarters gives one a good idea of what the ocean passage may have been like. The living history guides on the ship also speak in first person and only know life up until the spring of 1921. It was on the ship where most of the people lived during the winter before adequate structures could be built.
Although this trip was a few years ago, it left a strong impression. It made the pages of a dusty book come to life. History was not something old and unrelated to today. It was the story of us and how we came to be what we are today. This week, remember our history and be thankful for those who braved the voyage in search of religious freedom and a better life. Remember the Native Americans, whose culture and traditions are interwoven in much of our American way of life. From these beginnings we were free to develop a nation with untold freedoms and opportunities.
Consider planning a trip to Plimoth Plantation next year. Until then, look out for the premiere of "The Real History of Thanksgiving," filmed on location from Plimoth and set to air this week on the History Channel, Nov. 22. One column in December will feature another significant event from our history as experienced during this same trip to the Boston area, all of which were side trips when invited to be a presenter at the Expanded New England Kindergarten Conference for educators from across the nation. It was a location that provided the opportunity to see many historic sites.
Make it a good week, Mary and Rosamond
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