My So-Called Pilgrim Life

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A chronicle of daily life in the 1627 English village at Plimoth Plantation from both a modern and historical perspective.

Were They All Shorter Back Then?

February 10th, 2009 by admin

When visitors come in to our character’s houses and see the beds, invariably they make assumptions about people’s heights. This is natural as we all make assumptions based on our own 21st century (and various ethnic, cultural, gender-based…you get the picture) mindsets. Obviously our characters can’t give much insight about this as they are just living their normal lives.

But a former colleague of ours, Caroline Freeman Travers, wrote an excellent essay, “Were They All Shorter Back Then” that discusses this very topic. In that this blog wants to be more conversational in its tone, and Caroline’s essay is quite scholarly, I’ll just post a link to it. Our website can sometimes be a bit unwieldy and I don’t want  you to miss some of the great stuff on it, so I will linking to various parts of it that I think might be of interest to some of you.

Check out Caoline’s work by clicking HERE.


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32 Responses to “Were They All Shorter Back Then?”

  1. John Montague says:

    Thanks for referencing Ms. Travers’ article…very interesting that average height has only increased 3 inches since the 17th century.

    I’m just beginning to read the blog, so the discovery of the insights presented is exciting. I strongly believe in the mission of Plimoth Plantation and readily credit my visit in the 1990′s as the impetus for more carefully exploring the history of 17th century America. Thanks for all the hard work done by researchers, interpreters, and other staff for educating the public.
    John Montague
    Raleigh, NC

  2. admin says:

    Welcome to the blog, Mr. Montague. And thank you for thanking us. If you don’t mind my asking, what area of 17th century history interests you most? Sometimes we run out of interesting topics about which to blog and input from our readers is always welcome. Thanks for taking time to comment.


  3. John Montague says:

    My interest in the pre-industrial world covers a pretty wide variety of topics. A particular interest is vernacular architecture and Plimoth really opened my eyes to early-to-middle seventeenth century vernacular (at least in the English “plantations”). Although just an architect wanna-be, I spend alot of time researching topics related to early English settlements and the architectural record, which, of course, only can be gleaned from the documentary sources and archaeology. All of us are particularly fortunate that so much has been accomplished in the archaeological realm since the late 1960′s. There’s enough published fieldwork to construct a pretty sizeable database from which “average” dimensions can be reliably conveyed and buildings can be realistically constructed, something to convey the difference between “mean cottages” and “fair houses”. My interest probably gets a little obsessive at times. I tend to look at things skeptically, so I find myself surprised at how much Plimoth Plantation “gets right”.

    Just as an example of my skepticism, I wondered about the correct translation of Isaac de Rasiers’ wording of “geclooft eyken plancken” and whether he really meant “riven clapboards” or “cleft planches” which could be something a little heavier. My current project, then, is to determine the availability of nails to not only the English at “Plimoth” but also English in the Chesapeake region before 1635. If nails were reasonably plentiful, I think the riven clapboards make more sense in light of the other documentary record. We’ll see what can be discovered.

    Otherwise, I enjoy every aspect of pre-industrial life. Foodways, general culture, contact with native peoples, on and on…. Again, Plimoth is the place which awakened and revives so much of that excitement.

    Thanks for asking about my interests. You can bet just about anything you post is going to capture my attention.

  4. lev olson says:

    if you do not mind me answering the above question… about what subjects i would like to see here.. i am currently interested in the other colonists that were in new england by 1627. there was maverick out on the islands and in boston there was william blackstone. he is a fascinating character. i think that there must have been some interaction between he and the plimoth colony. where did he come from? how did he build a house, plant fruit trees, get glass in his windows and survive at the age that he was (i think he was about 50 at the time). i don’t think that anyone knows where he came from nor where he ended up… why is so little said about him (which is probably why you can’t answer any of these questions…) i think he was a separated minister and a jurist before he came to shawmet… who was he?

  5. John Montague says:

    Great question about William Blackstone of Shawmut. Hope there are some answers out there.

    A rough chronology (as I can recall) of New England settlements in the 1620′s would look something like this:
    Plymouth 1620
    Wessagusset 1622
    Strawberry Banke (NH) 1623
    Cape Anne 1624
    Mount Wollaston 1625 (?)
    Removal of Cape Anne plantation to Naumkeag (Salem) 1626
    Blackstone at Shawmut (already there by 1628)
    Charlestown 1628/9 (?)
    Lynn (planted from Salem group) 1628/9

    I think I’m missing a couple…(Duxbury?)

    Excellent question on Blackstone.

  6. lev olson says:

    dorchester company 1627. there was a little colony on cuttyhunk for a year left by gosnold in 1602. pompham beach maine 1602 and maverick… when ever he got there. are you sure about the late date on blackstone? i think that he was there by 1626…. but i can’t remember where i am getting my date from….

  7. John Montague says:

    You’re probably right about Blackstone. I associate the 1628 date from the passage in Early Chronicles of the Bay Colony…I think Clap’s relation. But all it confirms is that Blackstone was on Shawmut by 1628, it’s silent about when he arrived.

    Gosnold (1602) and Popham (1607) ventures didn’t last, so I forgot to mention them. I always seem to forget Maverick, but he’s definitely in the picture. Seems like Maverick also spent a year or two in Virginia. I guess a final venture to note would be the New Amsterdam colony (1624).

    You’re raising a lot of good questions and now I’m getting the fever to research Maverick.
    Buddy (or anybody), do you have any ideas?

  8. admin says:

    I haven’t read much past 1627 nor researched other than Plimoth. The Maverick name is still extant as a subway stop, for what that’s worth.

  9. admin says:

    This is from interpreter Beth Gillet:

    “According to Tony Kelso’s article Scattering Beginnings in Training Manual Two, Blackstone came with Georges in 1623. After the dissolving of the group he drifted over to Shawmut. Kelso says that he (Blackstone) had degrees from Emmanuel College in Cambridge A.B. 1617 and A.M. 1621. For further information see Darrett B. Rutman “Winthrop’s Boston” and Walter Muir Whitehall “Boston, A Topographical History.”

    John as for your missing settlements, you can add Winnisimmet (Maverick) present day Chelsea and the Maine settlements. I particularly like Christopher Levitt. He’s up in Maine. Some call him the founder of Saco Me.”

  10. John Montague says:

    Good work! Makes perfect sense that Blackstone would be part of the Wessagusset remnant. Isn’t there a Blackstone river in Rhode Island? Wonder if there’s a connection?

  11. lev olson says:

    i think that he was chased out of boston and he ended up in the blackstone valley in rhode island… or at least that is what i have always been told. john, you think that it makes sense that he was part of the wessagusset folks… i tend the other way. i find it surprising that the whole colony almost starved and blackstone seems to have done alright alone…

  12. John Montague says:

    You make a good point. Winslow and Bradford both note that there were some “good eggs” and some “bad eggs” in the Wessagussett plantation. The fact that anyone was able to survive at Shawmut with few immediate neighbors speaks to their skill and willpower to beat the odds. Even in Virginia (at least in the earliest decades), the English came in groups (25,50,100,etc) on shiploads to supply existing plantations or create new ones. In fact, the Virginia Company’s system of colonization relied on particular plantations after about 1616, settled by associates who agreed to plant 50 or 100 colonists within a specified time. Had it worked as planned, the colony might have looked alot more like Massachusetts Bay. But, tobacco, as the chief commodity, seems to have doomed it; the English needed more land and the authorities in Virginia seemed willing to grant smaller patents (50-500 acres) to those finishing their indenture terms which served to disperse the population rather than keeping them on the particular plantations.

    Sorry, I’m digressing… Back to Blackstone…I seem to remember both Winslow and Bradford hinting that there were some few from the Wessagussett plantation that might have stayed–the remnant. Neither account gives us a hint where the remnant went. They could have gone to Plymouth, or they might have joined up with the Cape Anne group, or Strawberry Bank. Who knows, they might have gone to Virginia. I think I WANT to believe the remnant theory for Blackstone because I can’t come up with anything better!

  13. lev olson says:

    i guess he is one of those unanswerables right now. he is an intriguing character…. in any event i think i know a lot more of the possibilities then i ever have….
    i have never thought about tobacco being the demise of virginia… i think in retrospection will have to agree with one. i was just sitting up on burial hill puzzling over the failure of so many other, seemingly better organized colonies on the east coast. the plimoth colony is so appealing to me because of the great diversity of folks, making it work. i think that says a lot for john robinson. others will disagree, i tend to put a lot of weight on the separatists for the success of the colony, but they were the largest unified group, and i think that the tolerance that robinson preached (maybe not ‘tolerance’ in the modern sense) went a long way…

  14. John Montague says:

    First, I became jealous reading about your time at Burial Hill! Do you live in Plymouth?

    Second, your comment caused me to re-read my last post. I left out some key words. I should have said that tobacco doomed the particular plantation system in Virginia. The intent, it seems, was that the indentured servants would receive their 50 acres within the boundaries of the particular plantation upon completion of their terms. Instead, they were granted land elsewhere which served to disperse the colony and created a very different “plantation” system than the Virginia Company envisioned. The reality of settlement pattern also served to encroach further on Native lands at a faster rate, no doubt contributing to the uprisings in 1622 and 1644. Virginia survived almost in spite of itself!

    Lev, you’re a great blog partner. Every entry has sent me running to the local university library to do some research. And, you’re right, there is something very appealing about the Plymouth plantation and the way things were done there. Not perfect, by any means, but really very amazing considering their size and distance from other plantations.

  15. lev olson says:

    yes i live in plymouth.. my family has been here since 1620 (descended from the chiltons) so my interest lies mainly in the history of the north east. most of my time has been spent in the revolutionary war and family history through the civil war. i will have to admit that the only serious book i have read about the virginia colonies was the one woodrow wilson wrote… i have forgotten the name of it. he had his particular bent on it, being an autocrat from virginia himself. i will have to say the same from you, you are very stimulating in your comments….where are from?

  16. lev olson says:

    sorry, i just went through the entries and saw that you were from raleigh n.c.

  17. John Montague says:

    Yes, I have always lived in NC. My family has pretty long ties to Virginia and I have to admit I read alot of information about the 17th century in that colony. Didn’t realize you had ties to the Mayflower group as well as being a long-time Plymouth resident. Pretty cool!

    It still seems odd that it was my first trip to Plimoth Plantation that stirred my interest in 17th century culture, history, architecture in Virginia as well as New England. What a testament to the educational value of Plimoth. Like you, I’d always been more of Revolutionary war period guy, but the experience given by the actors/interpreters opened my eyes to an earlier century.

  18. lev olson says:

    i have always liked “pre-industrial” history, as you said above. i am very moved by the simplicity of life there. (buddy will no doubt berate me for my over-simplifications here, and i welcome it!) but i have always thought that the labor unions, technology and the civil war complicated life in an unproductive way. i am not in fantasy here, i appreciate things like modern dentistry and all, but what have we really gained with all of our time saving devices? i have a friend in town here from tibet, and he is full of quotes from the dali lama… one of them is worth repeating here i think.

    We have taller buildings, but shorter tempers;
    wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints;
    we spend more, but have less;
    we buy more, but enjoy it less.
    We have bigger houses and smaller families;
    more conveniences, but less time;
    we have more degrees, but less common sense;
    more knowledge, but less judgment;
    more experts, but more problems;
    more more medicine, but less wellness.
    We spend too recklessly,
    laugh too little,
    drive too fast,
    get too angry too quickly,
    stay up too late,
    get up too tired,
    read too seldom,
    watch TV too much,
    and pray too seldom.
    We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.
    We talk too much, love too seldom and lie too often.
    We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life;
    we’ve added years to life, not life to years.
    We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
    but have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbor.
    We’ve conquered outer space, but not inner space;
    we’ve done larger things, but not better things;
    we’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul;
    we’ve split the atom, but not our prejudice;
    we write more, but learn less;
    plan more, but accomplish less.
    We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait;
    we have higher incomes, but lower morals;
    more food but less appeasement;
    more acquaintances, but fewer friends;
    more effort but less success.
    We build more computers to hold more information,
    to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication;
    we’ve become long on quantity, but short on quality.
    These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion;
    tall men and short character;
    steep profits and shallow relationships.
    These are the times of world peace, but domestic warfare;
    more leisure and less fun;
    more kinds of food, but less nutrition.
    These are days of two incomes, but more divorce;
    of fancier houses, but broken homes.
    These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one-night
    stands, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill.
    It is a time when there is much in the show window,
    and nothing in the stockroom.

    up several entries is one titled “the masks we wear…” it expresses it very well from the particular point of view that the wonderful folks at the plantation have….

  19. John Montague says:

    WOW! There’s nothing I can add to that. Hopefully, the readers of the “Masks” entry above will see what you quoted/wrote.

  20. lev olson says:

    john, or buddy,
    what do you know about isaac robinson. i think that i have started this conversation with you buddy, and you seem to attribute his conversion to rebellion against his father… i asked this question several entries back under “what happens next”
    i may be a little altruistic, but i tend to think that it was not rebellion, but some of the tolerance from his father…

  21. John Montague says:

    Guess it’s gonna be another trip to the library. I don’t know anything about Isaac Robinson. Was he a resident of the plantation at Plymouth?

  22. lev olson says:

    he arrived in 1631. we may have to move this conversation over to the “what comes next” entry (about 5 or 6 back from this one) i already have the basis of the question there… and it is certainly “what comes next…”
    i would be interested in anything you can find on him. i know that there are some of his writings somewhere, but i can not find them. i see him quoted on an ‘official’ history of the town of falmouth ma…

  23. John Montague says:

    I’ve checked all my normal sources of information for early Plymouth/Massachusetts Bay colonists and have found nothing more about Isaac Robinson than I can find on the internet. Might be time to peruse the New England Historical and Genealogical Register.

  24. lev olson says:

    been there, done that. it is one of those dead end roads. i am unsure of where the 1930′s falmouth historian (whose name i now forget) got her information, foot notes and cross references are a must. the older i get the more i agree with that… i have spend quite a bit of time in and around the nehgr folks, mostly looking at family history. it is a good place to get statistics, but a lousy place for what i am really after… antidotal history, often the when and where is useless unless you get the why… it is probably time to try and button-hole chris hall…

    what do you know about general religious history in the seventeenth century? i am looking for some way to square a couple of comments that i hear at the plantation recently. i posted a little specifically under “what comes next” . i am a little troubled by the easy answer of robinson being a “calvinist” because he was not magisterial, though he was no anabaptist either… the religious right can go ahead and have the puritans, but i fear the slide of the separatists into the camp of being used to justify some america for jesus movement… i think that there are two easy pidgin holes to put this stuff in,
    1.) they hated holland because of the excess of freedom, that is the real reason that they fled, or;
    2.) they believed in the separation of church and state, and founded a democracy.

    both of these are a ridiculous over simplification, but there has to be some way to square this stuff with the real truth of the matter… i have my opinions… as buddy probably knows, but i want to throw it out there for an opening, because i am not totally satisfied with what i think….

    anyway, i am rambling.. thanks for digging

  25. John Montague says:

    You really know how to open a can of worms. I have seen a book titled Faith of the Pilgrims (or something similar). It appears to be fairly scholarly, but haven’t really read through it.

    Bradford’s History delves into their thinking a bit when he discusses the Lyford/Oldham issues of 1624. In it, he seems to distinguish between Brownism and the French reformists (Calvinists?). And, you are correct…the Separatists at Plymouth were not Anabaptists. They were more often accused by Anglicans of being Brownists. Now, there were whole books printed in the early 1600′s about Brownism, but you have to read them critically since they were usually very PRO or ANTI Brownist. As I read their history, about the only thing I come across as reasons for them to have “separated from” versus “purify” the Anglican church would have been their aversion to a prayer book and their view of marriage as a civil ceremony.

    What I do know about seventeenth century protestantism is that, throughout the spectrum from Anglicanism to Anabaptists, there were many very common beliefs. I don’t think the Separatists were Universalists in any sense. To discuss more deeply may get into a religious discussion from which Buddy might like for us to refrain.

    So, there you have my rambling. I have to rely upon Bradford and Winslow for my thoughts, but it might be good for me to read the Pilgrim faith book to get another view.

  26. lev olson says:

    i tend to open worm cans by force of habit.

    surly a living history museum dealing with escapees from the religious climate of england and the low countries would not look askance at having this sort of dialog on their blog (hee hee hee).

    i tend to believe that the minutia was the stuff that created the biggest controversy. roger williams (a man that i much admire) was banished over what would seem to you and i “little stuff” (except his position over the actual ownership of the indians land, that was big). i agree with edmund s. morgan in his book “roger williams and the separation of church and state” that he had huge issues with the puritans because he almost agreed with them. there were several issues that caused him to draw back and call winthrop “a brother in christ, yet still asleep” he lived in plymouth and loved what he found… until deacon fuller went to boston and did not refrain from breaking bread, thus proving that the church there was “not entirely separated”. this seems to be the point where the line between puritan and separatist starts to blur. i hear the argument that they were both geographically separated, so there remained very little difference between them. this i can almost buy… except for the huge issue of civil authority. the puritans had no qualms about ministers holding posts of office in the civil government and the admixture that caused was of no issue to them. the first public execution in boston was for breaking the sabbath.

    because of circumstances and, i believe, the great influence of the preaching of john robinson, there was a separation of these powers. not a true separation that we would recognize today, but a delineation none the less. they could not rightly impose their “illegal” belief structure on half of the colony (the so called “strangers”), nor could they in good conscience think that they had it all (john robinson’s most quoted line “there is light that we do not know of yet to break out of the scripture” may be apocrypha, though it is consistent with his preaching). the first public execution in plymouth was the same year as boston’s (which means they were able to hold this sort of extreme off ten years longer) was for murder. a legitimate use of civil power.

    there you have the formation of my opinions about the differences. my reference about the “america for jesus” movement stuff was about those who would love to enact mosaic law in america. this is not made up, there is a group who would like to do it, they point to the foundations of america, and justify. they can have the puritans, rightly so, but the self doubt and toleration of the separatists of plimoth are more closely allied to the foundations of america… there is my can of worms….


  27. John Montague says:

    A can of worms indeed… There is an interesting piece in the spring issue of CW Journal (can be referenced online at the Colonial Williamsburg website) about the role of “deistic” thought among the 18th century heavyweights. Although the article hasn’t completely changed my mind, I had come to think of most of the participants at the Constitutional Convention were deists. Let’s just say, they appeared to waffle.

    I don’t mean to imply the Separatists were deists…they weren’t. I’m not sure we can cite them as champions of separation of church and state, except where they might have allowed an Anglican (for instance) to become a “freeman” with a vote in the plantation/colony. I’d have to check on this. But, I agree, they appeared to have more toleration of other Protestant groups than the Bay colony Puritans. It would be an interesting study!

    As far as the current “America for Jesus” movement, I confess a great deal of ignorance. I know enough about Jesus’ claims to think the stict adherance to Mosaic law might be considered counter-intuitive. This coming from someone who cannot say his dogma has been overtaken with karma. With that statement, I’ll gather up the worms I can still gather!

  28. admin says:

    I have no particular problem with spirited debate as long as it stays civil. Obviously I’ll have to judge what is appropriate to our institution (ah, the power), but I don’t see any of what either of you has written as being in any way incendiary, so-press on.
    That said, it IS off-topic for this post but neither of you is able to start a topic. I’m hoping our face book page will be a better option for reader created topics.
    I think the prayer book and marriage not being a sacrament are important but I think that these people wanted a church more based on Peter and Paul’s example of independent congregations as opposed to any sort of centralized authority, i.e. church hierarchy.


  29. lev olson says:

    for the sake of semantics… i will define deist as someone who believes that there is a god but has left himself undefined (to paraphrase jefferson…). their version of separation of church and state was a separation of influence, jefferson’s wall so to speak. the growth on one side is different from and unaffected by the growth on the other side.

    the separation that i credit the plimoth colony for is this: bradford never held a church position, though he was clearly in that vein so far as study of the bible and the ancient languages… brewster never held a civil office though he probably knew more english law than anyone else there… in boston on the other hand… winthrop was on both side of the fence and he clearly wanted to set up a theocracy… plimoth was no theocracy, there was far more religious compulsion than you or i would feel comfortable with.. but no more than in england… deists they were not… and all of this is very unfair to the other colonists that were among the separatist church, there were c of e and puritans there, with the influences that they brought with them.

    so far as your last paragraph, we can be thankful that mr. huckabee was not in office. it’ll take more than one administration to turn things over, but there is a strong “reclaim america for jesus” movement out there that will try to discredit the deism of the founders and point back to the puritans as the true foundation of american freedom… eek! when i am able to, without confrontation (and that may be a little funny to buddy..) i like to point to the differences between the two groups, which one had more of an influence on the deists a couple of generations later? i am sure it was a huge mix, but i think that adams and jefferson looked.. not to the puritans, not to the separatists, not to roger williams.. but they quote alot from marcus aralius and the other thinkers of the roman republic. i think that “the rise and fall of the roman empire” came out in the 1770′s and it clearly lays the blame for the fall of rome on the legal establishment of christianity… but that is another discussion. there is a great book that came out several years ago now called “the godless constitution” by issac kramnik and (?) moore. great book.. but i wish it was better documented and footnoted..

  30. John Montague says:

    Sorry for the off-topic material. I appreciate the lack of a heavy censor on the blog and I don’t mean to abuse it.
    Thanks for your work.

  31. lev olson says:

    can we start a topic called “general mayhem” or something?

  32. admin says:

    “so far as your last paragraph, we can be thankful that mr. huckabee was not in office. it’ll take more than one administration to turn things over, but there is a strong “reclaim america for jesus” movement out there that will try to discredit the deism of the founders and point back to the puritans as the true foundation of american freedom… eek! when i am able to, without confrontation (and that may be a little funny to buddy..)”

    So this is too current for my liking. Let’s keep the topic about history and not current events. This is a blog about behind the scenes at Plimoth Plantation, NOT an opinion rant.


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