Posts Tagged With: Mayflower

Of Plimoth Plantation

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I don’t know if you have ever been to Plymouth, Massachusetts, but it seems like much of the East Coast at first glance.  There is a gray quality to the light that makes the beaches blander, the seas bluer, the greens more vibrant.  Unless you are in a formal town and there are slim granite curbs, the roads are all rimmed by gravel and scrubby grass that collects spindly wildflowers and clover.  The trees beyond the green strip all mound together into a heap of foliage that follows next to you as you drive.  Tucked between the trees are clapboard houses with shutters.  They’re boxy and white, or maybe there’s a wide porch with a blue roof, or a tin star tacked to the siding.  All of them have shutters, new and old.  The beachfront in Plymouth is busy and modern.  There’s an ice cream store with a teal marquee and gold gilded letters.  Pilgrim Gifts hugs the triangle-shaped corner.  A granite pavilion houses a small, disappointing rock that says 1620, and out in the bay stands the medium sized Mayflower II.  The shore stretches, flat, brown and blue, to the horizon.

It’s beautiful.  And it makes me think of winter snows and a shallop speeding through the waters, everything unknown.  But it’s not any different than any other seaside town boasting a historic item or two, really.  Not unless you know the history of the place. Not until you step into the museum that is a recreation of the village as it was in 1627; Plimoth Plantation.

There are places you go to that steal your soul and you never belong to yourself again.  Places you’ve dreamed, somehow, or maybe it’s just that the air is in your blood in a certain way.  But all you need is one whiff and you’re home, the angst in your soul is quiet, all is right with the world.  Maybe they have nothing to do with you before this moment, but it doesn’t matter.

Plimoth Plantation is that place for me.  The gray houses, their roofs thatched, seem to grow out of the scrubby kitchen gardens that are rimmed by uneven gray fencing.  A dirt path stretches down to the ocean, which is ever more blue than you remember it.  At the top of a hill is a boxy fort housing cannons and also the church, the inside dim, broken up only by a few slim windows.  The village smells of wood smoke even on the hottest day.  Inside the houses, people in bright period garb will speak with you in a foreign accent about everything from religion, to thatching a roof, to their opinions of their neighbor.

There is always something that doesn’t quite dawn on you that comes out in these encounters.  Most people know that the pilgrims landed far north of where they were supposed to.  What struck me this time was the woman who lamented that most of the Mayflower crew had died, and if the ship couldn’t get back to England then their supply ships would never come to the right place.  At best they would be declared lost at sea.  At worst they would all starve in a wilderness that had already claimed half of them and looked to claim more when their wheat wouldn’t grow properly like it did at home.  This was before Squanto and Samoset.

Or the gentleman who had relied on the advice of a few summer fishermen who touted the mild and warm climate in New England, always home before the fall frosts set in.  He had not brought a winter coat over, and his neighbor charged him a fortune for an extra one.  Because no one knew what the winter was like.

Chickens roam in the streets and attempt to forage in the houses if someone doesn’t kick them out.  There are reddish bulls in the far pasture.  Unless the task is a dangerous or fiddly one, you will likely be asked to help hoe the garden or tie knots in the fishing rope.  The words in the bible all have an “s” that sometimes looks like an “f.”  Their earthenware cups have too many handles.

I hadn’t been for, oh, probably 15 years.  But I got to go again this summer.  It’s just as much mine as it ever was.  It’s a better experience than I remembered.  I wished again, for the millionth time, that I could move in and stay in that blue and gray world forever.  I ate authentic food, reveled in the green streets, asked questions on horn books, thatch, wood storage, and religion just to hear the answers.  Brian helped Patience Brewster hoe a row in her garden. I wished all over again that I could don those clothes and pretend to be a pilgrim for a year, even if I did have to go home at night.

But it was back on a plane for me, and I’m now residing in the golden dryness that is California again.  I hope I can get back there sooner than 15 years next time.

And in the meantime, I’ve pulled out some of my pilgrim books again.  First on the docket?  A collection of primary source writings called “The American Puritans, their Prose and Poetry.”

I’m also enjoying all the pictures I took:

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Book Reviews: Colonial Non-Fiction Favorites

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I usually try to keep the History Nerd glee under wraps, but I’ve been listening to this podcast on the way to work titled “Revolutions.” Of course I skipped right to my favorite one, the American Revolution.  I’ve been nerding out on Brian about it ever since, because I think the guy gets everything right but sometimes forgets to mention small nuances that matter much.  Like with the Townshend Act… colonists weren’t just pissed because Britain was taxing them.  They were pissed because Britain was taxing them on goods it was illegal to make themselves.

You see?  You get me going…

I’ll admit that I haven’t read as much about the revolution as I probably should.  I’ve never read 1776, for instance.  But I do voraciously read all sorts of stuff from the colonial period. In another world, in another place, I would really have loved to be a career Colonial Historian.  I’ve even delved into some of the primary source stuff.  It’s totally different than you would imagine it to be from all the myths you were fed as children.  Even a college American History course doesn’t always get at the meat of it all.  I recommend a lot of fiction on this blog, but below I’m listing four non-fiction books that changed the way I thought about Colonial America.  Because once I’m on a history kick, I want to STAY on a history kick.   (I’m just gonna pretend you’re also into this stuff…)


Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

This is a great overview of the pilgrim experience that is easier to read than most non-fiction books and just fascinating.  I say overview, but that might be deceiving.  It delves deeper than generalities by giving you a sense of who these people were, mistakes and all.  It also takes you farther than most pilgrim histories, right into the pivotal conflict of King Phillips War.  Philbrick explores the attitudes of the pilgrims, but also of their children and the children of Massasoit, the Wampanoag chief whose help was probably the only reason the early colony survived.

I’ve seen a bunch of different histories that attempt to do this same thing, but I don’t think that any of them have quite the complexity of this one, while still maintaining clarity.  If you’re new to pilgrim history, Mayflower is the definitive volume.

A few things surprised me in this book.  First was the way Massasoit used the pilgrim alliance to secure power for himself in the region.  We think of the Wampanoags as being these benevolent people who could not watch the pilgrims starve, (Samoset and Squanto teaching them to hunt eel and plant corn, anyone?  “Welcome Englishmen?”).  The reality was much more complicated, and to a lot of extents more equal.  The Wampanoags were giving something, yes.  But they were getting something as well.  They went from small and bullied tribe to the most powerful tribe in the region over this alliance.

The other thing I found surprising was how nuts the pilgrims were.  Again, we think of these grandfatherly men going into God’s wilderness to create the City on A Hill.  And they did go to America with the hopes that they could have religious freedom from the Church of England.  The thing you don’t realize is that they were just as fanatical about it as the people they left behind – no room for anything other than Puritanism in Plymouth colony.  They also often overreacted in bloody, bloody ways when relations with the locals weren’t going as they preferred.

A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laura Thatcher Ulrich

Ulrich unearthed the diary of Martha Ballard in a local library, and created this great book exploring what her life was like as a rural Midwife in colonial Maine.  Ulrich’s New England is a bit more built-up than Philbrick’s.  It’s has information about medicine at the time, colonial understandings of communicable disease, and the colonial legal system (Martha’s husband wasn’t the best sort of guy).  It can be a bit of a slog, since Martha’s English is far from the modern standard and chapters start with snippets from her diary.  But it’s worth it to get through, and if you need to you can skip the diary excerpts.  Ulrich does a great job of quoting from them and expounding on why they’re important later in the chapters.

What surprised me most about this book was the deep connection of neighbors to each other.  I think of colonial Maine as being this bleak and unpopulated place, but there was a lot of help and a lot of camaraderie among the people who were there.  It was not the uninhabited wilderness I pictured.  What I found especially interesting was the birthing practices.  I guess having children while sitting was the norm back then – usually on a neighbor’s lap if the midwife didn’t own a birthing chair.  That kind of closeness is something I couldn’t even fathom experiencing today.  What also got me was the massive amount of work running a colonial farm could be.  Martha is only able to run around and midwife because she has older children to do most of the housework for her, and that housework is INVOLVED.

Mayflower Bastard: A Stranger Among the Pilgrims, by David LIndsay

Lindsay looks into the life of his ancestor, Mayflower passenger Richard Moore, and finds a strange story.  Most pilgrim stories focus on the Puritan passengers, but there were non-puritans who made the trip too.  Moore is one of these.  Not only is it interesting to see the story from that perspective, but Moore’s father tore him from his life with his adulterer mother, sending him the only place she could never reach him (spoiler: it’s the New World).  It’s not only a crazy-awesome soap opera story, it’s an interesting look into the England they all left behind to make the journey.  Not only that, but Moore became a well-known ship captain in the area, leaving room for a wealth of merchanting information.

The most impressive thing for me in this is the England Moore leaves behind.  It’s after the Renaissance, you would think the world must be progressive somehow, but in many ways it all feels like the middle ages rehashed.  There are definite nods to landed gentry being the most important, and to them living a life so separate from the farm communities around them.  It makes you see the contrast between American and England so much more clearly – and how in many ways American was really brutal even if it was freeing.

I have seen fisherman perspectives, and trapper perspectives, but Moore also lived in parts of the country that weren’t as affected by native attacks, and he was a merchant with a large cargo ship who also traveled to the West Indies.  That was a new perspective for me as well.  Interesting all around.

The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England,  by Carol F. Karlsen

This book focuses on how witch trials were more about wealth and forcing women to conform to societal norms than they were about actual Puritan hysteria.  There’s a wealth of information about relationships and marriage practices in the books.  In order to get Karlesn’s argument, you do have to understand the social hierarchy of women in Colonial America, and she devotes a bunch of time to this.  Women’s studies and colonials?  My favorite thing ever!  Karlsen makes a compelling argument, too, showing that it was usually women with wealth and power who weren’t quite conforming the way everyone liked that were accused of witchcraft.

This book occupies that sort of middle period where things were built up in the colonies and fairly urban in places, but it was still a frontier with a lot of freedom from laws and dependency on neighbors and community.  It’s an interesting time that isn’t covered as often, part of the same time that the Moore book covers.  That’s in its favor, too.  What I think struck me most is how relations between people haven’t changed much.  The rules that govern those relationships certainly have, but the feelings behind them, and the way they play out within the economic structure of society, are still the same.

All links are Amazon Affiliate links.  Happy Reading!!

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Of Pilgrims, Fear Brewster, and Origins

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One of the many amazing things about my current place of employment is their commitment to diversity. I attended a Trans/Ally workshop two weeks ago that was a series of several the college put on for all of us to attend over the summer break. During one of the many activities, the class out a (confidential) form that asked how we identified culturally. I didn’t know what to put. I know that our origin stories are important, but I have often felt that I don’t have a culture. I’m a white American, which means default, which means nothing. How should I fill out that box? And then I had a slow realization about my cultural identity.

I was eight years old when I decided I wanted to be a pilgrim when I grew up. And I don’t mean an adventurer who immigrates via plane or ship for a new life. I mean the people who traveled the intrepid sea, late from too many leakage problems, persecuted for their religious beliefs in England, who settled Cape Cod in the 1620s.

Plimoth Plantation, the first living history museum, is magical. It sits on a hill; the gray houses dug into the earth, surrounded by a tree trunk palisade that is surrounded by waving fields of corn. The main road slopes downward from a fort on the tip of the hill, and at the bottom is a view of blue ocean that seems to stretch forever. Here, you can leave your car in the parking lot and go listen to Miles Standish complain about how boring he finds church or ask him for a lesson on how to load a musket. You can watch Susannah White hold onto her straying toddler by the straps sewn onto the shoulders of the child’s clothes. Edward Winslow will let you tie knots for the fishing net he’s making from a ball of strong twine.

Growing up, I visited them in Massachusetts on the blue and gray shore for as long as I can remember. Maybe not exactly every summer, but near enough. My Aunt Sue used to get the pass from the local library when we were coming to town. She knew how I felt about the place.

When I asked the man in the green tabbed vest if they had any kids on board the Mayflower, he told me that they had plenty of sheep and a couple of cows, but he didn’t recon there were any goats on board. In the village, a woman told me that her pregnant neighbor was obviously having a boy, because she always stepped out of the house with her left foot. Another said that women usually wore six to eight skirts. When I went home I pulled the four my mother had packed for me out of my suitcase and put them on to see what it would feel like. It was heavy around my waist, and I had trouble getting the fourth skirt to zip.

I was thirteen when the woman behind the counter told me to hang on a second. She would get me a teacher’s packet from the back, because the more I knew about the pilgrims the more likely they were to let me work there someday. I studied the folded pieces of paper, tucked into a number ten envelope, and learned about baby Oceanus who was born on the Mayflower mid-trip.   I learned that they had come from Scrooby, England, by way of Holland where they had worked in the cloth factories. I learned that they called themselves Saints, and that in the first winter more than half the Saints died from a wasting sickness in the ice and snow.

I was eighteen when I decided it was time to apply for a job. It would be an adventure, to live out a fantasy and play pilgrim on that historic shore. My aunt and uncle were nearby if I got into any real trouble. But were there women I could portray? There were stories of children, and stories of adult women, but I had never heard stories about teens. I turned to the computer. It was my first foray into historic archives and I fell in love, with the hand-drawn maps of lot divisions and the signatures on the Mayflower Compact, and with a nineteen year old girl named Fear Brewster.

It was the name that struck me. In a time when Oceanus and Remember Patience were popular and valid, perhaps Fear is not so out of place. But a woman named Fear? Was she born in fear, was she a girl who was afraid, did the name make her fearless? She was a Brewster, one of the few Mayflower families that people who aren’t career historians remember. She married Isaac Allerton, a man more than twenty years her senior, who was embezzling goods that were supposed to pay the colony’s huge English debts. She died before the age of thirty of a wasting fever. She had a son. That is all that is known about this woman with the fascinating name. That is all history has left us.

 And so I am left to speculate about the things she thought of a journey to a bleak shore where nothing waited but starvation and wattle and daub hovels. Or what she thought of her husband. Of how she played blind to his thefts because it was unthinkable to confront. Of how young she was and how little she could say to a husband who was not only a Man, but an Adult in a time when women were flighty, sinful and childish; regardless of age.

I will never be a pilgrim. That much is certain now. I met my husband that summer and left the completed application folded in a drawer in my bedroom. I have never marched down the dirt path, a cloud of dust at my feet, carrying a basket and wearing six skirts in the humid Massachusetts summer. I have never sat and sewn under a tree while trading riddles with the other women in the circle. I have never been Fear Brewster.  

And here is the thing: I don’t even have pilgrim ancestry to claim, only the militant and unimaginative puritans who came after them decades later. Maybe. On my mother’s side. On my father’s side, the John Elderkin who came over before the pilgrims was probably one of those deadbeat Jamestown fellows, or worse. Why I have claimed the pilgrims as my ancestry, I cannot fathom. They don’t belong to me and I know that. But in the same breath that I deny their link, I also feel it.

Sometimes when it is raining outside, I sit by the window and ponder how frightening it must have been when the central beam cracked during a storm on the Mayflower. Some nights when I am lying awake next to my sleeping husband, I wonder if Fear ever looked over at Isaac, at his buttoned up eyes and the stubble on his chin, and thought about how handsome he was.

In the age of social media, I follow Plimoth Plantation everywhere they have accounts. It is beautiful and heartbreaking to see those photos of the past come to life in a little town just south of Boston; heartbreaking because it has been more than ten years since I walked those streets and I always want. But sometimes the things we dream about don’t come true. I know that Fear and I have that in common, too. In my case, I think giving up that dream was worth the reality I was granted instead. I hope that Fear felt the same.

Categories: Early America, Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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