Plymouth — Land of the Pilgrims

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on November 21, 2004

Sitting by the hearth of her windowless, one-room hut, Ellen Billington exudes weariness as she stirs the contents of the large iron cauldron. Adjusting her bonnet and dropping her hands to her long, drab skirt, she laments the hardships of leaving England and sailing for the New World.

"We arrived in December," she moans, "when there weren't a leaf on the trees. Have you ever been so cold your bones ached?"

Billington is actually Donna Rowe, a role-player at Plimoth Plantation, the living history museum in Plymouth, Mass. (pop. 51,701), that recreates Pilgrim and Indian life in 1627—seven years after 102 religious dissidents sailed their ship, Mayflower, into Plymouth Harbor and established southern New England's first permanent European settlement. By day, Rowe lives life as Billington, a Mayflower passenger and the head of a notoriously fractious family. But after hours, she trades her coarse garments for blue jeans and returns home to Manomet, one of Plymouth's five villages. Commuting 400 years between work and home can be confusing.

"Sometimes it's hard to drop the dialect and to remember not to eat with my fingers," she admits.

Still, it's an easier passage than the arduous 65-day voyage made by the Pilgrim "Separatists," so-named for severing their connection with the Church of England. Even after landing at Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims faced a chilly New England winter. Half succumbed to cold and disease as they huddled aboard the ship awaiting spring. Those who survived to build homes and plant crops also forged a relationship, albeit an uneasy one, with the indigenous Wampanoag Indians. The harvest feast they shared in the fall of 1621 now is celebrated as Thanksgiving.

Modern-day Plymouth draws nearly a million visitors a year, says Paul Cripps, director of Destination Plymouth, an organization that works to bring visitors to the historic town. They come to walk in the footsteps of those first settlers, gaze at Plymouth Rock and climb aboard Mayflower II, a full-scale replica of the original ship. And they'll likely see police cars emblazoned with the words "America's Hometown."

"You can go anywhere in the world, and people know the story of Plymouth," says Lee Regan, Plymouth librarian and co-editor of Beyond Plymouth Rock, which explores Plymouth's post-Pilgrim history. "The Pilgrim story is a story of a journey, no different than the journeys of immigrants today."

From the arrival of the ancestors of the Wampanoags 10,000 years before the Pilgrims, through the waves of 19th- and 20th-century Europeans drawn to the giant rope-manufacturing mills of the Cordage Co., immigrants have always written Plymouth's story. While descendants of Mayflower passengers can still be found in Plymouth, the Italian, German and Portuguese enclaves scattered throughout town attest to the diversity of its later settlers.

At 102 square miles, Plymouth is Massachusetts' largest town, encompassing an airport, a hospital and a nuclear power plant. Its pride, however, is reflected in the community's numerous memorials, from the Forefathers Monument celebrating the Pilgrims to the Immigrants Monument, which honors all who, over the centuries, "helped build upon these shores a robust and hospitable community."

From the top of the historical cemetery Burial Hill, one can see over the spires of the Congregational and Unitarian churches to the waterfront and a panoramic expanse of ocean beyond. It's not the view but rather what's underfoot there that stirs the soul. The wooden crosses memorializing those first settlers have long since decomposed. Only stone markers remain, among them an 8-foot obelisk marking the grave of William Bradford, longtime Plymouth Colony governor.

Cripps, a descendant of Bradford, has felt the power of Burial Hill. "I still get chills when I see his grave," he says.

Selectmen Kenneth Tavares, whose own ancestors left Italy and Portugal to fish the waters off Plymouth, marvels at the accident of Plymouth's birth and the Pilgrims' achievement.

"The Pilgrims represent so much of what's good about this country," he concludes.

Plimoth Plantation ends its 2004 season Nov. 28. The living history museum will re-open March 26. For more information, call (508) 746-1622 or log on to