What Did the Pilgrims Eat at the First Thanksgiving?
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
At Plimoth Patuxet in Plymouth, Massachusetts, a 17th-century English Village and Wampanoag Homesite bring the story of one of America’s first settlements to life. Using the “living history” model, visitors to the coastal museum can tour meticulously re-created settlement sites that tell the stories of the first English settlers (now commonly known as Pilgrims) and the Native Wampanoag. A Smithsonian-Affiliate museum with world-class recognition, Plimoth Patuxet is one of the most popular living history museums in the country.
Plimoth Patuxet was started by Boston stockbroker and history enthusiast Henry Hornblower II in 1947 as two English cottages and a fort on Plymouth’s waterfront. In the years since, the museum has grown to include Mayflower II (1957), the English Village (1959), the Wampanoag Homesite (1973), the Hornblower Visitor Center (1987), the Craft Center (1992), the Maxwell and Nye Barns (1994) and most recently the Plimoth Grist Mill (2013).
With that list, it’s no surprise that nearly all New England children, not to mention countless tourists, credit the museum with a thorough education on the complete “Pilgrims and Native Americans” story by visiting the sites and/or participating in one of the museum’s wonderful educational programs.
We recently spent the day at the main museum site (home to the the English Village, Wampanoag Homesite, Visitor Center, Craft Center, and Nye Barns) to help celebrate an onsite arts festival.
The first outdoor living history exhibit was the Wampanoag Homesite, located on the banks of the Eel River. Here, Native People – either Wampanoag or from other Native Nations – dress in historically accurate clothing and depict how the 17th-century Wampanoag would have lived along the coast during the growing season. They are not playing a role, but speak from a modern perspective about Wampanoag history and culture.
Food at the Wampanoag Homesite is cooked over an open fire using only the ingredients that were available in the 1600s. Here, grape leaves are being filled with a simple cornmeal “batter.” After, they’ll be placed in the fire’s embers to bake.
There are a few different kinds of homes in the homesite, including a mat-covered wetu, the Wampanoag word for house, and a bark-covered long house or nush wetu, meaning a house with three fire pits inside.
Have more questions about the Wampanoag Homesite? Plimoth Patuxet has a wonderful Wampanoag Homesite FAQ page with lots of detailed answers.
After touring the homesite, it was on to the adjacent 17th-Century English Village. It’s called an “English” village rather than a “Pilgrim” village, because the word Pilgrim wasn’t commonly used until the 19th century. For convenience’s sake, however, you can use it and nobody will mind. We’ll use it here, too, for the same reason.
The village is an extraordinary re-creation, sitting 2.5 miles south of the original site (now present-day Plymouth Center). Like the Wampanoag Homesite, the level of attention to detail has to be seen, touched, and smelled to be believed. In short, it’s the closest I’ve ever felt to time travel.
At the entrance to the village, there’s a two-story fort, just as there would have been in the 1620s, and the view from the top is probably the most photographed spot at the museum.
It was a cloudy day when we visited the village, but the day before had been a different story — check out the difference in the ocean!
Down in the village, you’ll find modest timber-framed houses belonging to specific families that lived there during the 1620s, complete with reproductions of the typical furnishings the Pilgrims owned, kitchen gardens, and heritage breeds livestock. You’ll also meet costumed, accented role-players, portraying many real-life residents of Plymouth Colony. And, as with the Wampanoag Homesite, questions are encouraged, so ask away!
If you’ve never seen a real thatched roof before, this is a great time to take in every detail, right down to the spiderwebs.
All of the houses are different on the inside, with varying degrees of living, sleeping, and cooking space, amount of sunlight, and quality of items brought over from England.
I could have spent hours examining every object and testing the comfort (or lack thereof) of every bed and chair.
In houses where something is simmering over the fire, you may be surprised to find yourself feeling hungry. It seems the aroma of frying onions and bubbling pottage is something most stomachs can get behind, whether in the 17th or 21st century.
In another kitchen, a kettle of cornmeal samp (a very simple cornmeal porridge) cooked.
While in another, we got a look (courtesy of William Brewster) at his house’s clay (or cloam) oven.
Other houses had to make do with an open hearth.
Exploring the nooks and crannies at Plimoth Patuxet is half the fun. Almost nothing here is off-limits — no ropes or objects encased in glass — and the effect is delightful. Rub a few herbs between your thumb and forefinger right from the garden, step out of the way of an oncoming chicken, chat with an interpreter about this year’s sugar shortage, or ask to help grind some corn the true old-fashioned way. It’s all allowed.
So is peeking in the window of the communal hen house.
I didn’t see any hens inside — perhaps because there was an awful lot of corn drying in the sun during my visit, and some of the more clever hens had figured out that was a good spot to search for fallen kernels.
You’ll find other animals in the village, too, all part of the museum’s Rare and Heritage Breeds Program.
Have more questions about the 17th-century English village? Plimoth Patuxet has a wonderful 17th-Century English Village FAQ page with lots of detailed answers.
Before heading home, we kept the animal theme going with one final stop at the museum’s Nye Barn.
Here, you get a chance to see a selection of the historic breeds of sheep, goats and cows the museum is working to preserve. Plimoth Patuxet’s livestock collections include Milking Devon and Kerry cattle, Arapawa and San Clemente Island goats, wild and Tamworth swine, Wiltshire Horned sheep, Dorking fowl and eastern wild turkeys. All represent the types of animals found in Plymouth Colony in the 17th century.
In their words, “Due to changes in agricultural practice since the 1600s, many of these animals have critically low breeding populations, and Plimoth Patuxet is part of a global effort to save the genetic diversity of these endangered breeds.”
We’re so glad they are!
I can’t think of a more picture-perfect end to a wonderful visit than the sight of a rare breed goat munching on hay, can you?
Have more questions about the rare breed animals in the Nye Barn? Plimoth Patuxet has a wonderful Nye Barn FAQ page with lots of detailed answers.
Have you ever visited Plimoth Patuxet? Share your memories with us!
Plimoth Patuxet. 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth. 508-746-1622; plimoth.orgThis post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.