The 17th Century Adventures of Plimoth Plantation's Colonial Interpreters
Autumn is in full swing here in the English Village - the sky is blue, the sunshine is golden, the leaves are red, and the Pilgrims are coordinating their outfits for the occasion.
Doesn’t that sound like the perfect time to come visit us?
See you soon!
Here at They Knew They Were Pilgrims, we pride ourselves on our innovation. We do things that no man has ever done before…well, for at least a few hundred years, anyway. Today, however, we bring to you, what we are 99.9% sure is a world first*. I really, truly believe that we are the only people in the world who are doing this kind of groundbreaking research. Because of this precedent, I wasn’t really surprised to find myself having the following conversation:
“Hey Ana, wanna come over and help me make a replica charcoal pit in cake form?”
“How are you going to make this cake, did you google it?”, Ana replied.
“Yes. Because making an edible charcoal pit is DEFINITELY what normal people do.”
Earlier this week, I might have mentioned a little thing called Charcoal Burn, an autumn tradition in the English Village. Our Artisans work long days and nights to make this happen, and after hours, we keep them company and spur them on. When I told them I was thinking about making breakfast muffins, you know, the kind that is supposed to be good for you, with fruit, or bran, or both in it, they said “what, no cake?“. Ah yes, cake. Good idea.
So here it is folks, probably a world first.
Construct a tunnel, triangular in shape, in which you will set your fire.
Keep building that tunnel until it is as tall as you would like your pit to be. Pretzel sticks are very hard to stack this way. Don’t worry, it will be easier with real sticks.
Begin stacking your wood/pretzels around the tunnel. The first layer or two needs to be stacked pretty carefully and evenly. It helps if you can get some chocolate fudge breeze in which to stick your sticks.
Keep building up your pit. This time, we made two layers. It needs to be a smooth and rounded as possible, so take some smaller pieces of wood/pretzel and fill in the gaps. The more gaps that are left between the wood, the more likely dangerous air pockets are to form, which causes the wood to burn too hot, and turn to ash not coal! Nooooo!!
Cover the whole pile of pretzels with hay. Or cover the wood with cake. I forget which.
Starting at the bottom of the stack, cover all the pretzels and cake, or wood and hay with chocolate fudge or breeze. Note the pretzels placed at regular intervals around the bottom of the pit – these will become vents for fueling the fire later. Don’t forget to keep the opening to your tunnel open, otherwise you’ll have some digging to do!
As a final, finishing touch, sprinkle on cookie crumbs to represent the little bits of charcoal that remain in the breeze from past years of burning. Don’t worry, the cookie crumbs are not actually from last year. This part of the cake making process is the only part that isn’t based on an actual part of the coal pit building process. The breeze is dirt and ash and bits of charcoal all mixed together. We had to add our “charcoal” afterwards.
Construct a windshield to protect the cake from the weather. If you noticed the ring of marshmallow in the first couple of pictures, this is where that comes in handy. The marshmallow made a built up ring of breeze around the very edge of the pit/plate. That ring of breeze, in reality, is where the posts are set for the actual wind screen. I set my pretzel wind screen into the marshmallows covered in chocolate. YUM.
Admire said work.
This step happens in the construction of a real pit, too.
Upon cutting into the cake, Mr Atchinson cried “WE HAVE COAL!”
And then, more seriously, he said “that’s exactly what it’s supposed to look like”. I’d call that a success.
And, here’s a picture of Mark in his element lighting the pit. Just because.
*If you happen to know anyone who has attempted such a feat, please let me know. I’d love to compare notes on the best way to stack a pretzel stick tunnel.
Tumbling like the leaves,
Yeah, we are spiralling on the breeze,
Almost to the point of no return,
Everything will burn, baby, burn.
(If you’re anything like me, and you like a good soundtrack to accompany all areas of your life, I can recommend that you right click that link above to open it in another tab, and embrace the sounds of early 2000s Brit Pop, ie., Sally’s teenage years, while you read this post. Yes, the band really is named Ash, you can’t make these things up!)
Well folks, there’s a lovely autumnal chill in the air, I’ve seen a few leaves beginning to turn from green to golden, most of our harvest has been gotten in, and that can only mean one thing in the 1627 Village. It’s time to make a whole lot of smoke at our annual Charcoal Burn.
Charcoal burners, or colliers, have been building pits and burning coal for thousands of years, and we ourselves have been smoking out New Plimoth in the autumn each year for more than twenty. What’s the point, you ask? Well, there’s certainly no sense in spending all this time and effort to produce coal for a goodwife’s hearth, that’s for sure. This is for the benefit of William Palmer, nail maker and blacksmith in 1627 Plymouth. If you want to work metal, you need to burn coal. Typically, early 17th century blacksmiths in England would choose stone coal, you know, the kind you mine for, for their forges. But, given that there’s an abundant supply of wood in New England, and a distinct lack of coal mines, charcoal it is. Mark Atchison, our incredibly knowledgable artisan-blacksmith guides us through the process by way of his scrupulous research and vast wisdom learnt through years of hands on coal-making experience.
Here’s the Pit Boss himself, doing what he does best:
Mark is standing on what looks like an unruly pile of hay. It’s actually very orderly hay. For us, the process begins with the clearing of the already existing pit. It’s a round and flat area, on which the earth has been blackened through years of burning in the same spot. This is a good thing. Mark lays out the middle of the pit with a central, triangular tunnel around which billets of wood are stacked.
This photo is from 2011′s burn. This year’s is a little smaller, about a cord of wood.
Here, Mark and his apprentice Mattheo check out the hay placement, ensuring that the tunnel is kept open. It’s Mattheo’s first burn…initiation, anyone?
Once all the wood is stacked, making the dome as smooth as possible, it’s then covered with the hay, which is in turn covered with the previously mentioned blacked, ash ridden earth that surrounds the pit. We in the coal making business refer to this as “breeze”. The breeze will be used to control the burn, keeping it as slow and even as possible. Below, the guys are sitting/standing on the breeze that has been piled up around the edge of the pit. They’re shooting the breeze (sorry, I had to) before they have to start shovelling the breeze. There will be a ring of piled up breeze all around the pit which will be used later.
Once the pit is lit, it’s all a game of “Prevent The Pit From Burning Too Hot While Ensuring It Burns Hot Enough To Make Something Other Than Just Slightly Blackened Wood”. To protect the burn from inevitable gusts of wind, a protective shield of leafy boughs is erected around the entire pit – posts are set at regular intervals and then branches are woven betwixt and between to fill in all the gaps. Here’s Goody Bassett weaving branches in between a hurdle to make a door:
The fire will be lit at the bottom of Mark’s triangular tunnel and fueled as the pit smolders. He’s not looking for flames. Then, he and the guys will continue to control the burn by either making holes to allow air in, or filling in holes with more breeze to slow down the combustion. Every once in a while, he’ll climb up on top of the pit and dance on it. I think the technical (and perhaps more manly) term is “jumping the pit”. That’ll make sure any pockets of air are filled in before we have a bonfire on our hands. It’s not November 5th YET.
Come Wednesday, this is what we’ll be seeing, breathing and smelling – the smell is so distinctive, you’ve gotta come and give it a sniff.
The charcoal will burn from Wednesday morning until Friday around midday. If you can’t make it out this week, the pit will remain warm but not burning at least until the end of the season. And if you can’t get here before then, here’s a video from two years ago that’ll show you what you’re missing.
It has been a (surprisingly cool) wonderful summer, and I can’t wait to tell you more about our most recent interpretive antics…however…we have BIG news to talk about first.
Today, we’re celebrating the official opening of the all-new Francis Cooke house in the 1627 English Village. That’s right! The house is complete and ready to be “lived in”. For those of you that have been following us a while, you’ll know it has been quite the journey – the previous house was lost to fire back in 2011.
Personally, this new incarnation of the Cooke house will always have a special place in my heart. This is the first house I’ve seen go up from start to finish, and I’ve been involved in its construction throughout (as much as a seventeenth-century housewife can be, and probably a little more). “No, of course I didn’t raise these rafters myself”, you’ll frequently hear me say as Priscilla Alden…
This house is a testament to all the incredible work that has been done and continues to be done every single day. It speaks to the character, resolve and determination of all of those who worked towards the building of it. The hours of meticulous research, the carefully sharpened broad axes, every ounce of sweat, every decision that has been poured over, it all comes together beautifully in this one small portion of our exhibit.
And it is beautiful.
I don’t even think we can begin to count the number of hands that have contributed to the completion of this house, but by far, the hands that have made the most significant impact on the shaping of it are the hands of our artisans. These guys are rock stars. Really. When we’re all hiding in the shade on those brutal August days, they’re out there, wielding axes with the sun beating down on their backs. While we’re keeping ourselves warm and cosy, making a piece of toast on those dark November evenings, they’re out there, digging a hole or repairing a roof. Every detail of this house has been thought through, discussed at length, and created with scrupulous attention to historical accuracy. Thank you, all of you. We wouldn’t be where we are without you.
I guess coming to the end of this project caught me in a reflective mood. So, inspired by the sermon that Robert Cushman preached on his visit to Plymouth in 1621 (The Sin and Danger of Self-Love), and by the blood, sweat and tears that have been poured in to this house, here’s one perspective on the whole story.
Tags: artisan, hand tools, hewing, Mayflower, Pilgrims, riving, Robert Cushman, Sigur Ros, The Night Circus, timber framing, Walloon
Posted in Institutional Memory, Jane Cooke, Pilgrim, Plimoth Plantation, Primary Sources | 8 Comments
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!
Tags: Adriaen Brouwer, Dutch Masters, Edward Winslow, Good Newes From New England, Mourt's Relation, Of Plimoth Plantation, Pilgrim Hall, Primary Source, William Bradford
Posted in Primary Sources, Uncategorized | 5 Comments
“Many handes make lyght warke…”
-John Heywood, 1562
Most people when they show up to work in the morning are expected to at least look somewhat presentable – a suit and tie maybe, perhaps some lipstick, and generally at the very least, showered. But being a Pilgrim is dirty, grimy work – all those “career casual” clothes I have from previous jobs are now mostly gathering dust in the far reaches of my closet, and when I try to put on mascara these days I usually stab myself in the eye because I’ve mostly forgotten how to do it (Let’s not even talk about trying to walk in high heels).
One quickly loses one’s vanity when every work day regularly presents so many dirty hazards, whether it’s cooking, gardening, caring for animals, woodworking or any other number of unforeseen circumstances. And while we may come home at the end of the day covered in dirt and smelling like smoke or pitch, we also get the satisfaction of knowing that we accomplished something with our own hands, a feeling that’s getting rarer and rarer in this day and age.
So over the years I’ve documented the life of a Pilgrim through a few of the sundry ways my hands have been cut, dirtied, and yes, even dyed hot pink. Sure, it’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it:
Now can someone pass the soap?
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
- Tennessee Williams
Call us conceited, but we Interpreters love to hear that we’ve made an impression (however small it may be) on the lives of our museum visitors, whether it be teaching them something about history they never knew before or simply greeting them with a friendly face. But a lot of our museum visitors rarely realize things go the opposite way as well – they sometimes make an even bigger impression on us than we do on them.
It’s an undeniable perk of our job that we Interpreters get to meet people of all ages, stations in life, and from around the globe while working at Plimoth Plantation. The downside? Often its difficult to express exactly how much their interactions mean to us because we’re in character. But guess what? That’s what having a blog is for!
And since I have the blog password it means I can commandeer it just this once to personally thank some museum visitors for the kindness, generosity and all round adorableness they showed me and my coworker yesterday. We often get visitors who are descendants of the Pilgrims, eager to meet their great-times-10 “grandmother” or “grandfather,” and on Sunday I had the pleasure of meeting two descendants of the character I play, Susanna Winslow. I then invited them to return on Monday since it was May 12, the day we know courtesy of William Bradford as Edward and Susanna Winslow’s wedding anniversary (the Winslows were the first wedding in New Plimoth, in 1621), and myself and my colleague Doug who plays Edward were planning some festivities for the day.
But not only did our “relations” return to help us celebrate our “anniversary” with company and good conversation, they even brought us roses for the occasion!
So thanks new found friends for the gift, and for reminding us that a job where the kindness of total strangers is a regular occurrence can’t be that bad of a gig. We hope it made your day to meet us, because meeting you definitely made ours!
You can tune a guitar, but you can’t tuna fish. Unless of course, you play bass.
We all love a good fish pun, but today I’m here to tell you about some very important little fish, that is, if you haven’t already been herring all about them. Ha. Got you there! Seriously you guys, I’m not even squidding, I’ve got bigger fish to fry here than a few bad jokes.
I’m talking about these squiggly little dudes:
Alewives, or Alosa pseudoharengus, if you please, are the herring that run UP the brook here in Plymouth every spring. Here’s John Pory, a visitor to early Plymouth (1622/23), to explain it all:
In April and May come up another kind of fish which they call herring or old wives [alewives] in infinite schools, into a small river running under the town, and so into a great pond or lake of a mile broad [ours go to Billington Sea], where they cast their spawn, the water of the said river being in many places not above half a foot deep. Yea, when a heap of stones is reared up against them a foot high above the water, they leap and tumble over, and will not be beaten back with cudgels….The inhabitants [our settlers] during the said two months take them up every day in hogsheads. And with those they eat not they manure the ground, burying two or three in each hill of corn – and may, when they are able, if they see cause, lade whole ships with them. At their going up they are very fat and savory, but at their coming down, after they have cast their spawns, they are shot, and therefore lean and unwholesome.
So that’s that. The herring run. You take the fish, you eat some, you bury some in your corn fields and plant over them. Thank you Squanto, get in a round of corn for everyone! It all sounds so easy, but the reality is that the early colonists here in New England really struggled to feed their families. If they hadn’t learnt from the native people, they never would have known that fish are feritlizer, not just food.
We set last spring some twenty acres of Indian corn, and sowed some six acres of barley and peas, and according to the manner of the Indians we manured our ground with herrings or rather shads, which we have in great abundance, and take with great ease at our doors. Our corn did prove well, and God be praised, we had a good increase of Indian corn… – Mourt’s Relation
Not only were our colonists eating the herring and using the herring to grow corn that they would then eat, they used the surplus corn to trade for fur, which is really how they managed to begin to find economic stability here, too. Overly simplified, it goes like this:
Fish to eat – fish to plant – corn to plant – corn to grow – corn to eat – corn to trade.
The alewife population in Massachusetts has, sadly, been steadily declining over the years, but conservation commissions all over The Commonwealth have been fighting against this. The Town of Plymouth has been, and will be continuing the work of removing some of the dams between The Mill and Billington Sea, with the intention of making the way easier for our fishy friends. To keep track of the fish as they head upstream, there’s a helpful little fish counting station, just across the street from our water wheel. You can easily see the herring as they come through the fish way, under the road and out the other side:
If this isn’t enough to convince you of the significance of the humble alewife, down at the Plimoth Grist Mill this weekend we’ve got a festival going on!
The excitement begins at our cinema on Friday night, with a premiere of the River Herring Migration documentary by filmmaker Shervin Arya followed by a discussion featuring a panel of wildlife experts which promises to be absolutely fascinating. All day on Saturday and Sunday at The Mill there will be divers and sundry opportunities to learn more about this amazing fish, the ecology of Town Brook and the way our mill works with water power. I’ve heard there will be eels, too!
Many thanks to Miller, and all-round wonderful person, Kim Van Wormer for the brill-iant photos and her all-round wonderfulness. Get yourselves down there to meet Kim and the crew, you’re guaranteed to have a great time and learn a LOT.
This cormorant knows that the herring are running, too!
As for the puns…meh…I cod do batter, let minnow if you think of any more!
If there’s anyone who knows how hard it is to stay hip to the newest technology, it’s us Pilgrims. When we’re in the 1627 English Village or on Mayflower II we try not to keep up with the times, but not everyone at Plimoth Plantation has that luxury. In fact, our very own Plimoth Cinema needs to upgrade to a digital projector – and fast! Many of the movies the Cinema would like to show are only available in digital format, meaning that without this new projection system the very future of the Cinema is in doubt.
The other problem? Going digital is expensive! So we’re asking for your help – visit Plimoth Cinema’s Kickstarter page and please make a donation if you’re able. Our goal is to raise at least $25,000 of the $48,000 needed for a new digital projection system, so every little bit helps! And the Kickstarter campaign only lasts until May 3, 2014, so make haste!
In honor of our friends at Plimoth Cinema we here at They Knew They Were Pilgrims have made a short film loosely (exceptionally loosely!) based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1858 poem The Courtship of Miles Standish for your viewing pleasure. For those not down with the latest trends in 19th century literature, The Courtship of Miles Standish tells the love story of Mayflower passengers John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, who fall in love even though John’s friend Miles Standish has asked John to court Priscilla on his behalf (If you want more detail you could read the long narrative poem yourself…or just watch the Wishbone version). The historical accuracy of the poem is um, debatable – Longfellow was an Alden descendant and claimed the poem was based on a family story – but it sure makes a good tale that many museum visitors still ask about to this day.
We’ll never know if Priscilla really did tell John to “speak for yourself,” but in the meantime help yourself to TKTWP’s own version of Longfellow’s story. And again, please donate to Plimoth Cinema’s Kickstarter campaign if you can, because as you’ll watch our heroes discover, upgrading from the old to the new really does make everything come up like sunshine, lollipops and rainbows!
A special thanks to everyone who helped make this video, especially Courtney Roy-Branigan for giving us the impetus to make it, our bosses for being accommodating, the Wardrobe Department for lending us the perfect Evil Villain Cape, Erica Morris for letting us borrow the biggest teddy bear she owned, Doug Blake for being a late night film editing champion, and our dear coworkers who didn’t hesitate when we asked them to make fools of themselves on camera. You’re the best!
Tags: digital projector, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Alden, Kickstarter, Miles Standish, Myles Standish, Plimoth Cinema, Priscilla Alden, Priscilla Mullins, The Courtship of Miles Standish
Posted in Pilgrims in Pop Culture, Uncategorized | 6 Comments