Plimoth Plantation: An Interpreter’s Tale

Yankee Classic from November 1983 Read about a 2008 visit to Plimoth Plantation. The little village hugged the cleared hillside under the crude wooden fortress and the one heavy artillery piece that faced seaward across the salt marshes. The defensive position told the visitor that this was wartime. The lone street was a long, unpaved […]

By Kathleen Kilgore

Jul 15 2006

Yankee Classic from November 1983 Read about a 2008 visit to Plimoth Plantation. The little village hugged the cleared hillside under the crude wooden fortress and the one heavy artillery piece that faced seaward across the salt marshes. The defensive position told the visitor that this was wartime. The lone street was a long, unpaved rut of clay and stones between unpainted wooden thatched huts dark with dampness and lichen. Inside one of the dark huts, fire crackled under an iron kettle, and a young woman crouched, daubing the cracks in the rough wall with a gray clay mixture to keep out the winds. From the beams hung brittle gray branches of dried herbs to ward off sickness and keep evil influences at bay. The woman looked up at the visitor and smiled. Under the white linen cap, her hair was fine and gray-blonde. “And how are you faring this day?” she asked. From April through November, nine to five, she is Mistress Brigid Fuller, wife of Plimoth Plantation’s surgeon in the year of Our Lord 1627. In Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1983, she is Pat Baker, mother of a three-year-old, wife of Plimoth Plantation historian Jim Baker, and caretaker of two goats and a flock of chickens. In season, like the other “interpreters” at the reconstructed Pilgrim settlement not far from the actual Mayflower landing site, she does whatever her 17th-century character would have done during the day, even down to cooking with contemporary recipes (interpreters are not, however, required to eat what they cook and can brown-bag it in the lounge and workshop 30 yards from the village). But the bulk of her time is spent answering questions from camera-waving tourists, schoolchildren, and — just before Thanksgiving — newspaper reporters. Though Thanksgiving is still one of the biggest weekends, every year the Plantation’s public relations office and the 15 or 20 interpreters on duty must explain that there was no Thanksgiving at Plimoth in November 1627. The Pilgrims’ harvest festival would have been held in October, as it still is in England. Although Plimoth Plantation is now a year-round operation with a budget of about $2.5 million and a work force of close to 150 (making it, after the Pilgrim I nuclear power plant, one of the town’s largest employers), the village began as a small, open-air local history museum and still has no endowment or big financial backers. The land, whose topography closely resembles the original site (now downtown Plymouth), was donated by the Ralph Hornblower family, and construction of the village began in 1957 to coincide with the arrival from England of the Mayflower replica now anchored near Plymouth Rock. The year 1627 was chosen because the settlers, who had been operating as a communal farm, divided up their property in the “cattle division” that year, and in the process, took a complete inventory of all their possessions. “We started out with costumed wax dummies in the houses,” Rosemary Carroll, the Plantation’s public relations director, explained, “then costumed guides. Then the guides became more experienced, and we went to first-person interpretation, in which the interpreter actually plays the role of a specific person. We were the first museum to do this on a grand scale, and, more than anything else, it is what has given us a national reputation. This and our realism, which still shocks people,” she smiled. “But they seem to be getting over it.” Jim Baker, a young man with longish gray hair and leather sandals over his thick socks, looks as though he could easily function as an interpreter in the village, but he is now one of the official historians. A Mayflower descendant and Plymouth native, Baker has been to England eight times to do research on what 17th-century English men and women spent their lives doing. “The Pilgrims left a great many records of their thoughts about theology, but unfortunately they didn’t give much indication of such mundane matters as what they ate, how they dressed, where they washed or went to the bathroom,” Baker explained. Most of the information used to create the present Plantation came from Dutch genre paintings, local records, and contemporary English diaries and letters. “We are constantly revising,” Baker said, waving to the stacks of folders labeled Fishing, Animals, Clothes. “When you see the village today, you have to remember that this place started out as a typical American outdoor museum: clean little cottages, nice oyster shell walks, a 1950s suburban view of the Pilgrims. Then in 1967 an archaeologist named Jim Deetz from Brown University came in and got rid of the dummies and everything that was obviously wrong. He couldn’t modify the existing houses, but he wanted middens (trash piles), dirt roads, pigs and chickens wandering around, and men with long hair. “I suppose you could say that was the 1960s image of the Pilgrims, but it is, as far as we know, quite historically accurate, whether one likes it or not,” Baker said. “We know, for example, that the Pilgrims threw their trash out the windows, because you can tell where the windows were in an excavation of a 17th-century house by the fan-shaped piles of trash. We know that they were dirty because at that time frequent bathing was considered unhealthy and even sinful, since the public bathhouses of the Middle Ages had become associated with the spread of syphilis and had given bathing a bad name. “Some of the locals and a great many of the Mayflower descendants became very upset,” Baker sighed. “They eventually recovered from Deetz, especially since he would document everything he did. But even today, middle-class Americans still complain either that the village doesn’t meet modem American health standards — which it doesn’t, but since no one actually lives there, it doesn’t have to. Or that their ancestors, whom they know from formal portraits in pinned collars and cuffs, didn’t look so scruffy. Actually, the village is much cleaner than it should be. When we tried creating middens, visitors took the trash away for souvenirs. And only one interpreter really got into the part so much that she didn’t bathe, but she gave it up after one summer month. “When the new Disney Epcot Center was researching the American history exhibit, we got a request to send photos of our costumes,” Baker went on. “Now, some of our reconstructions are just educated guesses, but we are very sure about the clothes. They phoned back indignantly and told us they could never portray Pilgrims like that because ‘they look like pirates.’ ” Baker threw back his head and laughed. “I suppose it never occurred to them that the Pilgrims were contemporaries of Pirates of the Caribbean.” Donna DeFabio is Assistant Supervisor in the Interpretation Department in winter, and Priscilla Alden in summer. “I think we’re making progress in people’s understanding,” she commented when the season was over. “This Thanksgiving there were record crowds, but almost no dumb questions like where’s the canned cranberry sauce?” About half the Pilgrim interpreters seem to take the job because of an interest in explaining history, but for DeFabio the appeal was acting. “But acting that isn’t as pressurized as on the stage. Like actors, though,” she added, “most of us get laid off, although I was lucky enough to stay on as a supervisor.” Pat Baker (also known as Brigid Fuller), with a degree from the Massachusetts College of Art, came into the program via her interest in crafts. “You can act out all your arts and crafts fantasies on this job,” she explained. “The funny thing is that I’ve seen many of the acting-oriented people later get into gardening and keeping animals in their private lives. One carry-over for me is that I make herbal medicines for minor illnesses. Herbal cough medicine is just as good as the $8 stuff you buy at the drugstore. For a real illness, though, I’ll take the 20th-century remedy.” For the interpreters, the high points of the season aren’t the modern holidays like Thanksgiving. Instead of staging anachronistic celebrations, the Plantation produces historically accurate annual events, such as October’s Harvest Home festival and a visit from a delegation of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, featuring a guest actor from New York. Every season there are also weddings and funerals. “The funeral is always Mrs. Brewster, because she was the only adult who died in 1627,” Pat Baker explained. “Children’s funerals in those days were no big deal. As a parent, I find that terribly hard to understand, but I realize that because of the high infant mortality, they just couldn’t invest the emotional energy into small children that we do. Women carry the coffin because women always carried women and men other men; then we have a graveside service.” Because the season overlaps the academic year, Plimoth Plantation cannot use college students or teachers as interpreters, and relies on a changing population of mid-career people, housewives, and jobless graduates. The average stay of an interpreter is two years, although a few stay longer. The constant change has yielded some surprising fits between the interpreter and the character. The man who presently plays the Mayflower‘s Captain is a retired Navy Commander with an M.A. in history, but an anachronistic appearance. So far, the historians have not been able to persuade him to grow out his regulation Navy haircut (cropped hair in the 17th century was the mark of a convict) to a more suitable shoulder length. One interpreter of Governor Bradford was an ordained clergyman. All interpreters undergo an intensive three-week training and then learn as much as possible about their individual characters, whom they match in age and general appearance. The idea that an interpreter portrays a real person, not just any Pilgrim, gives the job a special charm. But often the historical records are scanty and subject to differing interpretations. During the 1981 season, Robert Marten, the Plantation’s head of interpreters, hired a young drama student from Brockton named Croney Southern to portray the colonist Abraham Pearse. Pearse, according to the usual limited records, came to Plymouth as an indentured servant aboard the Anne, worked his way out of indenture, and later became one of the founders of Pembroke and a successful farmer with land in Kingston, Duxbury, and Bridgewater. Marten concluded on the basis of a 1643 military list that Pearse was a “blackamoor,” and hired Southern, who is also black, to portray him. For three weeks Southern worked in his homespun breeches and broad-brimmed hat, introducing himself as Pearse and explaining to surprised visitors that “there were no slaves in Plymouth.” But the Plantation had begun to get calls from genealogists, and researchers rechecked the records. In the printed copy of the 1643 muster list, which Marten had used, the entry reads “Abraham Pearse, the blackamoor.” But in the original handwritten list, “the blackamoor” is written underneath and very likely represents another person, probably Pearse’s servant. No other reference to Pearse’s color could be found, and Southern left in September. There the matter would have ended if the national media, in its relentless quest to find a new angle on the annual Thanksgiving story, hadn’t picked up The Black Pilgrim. “Guess who’s not coming to dinner,” the director of another Plymouth museum, Parting Ways Museum of African-American History, told AP. Around the country, Mayflower descendants phoned Grandma to pull the genealogy papers out of the bank vault and double-check. But what sounded like a Richard Pryor comedy routine turned out to be anything but funny to Marten. After defending his position on Pearse against what he claimed were attacks by Pearse’s descendants, Marten was fired after 18 years with the Plantation. The Plantation commissioned a historical study that took nearly a year to complete, which concluded that Abraham Pearse was not black. This was, of course, ignored by the national press, who had forgotten the whole episode. The same season that Southern, also known as Pearse, was working, the Plantation reopened an Indian campsite, hiring several Eastern native Americans as interpreters from May through October. The Indian ethnic group the Pilgrims actually encountered at Plymouth was the Wampanoag, who had been nearly wiped out in a series of epidemics in 1615. Although the Wampanoags have never been officially recognized by the Interior Department and have no reservation, small groups maintain an ethnic continuity on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard and in the Plymouth and Brockton areas. About a dozen Indians of various tribes (mostly Wampanoag from Cape Cod and the Vineyard, and including one young man from Chile and one non-Indian) spend the off-season on educational programs at New England schools, linguistics research, and the very labor-intensive job of making all their clothes, implements, and houses by hand. Just getting to this point was a difficult undertaking. Despite the psychological kinship Wampanoags claim with their ancestors, the linguistic and cultural gap is greater than that between the Pilgrims and their descendants. No native speakers of Wampanoag are alive today, and the language had to be reconstructed from dictionaries and primers written by missionaries who imposed a great deal of their own culture and grammar onto the material, and from related dialects still in use. During the first summer, the campsite interpreters who knew tribal languages threw in phrases of their dialects, used Wampanoag words for tools, and ended up with a linguistic mish-mash. “It was obviously unrealistic,” recalled Wampanoag Tony Pollard, coordinator of interpretation for the Wampanoag Indian program. “Here we were supposed to be Indians who had recently made contact with Europeans, and now we speak English fluently and barely get by in Indian dialects.” With the help of anthropologists, advisors from other native American groups, and books, the Indian stafflearned how to make porcupine quill embroidery, prepare skins for clothing, build boats, and construct traditional wetu houses (Eastern Indians didn’t live in teepees) from wood and rush mats. Often, finding the materials in urbanized Massachusetts proved harder than learning the crafts; bulrushes had to be gathered in Concord, and the best cattails came from an empty field next to a Valle’s Steak House on Route 3. But as the Indians’ sensitivity to stereotyping grew, relations with the visitors became strained. It isn’t difficult to carry on 17th-century European village life in front of tourists. Cooking, gardening, thatching roofs, and slopping hogs can be done on the spot and explained while the shutters click. But 17th-century Wampanoags spent their summer days hunting, fishing, and gathering food on the seashore, not hanging around a campsite answering questions. Visitors who would never dream of calling a long-haired impersonator of Myles Standish a hippie to his face felt free to call the Indians “Tonto,” ask if they were “real,” and comment on their racial characteristics. After four hundred years of intermarriage with blacks and whites, the Eastern Indian gene pool is well mixed, and Wampanoag people often don’t conform to visitors’ notions of what an Indian ought to look like. “It’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to operate in an Indian mind-set and a non-Indian mind-set at the same time,” Pollard explained, sitting at a desk in his tiny office. Books and Indian photographs lined the walls; and on a stand sat a battered old manual typewriter. “For one thing, Indians have never been concerned much about a person’s physical appearance. At the campsite, you more or less get used to, ‘Look, Mommy, there’s an Indian,’ but it’s harder to take at the local supermarket. For a while there,” he smiled, relighting a pipe, “all kinds of people were dressing like Indians, but now it’s back to just us.” Pollard would like to see the group concentrate on educating other Indians, such as the large group of native American children who visited Plimoth Plantation last summer. “We envisage some language programs,” Pollard explained, “and eventually a place where Indians can come and learn something about their heritage and apply it to their own lives.” This is one of the purposes of Plimoth Plantation. Jim Baker elaborates: “There is no place on earth today that’s as primitive as Plimoth in 1627. If Third World people don’t have modem things, they know that they exist and therefore that great change is possible. We are closer to those people of the Third World than we are to the Pilgrims because the great divide of the Age of Reason separates us. In the Pilgrim village, the existence of the spiritual world was never questioned. The Pilgrims did not believe in progress. In coming to America they were trying to recapture the community of the ancient Christians. I don’t think this process can be reversed, that anyone, Indian or non-Indian, can recapture the mind of his ancestors after so many years.” Yet, even in the absence of the spiritual dimension, the little village is a powerful image to visitors from rural backgrounds. Interpreters report overhearing visitors compare it to their villages in Central Europe, cottages in Ireland, or river settlements in Brazil. A year ago a group of Laotian refugees were taken on a cultural excursion to the Plantation. The filmstrip and static exhibits were of little interest, but the Laotians brightened when they entered the village. They examined the fat sheep and pigs, sniffed the herbs, and touched the wooden houses reverently. As they were leaving, one of them politely asked, “Can we move here and make this our home?”