It’s the depository of official records governing land transfers, mortgages, liens, and other real estate documents in Plymouth County.
But until now, few area residents might have suspected that the Plymouth County Registry of Deeds is also a valuable link to the nation’s founding.
Because they extend back through the centuries, the registry’s records include thousands of original documents from Colonial times — including legal papers signed by governor William Bradford and militia commander Myles Standish — and even some inscribed with the mark of Wampanoag Native American leader Massasoit.
“The early history of America is found in these records,” said Register of Deeds John R. Buckley Jr.
Now the public has a unique chance to learn about those documents and the stories they tell through a video project undertaken by Buckley’s office and Plymouth 400, the group that organized the area observances this past year of the 400th anniversary of the 1620 Mayflower voyage.
The hourlong video shows a series of posters displaying images of original documents, accompanied by presentations from 27 current-day historians and Plymouth County notables, including legislators, judges, and local officials, about the records and their relevance today.
The registry created the posters last year as a contribution to the 400th anniversary observances, posting them in its Plymouth building on Obery Street. But COVID-19 largely derailed plans to take the posters around the county in a traveling exhibit, prompting the decision to produce a video.
Buckley said the switch to a video format will actually enhance the project’s impact.
“The virtual program allows more people to experience what we were planning to do in 2020 for the 400th,” he said, “and it will live on long past us because it’s on film.”
“It took a physical poster exhibit and brought it to life,” agreed Michele Pecoraro, executive director of Plymouth 400. “It can be used in classrooms, it can be used in so many ways for educational and just informational purposes.”
Created over the past year by Hawk Visuals, “The Colonial Records of Plymouth Colony” is airing on local cable access channels and can be viewed on the registry website, plymouthdeeds.org.
Mulligan, owner of Hawk Visuals, said producing the video was enjoyable and enlightening.
“I grew up in Plymouth and I had known a lot of the history, but I didn’t realize the registry had all these original records. And to hear the presenters talk about it was pretty eye-opening.”
The project comes as the 400th anniversary commemoration — most of which was virtual due to the pandemic — officially concluded with an in-person maritime festival in Plymouth Sept. 4-5. Plymouth 400 will continue as an organization to help prepare for future commemorations and other historical projects, according to Pecoraro.
The handwritten Colonial records are from Plymouth Colony, which was established with the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620, according to Buckley, a Brockton Democrat.
The records are stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled vault at the registry’s Plymouth building. Before the vault was acquired in 2014, they were housed at various other locations with more limited climate controls. But the records are in relatively good shape, in part because the state Legislature in 1819 undertook a project to preserve them, according to Assistant Register Tim White.
The Colonial records were digitized along with other registry documents in a project completed two years ago, so they can be viewed online. But with the poster and video project, the public can take a virtual guided tour of them.
Buckley said that because the government was then in its formative stages, the Plymouth Colony records are not confined to land records but also include such documents as court orders, laws, and wills. Many are personally signed by Bradford — including the nation’s first land deed.
The first recorded trial by jury, Myles Standish’s will, and land transactions, trade agreements, and treaties with Native Americans — many with the mark of local sachems, including Massasoit — are among other Colonial documents displayed or discussed in the virtual tour.
“We’ve tried to allow people to envision themselves in Plymouth 400 years ago,” White said. As an example, he said Standish’s will is accompanied by a probate inventory of his assets, which included a dwelling, outhouses, livestock, muskets, bibles, two beer casks, and a book on Turkish history.
The people interviewed in the video help put the documents in historical and modern contexts.
Wampanoag scholar Linda Coombs provided a Native American perspective to the Colonial story in discussing early trade between the European settlers and the Wampanoag people.
A citizen of the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe from Martha’s Vineyard, Coombs noted that Native Americans had been engaged in trade for thousands of years before the Pilgrims arrived, and that even trade with Europeans had begun a century before.
”What a lot of people don’t stop to think about is that the Pilgrims sailed into the territory of the Wampanoag nation — it wasn’t just random empty land,” she said.
Coombs also said that the fur trade that grew between the settlers and the Wampanoags actually harmed the hunting economy of the native people because “it resulted in the extinction of the beaver in this area and the depletion of many other species as well.”
“So in spite of the fact that you hear that ... trading helped the pilgrims to survive, it however was extremely detrimental to the Wampanoag people and that’s a part of history that doesn’t get expressed as much,” she said.
Judge Frank M. Gaziano, associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, stood before a poster displaying the 1623 document in which the colonial court ordered that “all criminal facts, and also all matters of trespassers and debts … should be tried by the verdict of 12 honest men.”
“During the debate over the language of the order, the authors struck the phrase, ‘12 men’ and replaced it with ‘12 honest men,’” Gaziano said. “We still seek the verdict of 12 honest jurors.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.