"... Being thus arrived in a good harbour, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth..." It is with these words that William Bradford described the arrival in New England of the daring group of English colonists known as the Pilgrims.
I have spoken with the Pilgrims and heard their stories – well as good as! In the recreated Pilgrim Village of Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, each day represents that day in the year 1627. Skilled actors play the part of the Pilgrims. They speak with 17th-century dialects and having knowledge only of their own time they can discuss nothing of events since.
Taking a seat by the crackling log fire lighting up the dim recesses in the single roomed clapboard house of a Pilgrim from the Isle of Man, I stepped back into the 17th Century. I could understand why the Pilgrims seeking religious freedom and preservation of their culture sought new shores but the scheme still seemed insane. I wanted to know why they should have been so foolhardy to begin an Atlantic crossing in early winter in 1620 in the Mayflower, a ship that had only made the short crossings to Holland. It turned out that they had two ships but the other, the Speedwell, was partly rotten so they had to turn back several times. Abandoning Speedwell at Plymouth, England its passengers joined those on the already crowded Mayflower. When they left it was September 6 and winter was fast approaching.
I then asked why they missed their intended destination, the mouth of the Hudson River, by hundreds of miles. 'Would thou have done better?' I meekly replied, 'I suppose not.' The true answer was 'Yes' but if I had tried to explain GPS navigation I would have seemed insane to this 17th century gent.
Wandering down the roughly laid out street and into some of the crudely furnished houses, I watched the Pilgrims at work. I learned what a pottage is and saw a bluefish cooking on the hearth, cows milked and houses under construction. Depending on the season, they may plant a garden, hoe cornfields, or bring the harvest in and store it. Each day in the Village is different and each colonist is an individual whose conversation applies to his circumstances. One appeared to be a reformed alcoholic who had come from a settlement further south and had little interest in the Bible.
The Pilgrims settled in an area cleared of trees by the Pokanoket Indians. Unknown to the settlers, the Indians on the site had all died of plague. However if it hadn’t been for other Pokanokets living nearby and the Mayflower delaying its departure until April all the settlers would have perished during that first winter of a sickness – half did. Judging by the freezing gale blowing in off the sea when I was there, the temperature in their temporary turf built huts couldn’t have helped.
The site also contained a recreated Pokanoket camp of the period. Fascinated I watched the burning out of a log into a canoe. Entering one of their houses I found it to be on a par with the Pilgrims’ homes - apart from only having a hole in the roof to allow smoke from the log fire to escape.
Mayflower II (a reproduction of the 17th-century vessel) was available for inspection at the harbour in Plymouth. Unfortunately time was of the essence so I didn’t have time to explore it but visitors learn about the Pilgrims' ocean crossing. I have been on a recreated Golden Hind, Sir Francis Drake’s ship, so I could imagine the head cracking cramped conditions aboard.