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Plimoth Plantation: An Interpreter's Tale

Plimoth Plantation: An Interpreter’s Tale
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“I suppose you could say that was the 1960s image of the Pilgrims, but it is, as far as we know, quite historically accurate, whether one likes it or not,” Baker said. “We know, for example, that the Pilgrims threw their trash out the windows, because you can tell where the windows were in an excavation of a 17th-century house by the fan-shaped piles of trash. We know that they were dirty because at that time frequent bathing was considered unhealthy and even sinful, since the public bathhouses of the Middle Ages had become associated with the spread of syphilis and had given bathing a bad name.

“Some of the locals and a great many of the Mayflower descendants became very upset,” Baker sighed. “They eventually recovered from Deetz, especially since he would document everything he did. But even today, middle-class Americans still complain either that the village doesn’t meet modem American health standards — which it doesn’t, but since no one actually lives there, it doesn’t have to. Or that their ancestors, whom they know from formal portraits in pinned collars and cuffs, didn’t look so scruffy. Actually, the village is much cleaner than it should be. When we tried creating middens, visitors took the trash away for souvenirs. And only one interpreter really got into the part so much that she didn’t bathe, but she gave it up after one summer month.

“When the new Disney Epcot Center was researching the American history exhibit, we got a request to send photos of our costumes,” Baker went on. “Now, some of our reconstructions are just educated guesses, but we are very sure about the clothes. They phoned back indignantly and told us they could never portray Pilgrims like that because ‘they look like pirates.’ ” Baker threw back his head and laughed. “I suppose it never occurred to them that the Pilgrims were contemporaries of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Donna DeFabio is Assistant Supervisor in the Interpretation Department in winter, and Priscilla Alden in summer. “I think we’re making progress in people’s understanding,” she commented when the season was over. “This Thanksgiving there were record crowds, but almost no dumb questions like where’s the canned cranberry sauce?” About half the Pilgrim interpreters seem to take the job because of an interest in explaining history, but for DeFabio the appeal was acting. “But acting that isn’t as pressurized as on the stage. Like actors, though,” she added, “most of us get laid off, although I was lucky enough to stay on as a supervisor.”

Pat Baker (also known as Brigid Fuller), with a degree from the Massachusetts College of Art, came into the program via her interest in crafts. “You can act out all your arts and crafts fantasies on this job,” she explained. “The funny thing is that I’ve seen many of the acting-oriented people later get into gardening and keeping animals in their private lives. One carry-over for me is that I make herbal medicines for minor illnesses. Herbal cough medicine is just as good as the $8 stuff you buy at the drugstore. For a real illness, though, I’ll take the 20th-century remedy.”

For the interpreters, the high points of the season aren’t the modern holidays like Thanksgiving. Instead of staging anachronistic celebrations, the Plantation produces historically accurate annual events, such as October’s Harvest Home festival and a visit from a delegation of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, featuring a guest actor from New York.

Every season there are also weddings and funerals. “The funeral is always Mrs. Brewster, because she was the only adult who died in 1627,” Pat Baker explained. “Children’s funerals in those days were no big deal. As a parent, I find that terribly hard to understand, but I realize that because of the high infant mortality, they just couldn’t invest the emotional energy into small children that we do. Women carry the coffin because women always carried women and men other men; then we have a graveside service.”

Because the season overlaps the academic year, Plimoth Plantation cannot use college students or teachers as interpreters, and relies on a changing population of mid-career people, housewives, and jobless graduates. The average stay of an interpreter is two years, although a few stay longer. The constant change has yielded some surprising fits between the interpreter and the character. The man who presently plays the Mayflower‘s Captain is a retired Navy Commander with an M.A. in history, but an anachronistic appearance. So far, the historians have not been able to persuade him to grow out his regulation Navy haircut (cropped hair in the 17th century was the mark of a convict) to a more suitable shoulder length. One interpreter of Governor Bradford was an ordained clergyman. All interpreters undergo an intensive three-week training and then learn as much as possible about their individual characters, whom they match in age and general appearance.

The idea that an interpreter portrays a real person, not just any Pilgrim, gives the job a special charm. But often the historical records are scanty and subject to differing interpretations. During the 1981 season, Robert Marten, the Plantation’s head of interpreters, hired a young drama student from Brockton named Croney Southern to portray the colonist Abraham Pearse. Pearse, according to the usual limited records, came to Plymouth as an indentured servant aboard the Anne, worked his way out of indenture, and later became one of the founders of Pembroke and a successful farmer with land in Kingston, Duxbury, and Bridgewater. Marten concluded on the basis of a 1643 military list that Pearse was a “blackamoor,” and hired Southern, who is also black, to portray him.

For three weeks Southern worked in his homespun breeches and broad-brimmed hat, introducing himself as Pearse and explaining to surprised visitors that “there were no slaves in Plymouth.” But the Plantation had begun to get calls from genealogists, and researchers rechecked the records. In the printed copy of the 1643 muster list, which Marten had used, the entry reads “Abraham Pearse, the blackamoor.” But in the original handwritten list, “the blackamoor” is written underneath and very likely represents another person, probably Pearse’s servant.

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One Response to Plimoth Plantation: An Interpreter’s Tale

  1. Alf & Diane Ripley November 6, 2008 at 1:07 pm #

    As always, I find any article about Plimouth Plantation to be very interesting. For years I have read everything I could about the saga of the Pilgrim fathers and their history. This and anything New England has fascinated me and for the longest time I couldn’t understand the reason for this. A couple years ago my son, who is very interested in our family’s geneology, came across any entry for my mothers side of the family (Hughes). This entry
    indicated that my great great great-grandmother was an Elizabeth Potter of Portsmouth, Rhode Island. It further indicated that Elizabeth’s great great great-grandfather was a man named George Soule, who it turns out, was a bonded servant to Edward Winslow and accompanied Winslow to the new world aboard the Mayflower in 1620. Soule was also a signer of the Mayflower Compact. This information more than confirmed, for me, the reason why I had this interest in early New England history. My son has also learned recently that Elizabeth Potter had another relative during this time which is of interest. His name was Roger Williams. And yes it is the same Roger Williams of Rhode Island fame. Completely and utterly fascinating for me. If I am correct William Bradford was from Yorkshire in England and the Ripley side of our family was from that area as well. They immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1774 during the Yorkshire Settlement of that time.
    I have been a subscriber to Yankee Magazine since October 1981 and it is story’s like Kathleen Kilgore’s about Plimouth Plantation that helps to keep me coming back.
    Great article!!


    Alf Ripley

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