They Knew They Were Pilgrims

The 17th Century Adventures of Plimoth Plantation's Colonial Interpreters

Straight From The Source.

July 3rd, 2014 by Alexandra


 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:

Mourt's, Winslow & Bradford, oh my!

Mourt’s, Winslow & Bradford, oh my!

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:

When I'm famous this will be worth a lot in a used bookstore someday.

When I’m famous this will be worth a lot in a used bookstore someday.

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:

On the right: "The Smokers" by Adriaen Brouwer (ca. 1636) On the left: Scott, Doug, Ian, Matteo & Josh

On the right: “The Smokers” by Adriaen Brouwer (ca. 1636) On the left: Scott, Doug, Ian, Matteo & Josh

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:

Thanks Pilgrim Hall for showing us awesome stuff!

Thanks Pilgrim Hall for showing us awesome stuff!

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!


Many Hands Make Light Work.

May 31st, 2014 by Alexandra

“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:

Gardening is dangerous work you guys! (But don’t worry, its only a flesh wound.)


Trying to clean all the grime and grease off a copper pot that had been hanging over a fire for a whole year seemed like a good idea at the time…


Clay from daub is this year’s hottest new fashion accessory!


Dirt. The classic.

hands_beets (2)

Did you know cutting up a beet makes your hand look like you used a pink marker to color your hand like a 5 year old?


Just as an FYI there is generally a lot of soot on the bottom of pots which hang over a fire (Which, ahem, you shouldn’t then accidentally smear all over your face…).


All the bread dough didn’t just end up on my hands. Promise.



Now can someone pass the soap?

The Kindness of Strangers.

May 13th, 2014 by Alexandra

“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!

Plenty More Fish In The Sea

April 24th, 2014 by Sally

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.



See that fish head spotted rotting away in our corn field last year? It really works.

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!


Speak for yourself, John!

April 19th, 2014 by Alexandra

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!



April 7th, 2014 by Sally


From thirteen of the Adventurers in England to the Settlers at New Plymouth, 1623.

As recorded by William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation.


PrattleFeed Quiz: Which Mayflower Passenger Are You?

March 28th, 2014 by Alexandra



March 25th, 2014 by Sally

If there’s one thing we at They Knew They Were Pilgrims love almost as much as our Plymouth Primary Sources, it’s jumping on the most recently trending bandwagons and relating it to our seventeenth-century existence. We’ve made internet memesPlimoth-Westeros comparisons, commentated on current events and weather events. If you’ve been anywhere near the internet recently, and presumably you have, you cannot possibly have avoided the phenomenon that is The List. You know what I mean. Posts* entitled “13 Ways That Henry Ainsworth Can Change Your Life”, “72 Adorable Pictures Of Native Corn That Will Bring Tears To Your Eyes”, or “265 Reasons Everyone Needs A Fake Husband” are taking over our news-feeds and sucking up our free time.

*These are all fictional titles, but who could not wish they existed for reals?


As if you needed any more proof that we are “down with the kids” (and this time, I don’t mean baby goats), here goes.

They Knew They Were Pilgrims presents:

perhaps I have too much time on my hands?


1) Retro Fashion

Introducing…The Hipster Pilgrim:

O how he doth looketh down his nostrils at he who weareth ye olde-fashioned slopps. Verily, the Hipster Pilgrim, in his skinny breeches and ironic doublet, bringeth retro to its logical conclusion. All of our clothes are handmade from natural fibres, some of our knitted items are even made with hand-spun wool from an historic breed of sheep. If that’s not seriously swag, I don’t know what is.

2) Historic Spellinge

Embracing the true nature of hipness and postmodern thought, in 1627, what is correct spelling to you is not necessarily (that’s one coffee, two sugars) correct spelling to me. The way I see it, it’s a seventeenth-century man’s way of saying YOLO. Who needs to worry about spelling when there’s an ale-house to keep? Therefore, this:

oh Master Bradford, you're so creative.

That is Master Bradford himself, introducing his journal, Of Plymouth Plantation. He says in his own, not so simple, spelling:

And first of ye occatsion, and indusments ther unto; the which that I may truly unfould, I must begine at ye very roote, & rise of the same. The which I shall endevor to manefest in a plaine stile; with singuler regard unto the simple trueth in all things, at least as farr near as my slender judgmente can attaine the same.

Right. Ermm..I mean, Right On!

3) Burning Wood

As it turns out, heating and cooking over a wood fire is where it’s at, yo. Done responsibly, it’s a sustainable fuel source, and cooking like it’s 1627 adds incredible flavour to your food that can’t be simulated. Moreover, every hipster with a back yard homestead wants a wood fired oven. We do our fair share of splitting and storing firewood in the English Village, and our sources tell us that the original settlers did too:

So, being both weary and faint, for we had eaten nothing all that day: we fell to make our rendezvous; and get firewood, which always cost us a great deal of labour.

Our greatest labour will be the fetching of our wood, which is half a quarter of an English mile: but there is enough, so far off.

- Mourt’s Relation

4) Environmental  Friendly Building Methods

Utilising low-impact materials, getting back to basics by using hand tools and living in a structure that is smaller than our society insists you need are bang on trend. As we find in Mourt’s Relation, the colonists quickly realised the value of what they had here in New England, writing “there is much good timber: both oak, walnut tree, fir, beech, and exceeding great chestnut trees.” By December 23rd, 1620, they had already begun working some of that wood:

…so many of us as could, went on shore, felled and carried timber, to provide themselves stuff for building…Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry.”

Francis Cooke, his house.

There’s something quite profound about the idea that these houses, one day, could simply biodegrade and become the earth which gives us more trees in order to build more houses. It’s the circle of life. If you are concerned about your carbon footprint, living in a sustainably harvested timber-framed home is the way to go. Furthermore, the stuff our artisans get up to is downright awesome and should be celebrated.

5) Off-Grid Living

1627 Plymouth is lit by candles made from renewable sources (beeswax or tallow). History was the original inventor of composting toilets (aka a dung heap). The water comes from “a very sweet brook [that] runs under the hill side, and many delicate springs of as good water as can be drunk” (Mourt’s, again). What more can you possibly need?

6) Non-GMO Corn

If you’re a follower of the organic food movement, you know what I mean by this. Everyone and their mum wants to eat pesticide-free veggies and drink milk from grass-fed cows. Moreover, these foodies agree that the only food that should contain corn is corn itself, and if at all possible, that corn should not be genetically engineered.

Not only is the native corn untampered with scientifically, it’s grown completely organically. Every year, in the spring time, the herring run up the brook to spawn. And every year, in the spring, the herring was taken from the brook and used as fertiliser.

Isaac de Rasiere, a visitor to Plymouth in 1627 describes the process:

…and they draw out the fish with baskets, each according to the land he cultivates, and carry them to it, depositing in each hill three or four fishes, and in these they plant their maize which grows as luxuriantly therein as though it were the best manure in the world.

We bemesten de grond met haring, Meneer de Rasiere!

7) Hats

It’s hip to be hatted. ‘Nough said.





We’d also very much like to wish you a “Happy New Year” from those of us who keep the Old Style calendar!

It’s 1627 again!




Sea Fever.

March 13th, 2014 by Alexandra

These troubles being blown over, and now all being compact together in one ship, they put to sea again with a prosperous wind, which continued for divers days together…

- William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation

It takes a lot to get me out of bed before the sun rises (the promise of coffee helps), but a few days ago I had the privilege of witnessing a sight that made it worth it: Mayflower II out for a morning sail in Plymouth Harbor. She first set out under tow with the morning tide, before going under full sail in the deeper parts of the harbor (Our modern harbor has been dredged, which allows Mayflower II to come up directly to Plymouth’s State Pier, but Mourt’s Relation tells us that in 1620 Mayflower “drew so much water, that she lay a mile and almost a half off” in the harbor).  While the sail was short, it did provide the valuable opportunity for a crew to undergo some sail training, and as luck would have it, the weather cooperated better than could possibly be expected for the beginning of March.  The sail itself went smoothly, and when it was over Mayflower II‘s crew arrived, in the words of William Bradford, “in a good harbor, and brought safe to land…again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.”

There isn’t a much better backdrop nature could provide than a beautiful sunrise, so enjoy some images of Mayflower II in her natural habitat – out to sea!

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky

“Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven, who had brought them over the vast, and furious ocean…” – William Bradford

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by

“Wednesday. the sixth of September, the wind coming east-north-east, a fine small gale, we loosed from Plymouth…” – Mourt’s Relation

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking

“And I have learned by this voyage that God hath made the seas more for use than pleasure…” – Emmanuel Altham

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking

“…the wind came fair and we put to sea again, and came safely into a safe harbor…” – Mourt’s Relation

If you want more news about the continued restoration and upkeep of Mayflower II, be sure to check out her Captain’s Blog. And if you want to visit her in person, Plimoth Plantation – which also includes the 1627 English Village, Wampanoag Indigenous Program, and Plimoth Grist Mill – opens for its 68th season on Saturday March 15. See you there!

April, Come She Will

March 10th, 2014 by Sally

April, come she will,
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain;
May, she will stay,
Resting in my arms again.

June, she’ll change her tune,
In restless walks she’ll prowl the night;
July, she will fly,
And give no warning to her flight.

August, die she must,
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I’ll remember.
A love once new has now grown old.

- Paul Simon

Last winter, I wrote a little (and made a video) about taking the high road. It’s not the easiest road to take, but it is guaranteed to be the most beautiful. This year’s high road video, as a reflection on what has passed and in preparation of what is to come, is a collection of photographs from one point of view. Yes, technically it’s three minutes of the same scene, but in reality, that same scene is ever-changing with the seasons of the year, the events of our work day and that particular morning’s mood. Almost all of these photos were taken around 9am. The first of them was taken in March 2013, the last in February 2014 –  that’s an entire year of pictures. Taking in this singular prospect as often as I do, I try to pause and take it in, appreciate it for all that it is, and recognise how incredibly fortunate I am to consider this my “office”.

This video also features some of my all-time favourite musicians (and that’s saying a lot); early music heroes The Hilliard Ensemble who are about as good at rocking the plainchant as it can ever possibly get, and Norway’s finest Jan Garbarek himself, a jazz saxophonist who has played with the greats (check out Belonging with pianist Keith Jarrett for a start). I saw him live once, but that’s another story for another place…

So make yourself a cup of tea, turn up the volume on whatever device you might be listening on, sit back, relax and enjoy the extraordinary beauty of our English Village through the seasons.

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