Re-enactors at Plimoth Plantation resurrect Plymouth Colony in its infancy

By John Bordsen

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Saturday, Nov. 10 2012 3:00 p.m. MST

Hester Cooke leads a cow at Plimoth Plantation. Each cast member in the English village plays a specific, flesh-and-blood person.

John Bordsen, MCT

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — The man leading the black cow down the dirt lane is a blood relative of Dick Van Dyke, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles and two presidents. But ask him about his family, and he will only tell you about his wife of three years, and their three infants.

John Alden — rather, the man portraying him at age 28 at Plimoth Plantation — can also talk at length about taking care of his cow and how he got to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. He can also field questions young visitors are apt to ask, such as "Where's your Pilgrim hat?" or "Where do you go when you need to use a bathroom?"

This being a re-creation of Plymouth Colony in 1627, he would assume a rather perplexed expression. The black felt slouch hat with a red band is the only topper he has, and residents at this English wilderness outpost referred to themselves as "Saints." The word "bathroom" was 150 years in the future; he might say, though, that he bathed in the creek. Infrequently.

Plymouth, where the celebrated Pilgrims landed, is 3 miles north. The seaside town of about 58,000 is on the route from Boston to Cape Cod. It has a well-heeled downtown, flush with boutiques, pizza parlors and Asian restaurants. Beautifully restored Victorian homes line old side streets posed above a harbor filled with leisure craft.

Plimoth Plantation, the half-size re-creation of Plymouth in its infancy, is surrounded by a crude palisade of hacked tree limbs. Buildings within the compound are rough, hand-hewn planking; houses are lined with daub and wattle — a blend of clay, dirt, dung and straw applied to a lattice of sticks. All are topped by thatched roofs, and generally are the size of a small dorm room.

Not far from Alden, Jane Cooke is shooing chickens in the garden behind the glorified hut where her parents, Francis and Hester, live with Jane and perhaps her seven siblings.

"What do you feed them?" a visitor asks. "They feed themselves," Jane replies, gesturing to the brown fowl busily pecking seeds from a knee-high mound in a corner of the yard.

"And what is ...?"

"That's the dunghill," Jane answers with a matter-of-fact smile. Her thoughts are probably elsewhere: She is in her early 20s and soon to marry Experience Mitchell. Their descendants will include presidents George Bush I and II.

You can visit real or re-created historic sites staffed by re-enactors from Jamestown, Va., to Old San Diego.

Plimoth Plantation, however, is historical theater: There are no nameless colonists there. Each cast member in the English village plays a specific, flesh-and-blood person. Moreover, the lives of the settlers you meet — what they did and how they fared at this European outpost — is documented.

This gets to the nature of those who came on the Mayflower and later ships in the colony's early days.

While Jamestown attracted adventurers in 1607, Plymouth was to be the sanctuary of English religious radicals who fled to Holland before hitting the high seas. Its leaders were literate and well connected with like-minded English gentry and with London merchants who bankrolled their voyage.

And they wrote things down: "Of Plimoth Plantation," the first book written in English in North America, was penned by Plymouth's political leader, William Bradford, from his diaries and journals. He also co-wrote "Mourt's Relation," with more info about the settlement, with fellow Pilgrim Edward Winslow.

Though Plymouth was eventually absorbed by the later-founded Massachusetts and became a backwater county seat, it was acknowledged as New England's "mother colony" and its founders had many descendants — Alden himself sired at least 10.

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