Correction: An earlier version of this story included a misspelling of the Plimoth Plantation’s name. The error has been corrected.
As editor of a magazine devoted to Connecticut history, I’m fairly familiar with America’s founding stories. But somehow the word “pilgrim” still brings to mind elementary school Thanksgiving craft projects involving big-buckled, somber Puritans rendered in black-and-white construction paper sharing a big turkey feast with Indians wearing feathery headdresses. If that’s still the image that pops into your head this time of year, you might want to visit Plymouth, Mass., where the Pilgrims settled in December 1620.
Plymouth is a fun weekend destination, particularly in autumn, when the quaint and pristine seaside town is brightened with fall foliage. It’s a great place to take the kids, to shop for Thanksgiving tchotchkes that mirror the spirit of those old construction-paper decorations, and to eat some decent food. But if you keep your eyes and ears open, you may find your understanding of the traditional Pilgrim story turned, if not entirely on its head, then at least a bit askew, as various sites you visit deliver their own interpretations of what really happened here nearly four centuries ago.
First stop: the tiny visitors center on Water Street. The folks behind the desk feign humility, Pilgrim-style. But they know their stuff, and my friend and I walk away with a heavily annotated map pointing to all the key spots, plus a few that may be less-than-key-worthy but merit a visit nonetheless.
Then we make a beeline for the main event, Plymouth Rock. Legend (the first of several iffy ones we encounter) has it that Plymouth Rock was the big boulder upon which the Mayflower Pilgrims first set foot after dropping anchor in Plymouth Harbor. The granite rock, now surrounded by a protective structure that has visitors squinting from high above, has been much reduced from its former self: Over the years, tourists and vandals have chipped away at it, and a civic-minded attempt to move it to the center of town broke it in two, the repair leaving a prominent scar. As it happens, all agree there’s no firsthand historic evidence that Plymouth Rock played any role in the Mayflower passengers’ landing. But the rock has taken its iconic place along with the bald eagle, the Stars and Stripes, and the Liberty Bell as an icon of our democracy’s heritage, and for that I am glad to have seen it in person.
The Mayflower II — a replica of the long-gone original — is just a stone’s throw from Plymouth Rock. As we approach the ticket desk, we see a costumed interpreter coaching two earnest young girls in the use of mock muskets; the girls march, taking their jobs seriously, and grin self-consciously as we applaud their performance.
We climb aboard the surprisingly small vessel and start snooping around, backs hunched to accommodate the tight quarters, imagining what it was like to be one of the 102 men, women and children who took the 66-day journey from Plymouth, England, to this new land. The excellent interpreters speak the British language of their time, in dialects appropriate to their place of origin and station in life. They’re among the best I’ve encountered in years of visiting living-history museums; they know their era inside and out, and it’s hard to trip them up — though several visitors try their best.
Next up is the Pilgrim Hall Museum, an edifice erected by Mayflower descendants and holding Mayflower family heirlooms. Well-written wall labels explain the Pilgrim story, along with monumental paintings, costumes and a variety of artifacts, from the Dutch-style cradle of baby Peregrine White, born on the Mayflower, to a chunk of Plymouth Rock with a sign inviting us to touch it. (We do.)
We spend a good hour winding our way through the galleries, lingering in the library, where a temporary exhibition of vintage Thanksgiving menus from hotels and restaurants around the country illustrate the way expectations of the now-traditional feast have varied and evolved since President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving in 1863. There’s fun stuff for kids here, too: They can sit in a replica of a big Pilgrim chair and try their hand at gravestone-rubbing, for instance.
As might be expected, this museum tells as rosy a story as possible about relations between the Native Americans and the Pilgrims, focusing on the peaceful aspect of their interactions. Which is not to say that the museum perpetuates the Pilgrim myth wholesale: The organization takes pains to acknowledge that the Pilgrim story has evolved over time and that changes along the way tend to reflect the political and social circumstances of their era. All in all, the institution does a good job of balancing its supporters’ interests with the interest of historical truth, noting that each generation views the Pilgrim story through its own lens. High marks for that.
It almost seems trivial to mention that we learn that, although there may well have been turkeys (along with ducks and geese) at the first thanksgiving meal, the main event was five deer supplied by the Native Americans. The museum supplies many such details and insights into the Pilgrims’ daily life and special occasions.
We soon see all that information in action at Plimoth Plantation, a living-history museum affiliated with the Mayflower II. (You can get a discounted joint admission.) According to the map handed out to visitors, the No. 1 question people ask there is why they spell “Plymouth” that way. It’s because that’s how Governor William Bradford spelled it in his history of the settlement, which is one of the primary sources of what we know about it today.
Plimoth Plantation delivers equal parts history and living. The interpreters, including Native Americans and a host of people portraying the original Pilgrims and other arrivals from England, are so knowledgeable, and stay so much in character as they go about their lives in this replica of the original settlement (centered on Leiden Street, the first street in North America), we find ourselves immersed in their world. The setting is Plymouth circa 1627, and the interpreters do a fantastic job — even when visitors ask about such innovations as cedar shakes (which later became common on nearby Cape Cod). We tend to think of the Pilgrims as long-suffering, noble folk; here we learn that, for all their hard work and ambition, there was a fair amount of grousing and lassitude among them. Which makes me like them all the more. And makes it all the sadder to know that fully half of the English colonists died during their first year at Plymouth.
Plimoth Plantation appears to be a hoot of a place for kids. We see several children run down the dirt of Leiden Street, exuberant, hollering at the top of their lungs. Others chat with interpreters, asking the millions of questions that come to a kid’s mind — mostly about household appliances and pets (there were none) — when in such a magical place. Arrive at the right time and you’ll watch potters at work or get to see (and smell!) bread being baked, Pilgrim-style; the fresh bread then goes on sale in the museum’s gift shops. In the Wampanoag Homesite, natives carve mishoons (log canoes) and tend fires inside their dwellings; there’s a space for kids to play with native games and toys.
We are most struck by the museum’s depiction of the way the Europeans and Native Americans got along — or didn’t. We hear repeated reference to Native Americans’ having been kidnapped and sold into slavery by earlier European settlers, who also brought the smallpox that nearly decimated the Native population. And the treaty between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans that was presented as a sign of mutual respect and support by the Pilgrim Hall Museum here is described as a military treaty weighted heavily in favor of the British settlers. One interpreter sharing that information with us lowers his voice in deference to a group of children that has just arrived, not wishing to shock or upset them.
Nearing Pilgrim overload, we go back to town to walk through Burial Hill, where ancient remains are interred on a hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor. We drive to see the National Monument to the Forefathers, the largest solid-granite monument in North America, recently featured in Kirk Cameron’s documentary “Monumental.” Afterward, we stroll through the streets of Plymouth, which calls itself “America’s Home Town.” Come nighttime, the bars and restaurants are hopping; we land at Kogi Bar & Grill, a Korean barbecue where the food — spicy pork belly, anyone? — would have baffled the Pilgrims and Native Americans alike but is mighty tasty to us.
Back home, I drag the cardboard box of Thanksgiving decorations out of the attic, feeling a bit torn between the hazy schoolroom history of my own and my children’s youth as represented by those construction-paper cutouts that I cherish for nostalgia’s sake, and the raw, deeply conflicted story of America’s founding we encountered in Plymouth. In the end, I guess I’d rather know the truth, even if it’s not as savory, or as sweet, as I’d like.
Huget is a freelance writer living near Hartford, Conn.
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130 Water St.
This tiny visitor center offers maps, information and hotel and restaurant reservations. Open
9 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily, through Nov. 29; closed from then until April 1.
79 Water St.
The iconic rock where legend says the Pilgrims first set foot when they landed in present-day Plymouth in 1620.
State Pier (across from 74 Water St.)
A full-scale replica of the original Mayflower ship. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m., from June 1-Nov. 29. Admission varies according to season and visitor age. Combined admission with Plimouth Plantation available.
Pilgrim Hall Museum
75 Court St.
The oldest public museum features artifacts that came over on the Mayflower. Open daily
9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., except for Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the month of January. $8, $7 seniors, $5 ages 6-15, and $25 families (two adults with their children aged 6-15).
137 Warren Ave.
A living-history museum that re-creates the original settlement of the Plymouth colony, with interpreters playing the roles of Pilgrims and Native Americans. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily from
June 1-Nov. 29. Admission varies according to season and visitor age. Combined admission with Mayflower II also available.
Burial Hill Cemetery
The 17th-century hilltop cemetery where original English settlers, including Plymouth Gov. William Bradford, are buried. Free tours offered on the first Saturday of every month but January.
The National Monument
to the Forefathers
70 Allerton St.
This 81-foot-tall granite statue designed by sculptor Hammatt Billings commemorates the Mayflower Pilgrims. Its allegorical figures depict virtues that the Pilgrims upheld. Tours are organized through the Plymouth Rock Foundation and Jenney Museum; $10, children 5-17 $8, younger free.