adjective \ˈprī-ˌmer-ē, ˈprī-mə-rē,ˈprīm-rē\
: most important
: most basic or essential
: happening or coming first
noun \ˈsȯrs\: someone or something that provides what is wanted or needed: the cause of something (such as a problem): a person, book, etc., that gives information
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary
There are a lot of ways we Colonial Interpreters know what we know, whether it be what words give us the right 17th century dialect, how to use a certain tool, the proper way to wear an item of clothing or – most importantly – what events happened in New Plimoth between 1620 and 1627. We cool kids with the hip lingo call the things that give us this sort of information primary sources, as in sources which lend us historical knowledge direct from the primary, or first, people who experienced it. In the case of our museum, primary sources might take the form of written firsthand accounts of the founding of New Plimoth, surviving artifacts from the time period, archaeological evidence of a certain building technique, or even paintings, drawings and etchings.
Used together such primary sources are the historical Legos we use to build the representation of 17th century colonial life we have at the museum, and whether they realize it or not, visitors experience them through the way Interpreters structure a sentence, build a fence, arrange things on a table or tell a story. So how do 400 year old primary sources get translated into our modern visitors’ museum experience, you may ask?
Well, first, we Interpreters read. Alot. And then we read some more. The most important books we read are the ones written by some of the Pilgrims themselves, particularly William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, Edward Winslow’s Good Newes From New England, and Mourt’s Relation, a collection of letters published in England in 1622:
In addition, other written sources include letters penned by visitors to New Plimoth such as John Pory (Secretary to the Governor and Council of Virginia), Emmanuel Altham (a gentleman who was an investor in New Plimoth and present at Governor Bradford’s 1623 wedding) and Isaack de Rasieres (an Opper Koopman, or agent, for the Dutch West India Company and Secretary to the Director-General of New Netherland). There are also surviving letters between the residents of New Plimoth and their backers and friends still in England and Holland, books published at slightly later dates than 1627 like William Wood’s New England’s Prospect or Nathaniel Morton’s New England’s Memorial, and even poetry courtesy of William Bradford himself.
Generations of Interpreters have poured over these sources to analyze word choice, memorize the timeline of events in New Plimoth’s history or decide how the characters they play fit into all this. It often makes for super nerdy heated lunchtime debate, or if you’re me, means you have to budget for a healthy supply of highlighters:
But once we’ve got the basics of New Plimoth down, we’ve also got to expand our horizons to learn how 17th Century people behaved in general so we can do our best to depict them at the museum. It means – you guessed it - more reading, but also delving into the wealth of knowledge that exists about 17th Century Europe but not about New Plimoth. For example, there are plenty of paintings representing Holland at the time many of the Pilgrims lived there, but Edward Winslow is the only Pilgrim we know of who had a portrait painted from their likeness. As a result, we Interpreters have developed the painstaking and inexact science of sifting through what may or may not have been relevant to the New Plimoth settlers we portray. Nevertheless, such images help enlighten us about things as general as 17th century fashion to things as weird and niche like where people in our time period placed their napkins while eating. Ultimately though, it means that if you walk into my Pilgrim house and tell me you feel like you’re inside a Dutch Masters painting you’ve just paid me the highest compliment:
As you can see, we super geek out over this stuff (Are you telling me everyone doesn’t recreate Dutch Masters paintings for fun?!). I mean, like really geek out. Like when the curator of Pilgrim Hall Museum offers to let you hold an original printing of Mourt’s Relation (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) you immediately pull out your modern highlighted copy (see above!) from your purse to compare kind of geek out:
So yes we do all this research and reading and obscure Google searches because we love it and are interested. But more importantly, we do it for you, our visitors. Because even if we’ll never be 100% certain what a particular resident of New Plimoth looked like, ate or said on any given day, all our research leads to some extremely educated guesses. And it’s our jobs as Interpreters then to well, interpret, all this stuff for our visitors in ways that ensure they have a fun day at our museum, learn some stuff and hopefully get the chance to experience a little bit of the past here in the present day. So next time you visit Plimoth Plantation and a Pilgrim asks you to dance, uses a funny sounding word, or shows you a wood working technique – enjoy it! All this geeky research would mean nothing if we didn’t get to share it with you!