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Focus on Coastal Towns: Plymouth
By Arden Miller, CZM
When it comes to history curriculum in the United States, there are several "lessons" few children leave behind. Up there with "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," the story of the Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere's midnight ride, is the story of the Pilgrims. From sea to shining sea, unless you've been living under a rock, chances are you've heard of the Pilgrim's sailing across the Atlantic on the Mayflower and landing on Plymouth Rock. (Whether or not they literally landed on the rock is a subject of some debate, but more on that later.)
Between a Rock and a Harsh Place
So, to begin at the very beginning, the group that has come to be known as "the Pilgrims" were originally residents of England. (See "Once a Separatist Always a Pilgrim?" for details on their departure.) There were 101 passengers, plus crew, when the Mayflower—a cargo vessel allegedly used to transport wine from France to England—set sail (a baby boy, aptly named Oceanus, was born en route, bringing the passenger total up to 102 by landing time). Seas were rough and daily meals consisted of dried fish, salted meat, and "oatmeayle." On November 21, 1620 (by modern-day calendar calculations), after 66 days days at sea, the Mayflower landed in what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts. After a few exploratory trips around the peninsula, they decided there was too much sand, not enough fertile soil, and they could probably do better. A smaller expedition led by the famed Miles Standish (the only man on the Mayflower not named William, Jonathan, Peter, Edward, or Isaac, incidentally), journeyed farther out and found the area we know today as Plymouth. Fellow passenger, group historian, and future Massachusetts Governor William Bradford described the area "fitt for situation" with "...diverse cornfields and little running brooks..."
As for its "fitt-ness," those who lost loved ones during the first harsh winter (more than half of the original passengers perished) may have wished that they'd continued on to Virginia, but none of their diaries have been unearthed. We could speculate that those who survived were, indeed, the forefathers of the grit and hardiness that is associated with the "Yankee spirit." Undeterred by reports of this first unfortunate winter, three ships full of their fellow Separatists from Leiden, Holland, followed; the Fortune landed in 1621, and the Anne and Little James both arrived in 1623. In a letter from Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to his fellow Separatists, he recommended that they bring the following to their home-to-be: "Be careful to have a very good bread-room to put your biscuits in. Let your cask for beer and water be iron-bound...bring good store of clothes and bedding with you. Bring every man a musket or fowling piece...paper and linseed oil for you windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps." By all accounts, early life was often difficult; dwellings were simple structures made of wood with the aforementioned paper-and-linseed oil windows and food had to be hunted, harvested, or bartered for. (In the early days, those who farmed the land were called "Planters" while those who ventured out of the colony to make a living trading goods overseas were known as "Adventurers.")
Survival rates of subsequent settlers were higher than those of the Mayflower passengers. The town, which was called New Plimouth until the 1700s when it became Plymouth, was built around the First Parish Church (which still stands today at 19 Town Square). As with much of New England, trade routes and the promise of a more prosperous life led more people to the area. Many immigrants from Portugal, Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe made Plymouth their home. From 1825 to 1969, the Cordage Rope Company employed much of the town. (Cordage was a major manufacturer of rope during this time; today the original factory has been reconverted to house shops and restaurants). Being in an area with forests, ponds, streams, and the Atlantic, hunting and fishing opportunities were plentiful and sustained many (to this day, there is an official hunting season in Plymouth's Miles Standish State Park). Through hard work and the luck of geography, many "Adventurers" made their fortunes at sea and a number of houses that reflect these fortunes can be seen on Sandwich, Water, Court, and Leyden Streets.
Rock Solid History
And the rock? Well, according to Bill Bryson, author of the New York Times Best Seller, A Short History of Nearly Everything, "The one thing the Pilgrims certainly didn't do was step ashore on Plymouth Rock. Quite apart from the consideration that it may have stood well above the high-water mark in 1620, no prudent mariner would try to bring a ship alongside a boulder..." But other sources say otherwise. The Elder Faunce (alleged to be 95 years of age in 1741) claimed that his father, a passenger on the Mayflower, showed him this site as a boy and told him that was where they landed. This unassuming (it's only three feet across), yet larger-than-life rock has had a number of well-documented adventures over the years. In 1774, the townspeople attempted to move it and, in the process, split it into two separate halves! They left the bottom portion at the wharf and carried the top half to the town's meeting-house. From there, it took a trip to Pilgrim Hall in 1834. When the Pilgrim Society completed a Victorian canopy over the lower portion of the rock in 1867, the top was reunited with the bottom and "1620" was carved into the rock, setting the now-famous date in stone. Then, 300 years after the Pilgrims set their sites, and possibly their feet, on this granite ballast, the Plymouth waterfront was rebuilt with a promenade structured so that the rock appears at water level.
In spite of—or, more likely because of—its past, the rock lives on, inspiring many a tourists to make a pilgrimage to Plymouth. And after checking out the famed rock, there are a number of other things to do. While at the waterfront, visitors can explore a replica of the original Mayflower called, succinctly, Mayflower II. (The original Mayflower returned to its trade routes post-Plymouth, until it was declared "in ruinis" and sold for scrap in 1624.) Those thirsting for cranberry wine, or just curious about how fruit wines are made, can enjoy free tastes and tours at the Plymouth Bay Winery. And, speaking of cranberries, Ocean Spray's "Cranberry World," also in Plymouth, gives free tours. Going back further in time, the original Grist Mill that provided flour to the Pilgrims and their descendants is also open for tours. And, if you're into history, you can check out the site of the Pilgrims' first meeting house and fort at Burial Hill (right next to the First Parish Church) and the Wax Museum with wax replicas of historic figures. Of course, there's also Plimouth Plantation, one of the country's oldest "living history" museums where the staff dress, talk, and interact in keeping with the researched inhabitants of Plymouth in 1627. (Don't get confused if you're there on a Sunday and they tell you it's Monday; in 1627, Sunday was a day for worship and reflection, a literal day of rest, and no Pilgrim worth their fowling piece would even consider working.) And there's the state park named after the original adventurer, Miles Standish, which is open to the public year round. Plymouth Town Manager Mark Sylvia explains what he thinks makes Plymouth special: "We're enormously rich with resources—historic, natural, economic, and community-wise. Plymouth has beaches, numerous inland water resources, naturally occurring Pine Hills, and we're also home to a lot of species, including the endangered Plymouth Redbelly Turtle (Pseudemys rubriventris bangsi). And because so many generations have remained here, a sense of history is passed down and imbued in the town. You can feel it when you walk around."
Measuring in at 104 square miles, Plymouth has the largest land area of any town in the Commonwealth. Being 37 miles from Boston and 5 miles from the Cape Cod Canal, and having the Atlantic Ocean as its eastern border, it's a desirable location for many. In 1970, the population was just over 18,500—by 1990 that figure increased to more than 45,000 people. In 2005, the Plymouth Police Department estimated the town contained 54,000. Despite considerable population growth, the New Plimouth of yore is still very much present today. Leyden Street, which runs the course of the downtown and is named after–you guessed it—the Pilgrim's previous home in the Netherlands, is a permanent reminder of the town's roots. "Just to imagine this is where the Pilgrim's village actually was is pretty amazing," says Don Teague, Membership Director of Destination Plymouth. And, as a destination, Plymouth has the distinction as being known as " America's Hometown." "We weren't the first town in America—that distinction, sigh, goes to Jamestown, Virginia—but we were the first town designed around living as a community rather than as a place to profit from," Teague says. "It's a place unlike any other—well worth the trip, and much easier to get to than it was in 1620!"
For things to do in Plymouth, check out: