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.
The spin came in the 1840s when an English poetess named Felicia Hermans wrote "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England." Though wildly inaccurate, it spawned shoals of books and illustrations that permanently dipped the Pilgrims in prim Victorian black.
The purpose of Plimoth Plantation, a nonprofit launched in 1947, is to strip away the myths — including those about the fall harvest feast with the locals that we have come to venerate as Thanksgiving.
The sheer volume of original writings and meticulous records helps set the record straight — but also complicates matters.
Plymouth is home to the Mayflower Society, whose members are descendants of the 29 adult Mayflower passengers known to have had children. Besides validating Pilgrim descendants' genealogy, the society researches the colony's early days.
As a result, re-creating the Pilgrim experience at Plimoth Plantation is a bit like owning a restaurant where food inspectors eat.
But its cast and "stage" get high marks from both venerable organizations.
"They're interested in getting the facts as right as they can," says Carolyn Travers, the librarian of the Mayflower Society. "We have done programs in conjunction with them; their staff can use our library for free."
Travers is also aware of the hurdles character-specific re-enactors face down on the Plantation: "We at the Society can say, "Person X's parents are unknown. That's a fact. We can fudge or later change our minds." But that inconvenient reality doesn't play out at Plimoth Plantation, she says: "The person being depicted would, of course, know who his or her parents are, and if asked simply have to say, 'My father's name is... John,' or whatever."
Re-enactors learn to sidestep unanswerable questions when possible — and to know their real-life character intimately enough to stay convincingly in character.
Travers knows the drill quite well: She is a former cast member herself.
"It is like theater, in that you're always learning about the person you play."
Even on a summer afternoon, visitors outnumber settlers. If, say, Miles Standish or Gov. Bradford is absent, you may be told he's out farming, or absent on a visit to the Indians. And in truth, the Pilgrims didn't loiter around the stockade to greet curious tourists.
Plimoth Plantation is set in 1627 because it was when the Pilgrims gave up on communal economics.
If thou goest …
Plimoth Plantation, 137 Warren Ave., Plymouth, Mass. (use Exit 4 off Mass. 3), is open 9 a.m.-5 or 5:30 p.m. daily through Nov. 25, then closed until March.Comment on this story
Admission: $29.50; $26.50 for 62 and older; $19 for ages 6-12; 5 and younger, free — includes the 1627 English Village, Wampanoag Homesite, visitor center (introductory film and exhibits), craft center (artisans make settler/Indian artifacts the time-honored way) and Nye Barn (live animals in breeds similar to what the Pilgrims had). All are at the main Plimoth site. Included is admission to the Mayflower II, downtown in Plymouth Harbor. A wide array of special programs is offered throughout the year; check the schedule posted online.
More information: 508-746-1622 or www.plimoth.org