On the Trail of History in Plymouth

I just came back from selling books in Maine and spent a week in Plymouth, MA, my home town. Amazingly, I never visited many of the historic sites when I was growing up, although I did work as a tour guide at Plimoth Plantation.

I had a long list of places to see, people to contact and questions, questions, questions – a product of my attempt to write a historical novel about Mary Allerton Cushman.

I decided to do the most strenuous visit on the first day: Plimoth Plantation. My feet aren’t what they used to be so I knew I would be torturing my tootsies.  After purchasing a ticket, I walked up the long hill to the Crafts Center, where I met a potter who was more than happy to tell me about New England potters and their wares. The Pilgrims did not pot. They purchased what they needed from England or through trading with the Dutch. The first potter to come to New England was Phillip Drinker who settled in Charleston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635. His son Edward Drinker carried on his work, but HIS apprentice John Goldsmith left to become a chocolate grinder.

This is early , typical blue and white Delftware from the 17th century that the Pilgrims could have.

I asked about pipes because I’d never seen any reference to the Pilgrim men smoking pipes. It turns out they did have pipes made of clay with a very small bowl. Being fragile, the stems would frequently break, so they used shorter and shorter stems. The pipes had a tiny bowl because tobacco was in small supply. Some Pilgrims planted tobacco for their own use, but it didn’t grow well because of the thin, rocky soil.  The bowl size of their pipes increased as tobacco became more common and available. You can date dig sites by the size of the pipe bowls.

Then I walked further up the hill to the village and meandered up and down what would be First Street or as is now called, Leiden Street. Along the way I talked to the interpreters and made other discoveries.

  • Spinning wheels were not common until after 1640s. The first sheep to come to Pimoth were fat but had poor wool – they were bought for meat. The sheep good for wool – merino sheep – were scrawny and not good eating.  Merino sheep would not have been common after the middle of the century.
  • Small spinning wheels were used for spinning flax fibers into linen.

  • The wool spun at home would be homespun and likely thick, spun on a huge walking wheel, but not until the late 1630s because there were no merino sheep. Sometimes a woman would wear a path in the wood floor planks walking back and forth as she spun. Most of what was spun at home would have been used to weave blankets.
  • The Pilgrims got their clothing ready made from London for a long time and would alter the clothes to fit.
  • The Pilgrims had candles but they were imported and expensive. They would have burned oiled paper for light until wax for candles was available.  There were no honey bees in North American until the European honey bee, Apis mellifera mellifera, was first introduced to the American colonies around the year 1638, and was not firmly established in New England until 1654.  Thus the Pilgrims did not use honey to sweeten their food in the beginning and had no source of wax.
  • The Pilgrims made lye soap for washing clothes but relied on soap from England for washing themselves.
  • There were no horses in Plimoth because there were no roads. Travel was done by boat. When larger land grants were made in1627, the parcels all had five acres that were either ocean front or river front. That way, when the owners built houses there, they could travel back to the main Plymouth settlement by boat for Sunday services. When the rivers froze over, the Pilgrim families would move back into their houses in the settlement for the winter.



24 thoughts on “On the Trail of History in Plymouth”

  1. I visited Plymouth some years back, my sister was working in New York and went out to join her for a week in NY and a week in Boston. From Boston we visited. Plymouth. We visited the Mayflower but due to a misunderstanding with the bus driver we were too late to visit the plantation. She was furious with him but we loved the Mayflower. Thank you for sharing your experience.💜

    1. You’re most welcome, Willow. The Mayflower is gone, undergoing huge repairs in advance of the 2020 Quadricentennial. The Plantation is not crowded during the week but does not have a lot of interpreters.

  2. An excellent post with loads of information. It is quite intriguing for me because I live on the other side of the pond. I am afraid I have only visited Plymouth this side once or twice myself…….

  3. Usually I do not read article on blogs however I would like to say that this writeup very compelled me to take a look at and do so Your writing taste has been amazed me Thanks quite nice post

    1. Thank you so much., Perhaps you’d like to read the book that resulted from my research: The Last Pilgrim, The Story of Mary Allerton Cushman, It was long-listed for an international award and has many five star reviews on Amazon.

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