Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II – Preserving the Past… Advancing the Future

By Laurencia Ciprus / Photos courtesy Plimoth Plantations

Mayflower II

Mayflower II

Americans pride themselves on their individual stories, each a unique imprint of the millions of people who arrive here. When the world feels unfathomable – think post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina – stories of our shared experiences unite and reassure us, offering a glimpse at a better version of ourselves, even for a brief time. Nothing is more emblematic of American storytelling than the epic journey of the 102 passengers on the Mayflower, the formation of Plimoth Colony – the first permanent settlement in 1620 – and the Native People who preceded them.

Edging on 70 years ago, Boston native and archaeologist, Harry Hornblower II was transfixed by the sweeping American narrative of the Mayflower crossing and the interrelationship between Pilgrims and Native Wampanoag People. Vision became reality when Hornblower II thoughtfully transformed his family’s 130-acre summer homestead into an interactive historical experience called Plimoth Plantation. This captivating reproduction located 2.5 miles from the original site of the first permanent settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts, includes a meticulously detailed English Village with costumed “interpreters,” the Wampanoag Homesite populated by actual members of the Wampanoag People, and other Native American Nations; Mayflower II, the Hornblower Visitor Center and the Craft Center; the Maxwell and Nye Barns and the Plimoth Grist Mill.

Every Plimoth Plantation experience is a slip through the fabric of culture and time. Details are impeccable. During a leisurely walk through the English Village, it is easy to forget that the Colonists you encounter are “interpreters” and not the original settlers. With the gathering chill, diagonals of fog-wrapped rain, and fires burning in the hearths visible through the weathered open doors of the cottages, you begin to worry for villagers with a foreboding dread for the hardships of an approaching winter. Plymouth Harbor balances on the gray horizon beyond dried cornstalks and the palisade  – the perimeter fence surrounding the village. This rolling vista mirrors a 17th Century farming landscape in contrast with real life. Darkness gathers early on a late October afternoon as settlers hurry the oxen into primitive barns against the wind. The damp air echoes a familiar language, albeit from a much earlier time.

According to Richard Pickering, Deputy Director of Plimoth Plantation for the past 20 years, what holds true to the original vision is an ongoing dedication to providing a tactile experience of living history for the 25 million visitors who have visited to date. “Things have evolved. New revelations about the past are found through creativity. As our methods of interpretation continuously expand, programming has changed with the times. For people in our region, this is a place they visited as a child. What is remarkable about Plimoth Plantation is that you can experience this place countless times, yet discover something new with each encounter.”

The ongoing effort to enrich the Plimoth Plantation experience is evidenced by the museum’s current “Float the Boat: Save Mayflower II!” campaign (www.SaveMayflower.org) which began October 3rd and will conclude on November 17th, 2016. The Kickstarter crowdfunding initiative to fully restore the Mayflower II vessel to seaworthy condition is working to meet the $7.5 million goal necessary to secure a $1.5 million anonymous donation.

Andrew working on belfry

Andrew working on belfry

Planking will be replaced below the waterline, new framing installed, and the majority of the decking repaired. While Mayflower II is approved as a waterside attraction, she is currently not safe to sail. Once funding is secured, this unique educational and economic treasure will be handed off to the masterful restoration crew at the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard at Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport for 30 months, returning the vessel to seaworthy status. Pickering observes, “Once the work is completed according to plan, she will return to Plymouth Harbor by 2020, able to sail again and serve as an essential floating classroom. The vessel is an ideal environment to discover the similarities and differences in the Plimoth Colony experience. This proves tremendously valuable and is a critical priority. Mayflower II is an evolving environment and a faithful place to speak about our past.”

Building the full-scale reproduction of the original Mayflower, the cargo ship that carried the settlers from coastal England to America, was yet another dream realized by Harry Hornblower II. With an international backstory and historic in her own right, plans for the Mayflower II were drafted by William Avery Baker, the renowned American Naval Architect of MIT.  The project was ultimately realized by Warwick Charlton, a journalist in the British Royal Navy who learned about the vision for Mayflower II while reading about Plimoth Colony on a ship returning from North Africa. Inspired, Charlton had Mayflower II constructed as a gift and gesture of gratitude and friendship for America’s support of England during WWII. Utilizing traditional techniques and Baker’s plans, the keel was laid in the Upton Shipyard in Brixham, England in 1955. Over the course of two years the crew sailed Mayflower II across the Atlantic to its new home, reaching Plymouth, Massachusetts in late 1957 and welcomed by 25,000 people lining the shoreline including Vice-President Nixon, and a young Senator Kennedy. Images of the vessel were also featured in the 2014 Rick Burns documentary, The Pilgrims. Since 2000, Mayflower II has sailed to various ports on the east coast to spread its story of American heritage.

Since then, Mayflower II has been under the stewardship of Plimoth Plantation, serving as a fitting metaphor for the American Experience. Richard Pickering reflects: “If you (a Plimoth employee) work the ship on Thanksgiving Day, so many new and naturalized citizens are recognizing their own journey. How significant it is for them to share this experience on their first Thanksgiving. New citizens frequently volunteer their stories of why they are here and require little prodding. Were they running away from something; or running toward something? The experience facilitates them in looking into their own journeys in a larger and more global fashion.”

When the country turns its attention to Plimoth in 2020, 400 years after the founding of the Colony, it will also evidence the initial success of a civil government. Albeit, women did not have a voice at this time, but all men did. The floating environment of Mayflower II will become the place to speak about America’s first framework. The early draft of the Mayflower Compact took shape during the original Mayflower crossing as a preliminary way to hold 102 people together through compromise. This was a truly extraordinary achievement coming from a collective people who – despite lacking in any governmental or legislative experience – were remarkably able to establish a framework for constitutional law and majority rule on the edge of the wilderness.  Some of the Colonists had been running a church in England for 20 years, which is structured like a government. Understanding the distribution of funds and organizational skills facilitated the process.

The past can describe the future; and reflecting Harry Hornblower’s penchant for archaeology, Plimoth Plantation continues to unearth new revelations about our country’s early cultural history.  Support for initiatives like the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) – which revives the ancient language of Wampanoag Native American people as the primary spoken language, has been facilitated by efforts at Plimoth Plantation. In early November, there will be an opportunity at the Smithsonian Institution for the language will be heard publicly for one of the first times, with Tutti Jackson speaking and translating it. Other Wampanoag innovations include the unique construction process for the creation of a traditional wooden mishoon canoe utilizing the unexpected reductive technology of fire.

To learn more about these and other year-around experiences available at Plimoth Plantation, secure invaluable teaching links for educators, and lend support to the “Float the Boat: Save Mayflower II!” initiative, visit www.Plimoth.org. for further details.

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