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Masked Pilgrims: Plimoth Patuxet Museum opens history’s doors for Thanksgiving

Despite the pandemic, Plimoth Patuxet Museum is welcoming visitors this Thanksgiving season. Scott Atwood, who portrays Stephen Hawkins, talks to kids as he make bench legs in Pilgrim Village.
Despite the pandemic, Plimoth Patuxet Museum is welcoming visitors this Thanksgiving season. Scott Atwood, who portrays Stephen Hawkins, talks to kids as he make bench legs in Pilgrim Village.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It was never going to be an ordinary Thanksgiving Day in 2020.

It was intended to be an extraordinary year for Plymouth, filled with civic and worldwide observations of the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival and their founding of a small colony in a safe harbor called “New Plimoth.”

The novel coronavirus put an end to the high expectations of a local celebration planned for a worldwide audience, as live events were by necessity postponed. The virus also significantly diminished the numbers during the town’s annual summer tourist season.

But this Thanksgiving season, Plimoth Patuxet Museum, the unique living history museum formerly known as Plimoth Plantation, is open, its operation modified by COVID-19 restrictions. Patuxet is the Wampanoag name for what the new arrivals called Plimoth.

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The interpreters wear masks in the Pilgrim Village and at the Wampanoag Homesite, both open with social distancing guidelines, and the museum’s galleries and services are open inside the museum’s visitors center. Masks are required of visitors as well.

Although some Thanksgiving events are canceled this year, The Pilgrim Progress, a stately march by Pilgrim-garbed locals through the center of town, is scheduled to take place on Thanksgiving morning. The “Day of Mourning,” described by organizers as a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people and the theft of Native lands, also will take place as usual at noon on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Harbor.

Even before the virus struck, forcing the planned 400th anniversary observances to be postponed, Plimoth Plantation trustees and staff were thinking about “whether we believe our name reflected the full history of the heart of the museum,” said Kate Sheehan, the museum’s associate director for media relations and marketing.

Deciding its name should better reflect the importance of the region’s Native American population to its mission, Sheehan said, the museum began calling itself “Plimoth Patuxet” on its public communications. An official announcement of Plimoth Patuxet Museum as the new name is still to come.

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Kathleen Wall, who portrays Zara Godbertson, removes corn kernels in her home in Pilgrim Village.
Kathleen Wall, who portrays Zara Godbertson, removes corn kernels in her home in Pilgrim Village. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Closed in the winter months, the museum opened for two days in March before the developing pandemic caused it to shut down and reorganize the site to meet requirements for social distancing. The outdoor attractions reopened in June; the rest of the museum in July. The last day of the season is Nov. 29.

“We’re fortunate that so much of our property is outdoors,” Sheehan said. “We took the right steps to open. All staff wear masks, and we ask guests to do the same. We ask people to observe 6-foot distancing.”

Marked paths now show one-way movement into exhibition areas indoors and out.

Its visitor numbers down and modifications in place, the Pilgrim Village’s “living history” interpreters continue to wear historically accurate dress, enact the role of named villagers on the scene in the 1620s, and speak in the dialect and vocabulary of their “characters,” representing the big picture and small nuances of their world.

The villagers keep house, cook, and care for animals, as their period forerunners did. In their role as living history interpreters, they answer questions from museum visitors.

While visitors' tours remain self-guided, barriers now show visitors where to stand and walk in both the village and the Wampanoag Homesite. Visitors can look into the village’s small thatched-roof houses and engage with their occupants, but can no longer enter them.

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Pandemic conditions have led to small compromises with historical accuracy as well. Because it can be difficult for interpreters to speak through a mask while explaining a 400-year-old way of life in a “correct accent,” Sheehan said, the museum invested in some cordless microphones for them to speak through.

Staff educators wearing modern dress and speaking in a modern voice are also on the scene to provide clarifications on history and logistical assistance.

Youngsters walk in a circle inside the framework of the Summer House at the Wampanoag Homesite.
Youngsters walk in a circle inside the framework of the Summer House at the Wampanoag Homesite. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Wampanoag Homesite is located beside the Eel River, where indigenous people lived during the growing season, planting, fishing and hunting, gathering herbs and berries for food, and wetland reeds for making baskets and mats.

The site includes a mat-covered “wetu” (house) and a bark-covered “nush wetu” — a house with three fire pits inside — and is staffed by members of the Wampanoag or other Native American nations who wear traditional dress and speak in contemporary language.

Inside the visitors center, exhibits tell more about Wampanoag life. In an exhibit titled “History in a New Light,” the Shelby Cullom Davis Gallery displays artifacts from both the Wampanoag village of Patuxet and the Pilgrims' first settlement, discovered by a researchers' dig only four years ago. Projective points found near the Eel River show the presence of Native Americans for 10,000 years and provide evidence of sophisticated trade and communication practices, according to the museum.

The discovery suggests close interactions between the English Colonists and the indigenous people, Sheehan said.

“We might have an impression that the groups were fearful of each other,” she said. “Primary sources coupled with other evidence give us a richer, complex sense of their relationship.”

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Visitors also can go aboard the Mayflower II, the replica of the original 17th-century vessel that brought English settlers to Plymouth in 1620, back in town after a lengthy absence for structural repairs and once again docked in Plymouth Harbor. Pandemic adaptations require visitors to follow a marked route through the ship’s decks, as opposed to freely wandering. The ship’s costumed interpreters answer questions.

For ticket and other information about Plimoth Patuxet Museum and the Mayflower II, go to plimoth.org.

On Nov. 11, 1620, the 102 passengers sailing aboard the Mayflower from England landed in Provincetown on Cape Cod and signed the Mayflower Compact.  The ship's bronze bell was recast on Labor Day in 2019 and now adorns the upper deck of the ship.
On Nov. 11, 1620, the 102 passengers sailing aboard the Mayflower from England landed in Provincetown on Cape Cod and signed the Mayflower Compact. The ship's bronze bell was recast on Labor Day in 2019 and now adorns the upper deck of the ship. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

While having Thanksgiving dinner at the museum, a necessarily scaled back option this year, is already sold out, take-out traditional dinners can still be ordered from Plimoth Market at plimothmarket.com. Dinner for four is $78.

Chief among the town’s seasonal attractions off the table this year, the big parade on the Saturday before Thanksgiving that typically draws thousands of spectators, will not take place. The Mayflower Society House is also closed.

Pilgrim Hall will be open on Thanksgiving Day. The museum reopens on Saturday, Nov. 21, and will be open from Thursdays to Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets must be purchased online at pilgrimhall.org.

A long and famously local tradition, The Pilgrim Progress consists of volunteers garbed in Pilgrim clothing and representing the 51 members of the English colony who survived the first winter. According to Lea Filson, director of See Plymouth, the official tourism site for the town and Plymouth County, the march will begin at 10 a.m. Thanksgiving morning from the Mayflower Society House on Winslow Street, go to North Street, down to Water Street (near Plymouth Rock), then up Leyden Street and back to the meetinghouse.

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The “Pilgrims” will be wearing masks. As of Governor Charlie Baker’s latest orders, spectators will be too.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

Despite the pandemic, Plimoth Patuxet Museum is welcoming visitors this Thanksgiving season. Sophie Amundson, 2, visiting from Rochester, Minn., sits on a bench outside one of the homes in Pilgrim Village.
Despite the pandemic, Plimoth Patuxet Museum is welcoming visitors this Thanksgiving season. Sophie Amundson, 2, visiting from Rochester, Minn., sits on a bench outside one of the homes in Pilgrim Village. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Youngsters run around a home in Pilgrim Village.
Youngsters run around a home in Pilgrim Village.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff