Plymouth, Massachusetts: Journey to the Birth of a Nation

In December of 1620, a group of 99 English settlers landed on a wilderness shore of a new continent. What they started there grew into the United States.

Plymouth, in the first winter of the settlement — from December through spring of 1621– was a place of cold and privation, when half of the new settlers died. Immediately they set about building a common house with materials at hand. Soon thereafter they started work on their homes. The Quadricentennial of their landing will be celebrated in 2020.

A sketch of the settlement made by the Pilgrim leader, and Governor, William Bradford showed a small group of houses surrounded by an elongated stockade fence. The base of the settlement was on Cole Hill, a small hill that rose directly from the seashore. Through the center ran a rough street which they named Leyden Street in honor of the Dutch town that had given the Separatists safety after their flight from England.

Spring forward almost four centuries to the present day and their original settlement is gone, replaced by the more permanent structures that they and their descendants, built as the colony grew. But in Plymouth, it is possible to go back in time to experience what those first settlers’ lives were like.

Plimoth Plantation

In 1947 a young archaeologist named Henry Hornblower II set about to recreate the environment of the first settlers. The first phase was the erection of a pair of English cottages and a fort on the waterfront a short distance from the historic town center. On ground carefully chosen to mimic the topography of the original site, a copy of the settlement was laid out and built following Governor Bradford’s sketch. The settlement today is as real as it was almost 400 years ago.

In the slightly more than a half-century since Hornblower started to fulfill his dream, Plimoth Plantation has achieved his goal, allowing present-day visitors to journey back to the early years and witness the reality of those hard first years. Equally important to the mission of Plimoth Plantation is its emphasis on the presence and culture of the native Wampanoags who helped the colony to survive that first horrible winter. A native family settlement adjacent to the Pilgrim fort lets visitors experience their lives.

Plymouth as a Repository of a Legacy

An attractive and vibrant town, Plymouth still derives a good deal of its livelihood from the First Settler connection. The waterfront where the newcomers first settled now has parks with monuments to their courage and commitment. The original houses, built quickly, were replaced within a decade or two with the second generation of more permanent homes. Some of those second-generation houses still stand, one dating from about 1640.

Elsewhere in town, the streets are lined with houses from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and one home remains that were built from the wood and timbers of the original defensive fort. Where the fort stood there now is a cemetery containing the graves of all but the earliest of the settlers to die here, including Governor Bradford. Several of the historic homes are museums and Pilgrim Hall is a multi-faceted museum contains paintings, artwork and personal furnishings and belongings used by these intrepid colonists.

Public art throughout the town includes bronze statues to many of the major figures of this first permanent settlement, not only the English settlers but the Native Americans as well. A full replica of their vessel, Mayflower II, floats at the dock in the harbor and the rock upon which they are said to have first placed a foot on the new land is enshrined nearby in a classical Greek temple.

A New England Vacation Getaway for All Ages

Plymouth should be high on the list of destinations for travelers who want to experience and savor American history at the actual location where it took place. Here European settlers and Native Americans lived in peace for about a half-century, and here those first settlers signed the first written pact among ordinary people establishing a working democracy. For visitors, there is the added attraction that Plymouth also is a beautiful small New England town where they can enjoy the New England seacoast while getting a taste of its history, eat lobster in the rough at the town’s best-known seafood restaurant. Wood’s Seafood or take a whale watching or fishing cruise in Cape Cod Bay.