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Plimoth Plantation: An Interpreter's Tale

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.

No other reference to Pearse’s color could be found, and Southern left in September. There the matter would have ended if the national media, in its relentless quest to find a new angle on the annual Thanksgiving story, hadn’t picked up The Black Pilgrim. “Guess who’s not coming to dinner,” the director of another Plymouth museum, Parting Ways Museum of African-American History, told AP. Around the country, Mayflower descendants phoned Grandma to pull the genealogy papers out of the bank vault and double-check. But what sounded like a Richard Pryor comedy routine turned out to be anything but funny to Marten. After defending his position on Pearse against what he claimed were attacks by Pearse’s descendants, Marten was fired after 18 years with the Plantation. The Plantation commissioned a historical study that took nearly a year to complete, which concluded that Abraham Pearse was not black. This was, of course, ignored by the national press, who had forgotten the whole episode.

The same season that Southern, also known as Pearse, was working, the Plantation reopened an Indian campsite, hiring several Eastern native Americans as interpreters from May through October. The Indian ethnic group the Pilgrims actually encountered at Plymouth was the Wampanoag, who had been nearly wiped out in a series of epidemics in 1615. Although the Wampanoags have never been officially recognized by the Interior Department and have no reservation, small groups maintain an ethnic continuity on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard and in the Plymouth and Brockton areas.

About a dozen Indians of various tribes (mostly Wampanoag from Cape Cod and the Vineyard, and including one young man from Chile and one non-Indian) spend the off-season on educational programs at New England schools, linguistics research, and the very labor-intensive job of making all their clothes, implements, and houses by hand. Just getting to this point was a difficult undertaking. Despite the psychological kinship Wampanoags claim with their ancestors, the linguistic and cultural gap is greater than that between the Pilgrims and their descendants.

No native speakers of Wampanoag are alive today, and the language had to be reconstructed from dictionaries and primers written by missionaries who imposed a great deal of their own culture and grammar onto the material, and from related dialects still in use. During the first summer, the campsite interpreters who knew tribal languages threw in phrases of their dialects, used Wampanoag words for tools, and ended up with a linguistic mish-mash. “It was obviously unrealistic,” recalled Wampanoag Tony Pollard, coordinator of interpretation for the Wampanoag Indian program. “Here we were supposed to be Indians who had recently made contact with Europeans, and now we speak English fluently and barely get by in Indian dialects.”

With the help of anthropologists, advisors from other native American groups, and books, the Indian stafflearned how to make porcupine quill embroidery, prepare skins for clothing, build boats, and construct traditional wetu houses (Eastern Indians didn’t live in teepees) from wood and rush mats. Often, finding the materials in urbanized Massachusetts proved harder than learning the crafts; bulrushes had to be gathered in Concord, and the best cattails came from an empty field next to a Valle’s Steak House on Route 3.

But as the Indians’ sensitivity to stereotyping grew, relations with the visitors became strained. It isn’t difficult to carry on 17th-century European village life in front of tourists. Cooking, gardening, thatching roofs, and slopping hogs can be done on the spot and explained while the shutters click. But 17th-century Wampanoags spent their summer days hunting, fishing, and gathering food on the seashore, not hanging around a campsite answering questions. Visitors who would never dream of calling a long-haired impersonator of Myles Standish a hippie to his face felt free to call the Indians “Tonto,” ask if they were “real,” and comment on their racial characteristics. After four hundred years of intermarriage with blacks and whites, the Eastern Indian gene pool is well mixed, and Wampanoag people often don’t conform to visitors’ notions of what an Indian ought to look like.

“It’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to operate in an Indian mind-set and a non-Indian mind-set at the same time,” Pollard explained, sitting at a desk in his tiny office. Books and Indian photographs lined the walls; and on a stand sat a battered old manual typewriter. “For one thing, Indians have never been concerned much about a person’s physical appearance. At the campsite, you more or less get used to, ‘Look, Mommy, there’s an Indian,’ but it’s harder to take at the local supermarket. For a while there,” he smiled, relighting a pipe, “all kinds of people were dressing like Indians, but now it’s back to just us.”

Pollard would like to see the group concentrate on educating other Indians, such as the large group of native American children who visited Plimoth Plantation last summer. “We envisage some language programs,” Pollard explained, “and eventually a place where Indians can come and learn something about their heritage and apply it to their own lives.”

This is one of the purposes of Plimoth Plantation. Jim Baker elaborates: “There is no place on earth today that’s as primitive as Plimoth in 1627. If Third World people don’t have modem things, they know that they exist and therefore that great change is possible. We are closer to those people of the Third World than we are to the Pilgrims because the great divide of the Age of Reason separates us. In the Pilgrim village, the existence of the spiritual world was never questioned. The Pilgrims did not believe in progress. In coming to America they were trying to recapture the community of the ancient Christians. I don’t think this process can be reversed, that anyone, Indian or non-Indian, can recapture the mind of his ancestors after so many years.”

Yet, even in the absence of the spiritual dimension, the little village is a powerful image to visitors from rural backgrounds. Interpreters report overhearing visitors compare it to their villages in Central Europe, cottages in Ireland, or river settlements in Brazil.

Updated Saturday, July 15th, 2006

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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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