Bringing History to Life in Plymouth, Mass.

You and your children can follow in the footsteps of the first permanents settlers from Europe, who landed on Plymouth Rock in Plymouth, Mass., nearly 400 years ago.

To put this journey through history in the right order for your children, begin at Plymouth’s docks and step onboard a reconstruction of the Mayflower, the ship that brought the first Pilgrims here.

As they stand under the tall masts of Mayflower II, a full-scale replica of the original, they will hear about the ship and the people who sailed it, their stories told by costumed interpreters who demonstrate how the ship sailed and tell about the perils of the voyage. Onboard you can also learn about the replica, built in England during the early 1950s and sailed to Plymouth in 1957. Kids can roam the decks and go below to see how the ship is constructed. More costumed interpreters below deck will help them imagine what life was like onboard for the 102 settlers and the crew of about 30 men who sailed the ship.

After exploring the ship and its lively displays, stop at the famous Plymouth Rock nearby. It’s not the actual rock the Pilgrims stepped onto as they landed in Plymouth’s protected bay. The rock, now protected by a columned arcade, is one identified more than a century after the Pilgrims set foot ashore. But it’s still a famous landmark.

Plymouth, Massachusetts,

© Stillman Rogers

The first settlement was just up the hill from the waterfront, where the Pilgrims laid out a street and put houses together quickly to provide shelter. They surrounded it with a stockade fence of eight-foot poles and built a fort to defend it. While there are historic buildings and museums all over this old section of Plymouth, you’ll want to head to Plimoth Plantation, a faithful replica of this early settlement.

Like a time machine that takes you back into the 17th century, Plimoth Plantation recreates the first settlement in believable detail, giving kids a real-life feel for the experiences of the 1620s. A rough stockade fence runs downhill enclosing the village and at the top of the hill a square, two-story fort armed with cannons overlooks the houses and the surrounding land. The wide dirt street is lined by rough houses identified as homes of specific settlers, including Governor Bradford and Miles Standish.

Plymouth, Massachusetts,

© Stillman Rogers

Children may be surprised to find the houses so primitive, framed with small trees held together with wooden pegs, and the walls filled with a plaster of reeds and mud. Outside walls are covered by rough, hand-hewn boards and roofs are covered with bundles of reeds harvested from the nearby marshes. Homes are a single room, with stones in the dirt floor as the base for a fire that heats the room and is used for cooking. Smoke rises to escape through a hole in the roof.

Plymouth, Massachusetts,

© Stillman Rogers

Try to imagine with your children what it would be like to live in these, especially in the winter. Or ask one of the costumed interpreters, but be sure to tell children in advance these people not only speak in the old English language of the Pilgrims, but they are role-playing as though they really are these people. So they appear unaware of the modern world and relate only to the 1620s in their descriptions of life there. They may even ask for news from England. This truly is like stepping back four centuries.

Life in this settlement exists much as it did in 17th-century Plymouth, as each interpreter takes on the character of an original settler. Women cook, tend gardens, do laundry, shell peas or do whatever seasonal task is at hand. Men build fences, chop wood, build and repair houses and take care of the animals, all with the tools and methods known in the 1600s. Walking among them and stopping to ask questions is a fascinating experience for kids, and one different ages can relate to.