Ask them anything, the visitor's center advises, "but remember - they know nothing of events beyond the year 1627. As you leave this building, prepare to leave the 20th century behind."
Outside lies Plimoth Plantation, the living-history restoration of the Pilgrims' first settlement, a tiny village of thatch-roofed houses, garden plots, hen coops, sheep and cattle pens, and - most important - people."Come you in!" a woman called from within one of the little houses, in answer to a tourist's knock, and a handful of us stepped over a threshold into an entry way heaped head-high with huge bags of straw. They were the first thing to ask about.
Inside the cottage, a man sat at a long table; his wife bustled about, heating a kettle on an open hearth, carefully keeping her long skirts from the flames.
These were poor folk, common workers, and those sacks of straw by the entrance were their beds, airing out. At night, the wife explained, they'd be spread again on the floor of the main room.
"Excuse me, sir," I started another question, and the householder looked puzzled.
Clearly, "sir" had different meanings in the 17th century.
"That is for gentry," the householder explained firmly, adding in an odd accent, "It's a good thing there are no gentry here - they are not suited for the work."
In another house, farther along the single street, a distinguished-looking man in beard, waistcoat and lace ruff sat at his table, holding forth on the community's problems and its ways of dealing with them.
"There have been misdemeanors, such as stealing corn," he admitted in a rich Yorkshire accent. "Felonies, such as fornication. And dueling. Dueling is nothing more than attempted murder under the laws of England."
Judging by the clothes, the educated grammar, the books on the table, the finer grade of furniture in the room, this man had to be one of the leaders.
"Who are you?" I asked, careful not to add "sir."
"Bradford, ma'am," he answered simply.
And for a wild moment, I believed him: "Wow!" I thought, "William Bradford! He's the governor!"
Furthering that illusion - that these really are the Pilgrims, that this really is the Massachusetts Bay Colony - is the whole point of Plimoth Plantation Inc., which attempts to be the most accurate possible representation of Pilgrim life in the early 1600s.
"Are you gentry?" I asked.
No, Bradford said, pulling off a black leather gauntlet to show the callouses on his palm, "I work with my hands, same as others here." The callouses were real.
The whole thing is so convincing that it made me shy about taking out a camera. I felt like an intruder in the Pilgrims' lives. It took me a minute to remember that the "Pilgrims" I was respecting were highly skilled historical actors. Surprisingly, given how long ago it was, a great deal is known about the real Pilgrims:
Who they were, what they did for a living, their family and educational backgrounds, the beliefs they held, what parts of England they came from and even their regional dialects. (There are more than a dozen in use on any given day at the restoration.)
The staff at Plimoth Plantation has been trained to interpret all that, and they do it by impersonating real people, right down to the way they speak.
Pilgrim social and religious values are also interpreted here, and they aren't what you'd expect. Tolerance wasn't a great virtue.
Ask them about religion, for example, and you may get an earful of anti-Papist sentiment.
The English of the day "would have been rabidly anti-Catholic - anti-everybody but English, really," said Carolyn Travers, research librarian for the restoration. They saw the world differently too.
"We look at the wilderness and say, iHow lovely!' " Travers said. "They look at it and say iHow hideous!' It was untamed land to them - there was nothing attractive about it."
Then there's the Mayflower. This tends to shock visitors, Travers said, but the Pilgrims weren't attached to it: "It was like the moving company that got you to your present house."
It wasn't mentioned by name in their records until three years after they landed.
Debunking such myths is a conscious effort at Plimoth Plantation. The Pilgrims, it becomes clear during a visit, were a lot different from what generations of grade-school Thanksgiving programs taught us to think.
They weren't saints. They weren't super heroes. And - equally important - "they're not just us in funny clothes," Travers said.
What they were was human, and under stress:
Starting life over again on the edge of a primitive wilderness was incredibly difficult, physically and emotionally. In their first year on the new continent, half of them died, and the grieving community shrank from about 100 to only 50.
Ask them what it's like, and the living-history characters will tell you - with vigor.
Goody Hopkins, an energetic young housewife farther down the street, complained that her husband had promised, "We would go to an English place. But I never thought it would be as coarse as this... . It will never be a place like London. It will never be like a small town in England."
Her words made visitors smile, remembering the modern Boston they had just driven through. England came up often in visitors' questions. "Do you resent England?" one asked Bradford. "No," he snorted, "it's home!"
But it had its own problems, he noted:
"We look upon England as a country that has turned its back on God. And God may someday turn His back on it. We pray for its reformation. But I do not think that will come in my lifetime."
And there, finally, is the reason the colonists left - religious freedom. It was what drove them first to Leyden, Holland, about 1609, and a decade later it was what motivated them to embark on the two-month voyage to the New World.
That long pilgrimage earned them their current label. But the Pilgrims called themselves Saints. And their contemporaries in England called them Separatists, because they were a religiously strict group of Puritans who had split off from the Church of England.
"If it wasn't expressly supported in the Bible, they wouldn't do it, " Travers said. "That's why they sang psalms, not hymns" in church, and why they regarded marriage as only a civil event and would not wear wedding rings.
Interestingly, there were a few "Pilgrims" who chose to join the colony for nonreligious reasons, chiefly economics, and they have their interpreters, too:
Goody Hopkins and her husband, for example, were Church of England, not Separatists. But he was the third son of a farm family, she explained, and he stood no chance of inheriting land under England's laws. He was "crazed to get land," something she, as a merchant's daughter, couldn't understand:
"He will get land here - but I'm not sure it's worth it."
Ask them, and all the characters will talk about what they gave up and what they miss.
"My mother!" sighed a woman named Mistress Fuller, taking time out from spading a garden. "I miss my mother. And my brother is still there. But I think (I miss) naught else."
What surprises the most on a visit to Plimoth Plantation is that the settlers who arrived on the Mayflower and later ships weren't as somber as they've been depicted traditionally.
Like their contemporaries at home, they dressed in colors, wore the styles of the day, drank beer (it was considered more nourishing than water), laughed, worried, worked hard and generally lived their lives.
A few even managed to get punished for quarrelsomeness, public drunkenness and, as Bradford acknowledged, fornication.
You won't witness the latter behaviors, but you may overhear Pilgrims talking about them. Ask them, and the characters will tell you what the punishments were:
A couple of hours in the stocks, perhaps, or "public repentance and shaming," as Bradford put it, adding that such punishments were necessary to correct wrongs and maintain order.
"We all sin," he explained gently.
They all got dirty, too. When you see them in "real" life - or at least as real as Plimoth can make it - their fingernails are dirty, their aprons spotted, their shirt cuffs and skirt hems gray from use.
That was a reality of the time: They would wash their hands and faces before meals, Travers said, but bathing the whole body was held to be unhealthy, particularly in unheated houses in winter.
In addition, most people had small wardrobes then, and clothes got worn longer and more often. And cloth for making more clothes was in short supply.
The colonists were so busy working the land that they had no time to weave, and even if they'd had the time, Travers said, they wouldn't have had enough wool because they didn't have enough sheep.
Instead, they had to depend on their sponsors, merchants back in England, to supply finished cloth, other manufactured goods and even foodstuffs. When the ships were late, they suffered.
What the Pilgrims celebrated in 1621 wasn't the same thing that we'll celebrate on Thanksgiving, nor was it held for the same reasons, Travers said.
The Pilgrims did have something called a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise, Travers explained, but that was purely religious and very somber - a day of prayers like an extra Sunday.
Its negative counterpart was the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, scheduled when the community deemed that God was displeased with them.
The 1621 event was neither of these, Travers said. It was definitely secular - a "Harvest Home" celebration that included games, entertainments, even Indian guests, none of which would have been a part of a strictly religious observance.
After a difficult first year, when half the colonists died, the harvest festival must have been a welcome break.
And perhaps their only one: They didn't observe Christmas or Easter, Travers said. And they didn't hold their first official Day of Thanksgiving until 1623.