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New England by Heart

Plymouth MA Tour: A Fledgling Colony

If you’ve done Plimoth Patuxet, the Mayflower II and the Rock, it’s time to go deeper into Plymouth. This tour will take you up the first street of the colonists (Leyden Street), through Town Square and onto Burial Hill. This is a nice walking tour, with plenty to see and great views of the harbor.

William Bradford Statue

Starting down near the Rock, head south (that’s left if you’re looking up at the hill from the Rock) and stop to admire the William Bradford Statue. Bradford, a long-standing member of the Separatist group under William Brewster and John Robinson, was the second governor of the colony in 1621, succeeding the short tenure of John Carver, who died with so many others in that first harsh winter. Bradford served as governor on and off until 1656 and died in 1657.

Bradford lost his first wife overboard the Mayflower off of Provincetown, and remarried later. Check out Bradford’s own journal on the Mayflower journey and early Plymouth Colony in his Of Plymouth Plantation (this link is for a version “translated” to modern English, which makes for a much easier read – you can also easily find plenty of versions that keep to the original text). Of Plymouth Plantation is considered the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims’ journey and colonization. 

As you might imagine, since Bradford had four children and at least eighteen grandchildren, there must be a plethora of Bradford descendents out there. Indeed there are, including Julia Child, Clint Eastwood, Sally Field, Christopher Reeve, William Rehnquist, Benjamin Spock, and Adlai Stevenson III. Also, Hugh Hefner (Playboy founder), who I’m sure had Bradford rolling in his grave.

Leyden Street

Continue south on Water Street and turn onto Leyden Street. Originally called First Street, it was indeed the first that was created by the Pilgrims in 1620. While none of the original homes along this street have survived, including William Bradford’s, you can see how it looked by visiting Plymouth Patuxet, which is its recreation. Leyden Street (renamed as such in 1823 after the city in Holland where the Separatists dwelled for a period after escaping persecution in England) is the logical place for a first street, running alongside Town Brook from the harbor, the brook providing the Pilgrims with fresh water and fish. After first building a common house to house people and stores, construction of the street with two rows of houses began on Christmas Day of 1621, with seven houses completed in the first year, and 32 by 1624. For some really interesting exploration of the early days of Leyden Street, check out Predicting the Location of the Original Plymouth Village, Its Extent, and Its Houses by Craig S. Chartier of the Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery Project.

Town Square

At the top of Leyden Street, cross Main Street into Town Square, where there are three buildings of note. The first, the National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse (formerly known as the First Parish Church of Plymouth), presiding at the head of Town Square at the foot of Burial Hill, is a stone building of Norman architecture and Arts & Crafts interior, with Tiffany windows depicting the Pilgrims. Built in 1897, it is the fifth spiritual structure to be built on this location, according to the Mayflower Society which now owns the building and has saved it from deterioration, with the first having been the Pilgrims’ first meetinghouse built in 1621. The First Parish has maintained records, now in the care of the Society, dating back to 1606 in Scrooby, England. It touts itself as possibly the oldest continuous western spiritual institution in America. The Parish continues to hold its worship services in this beautiful building, and welcomes people of all faiths and philosophies. Currently, with the pandemic and renovations by the Society, there are limited opportunities for touring the Meetinghouse – you can attend a worship service (check the First Parish website for calendar) or check with the Mayflower Society for group tours.

National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse (formerly First Parish Church of Plymouth)

The 1749 Court House & Museum, a white clapboard building occupying the south (left) side Town square, was built in, well, 1749, and bills itself as the longest used municipal building in America. After the new courthouse was built in 1820 – called with a flair for originality, the 1820 Courthouse – the building was used for various purposes by the town through the early 1950s and then opened as a museum focused on Plymouth history in 1970, which is what you’ll find today. 

1749 Court House & Museum

The third building of note in Town Square is white clapboard Georgian architecture The Church of the Pilgrimage, built in 1840 and occupies the north (right) side of the square. This is an active Christian Congregationalist Church, which according to its Rev. Dr. Helen Nablo, says is the first in the world of that faith, considered the mother church. The congregation was formed by church members withdrawing from the First Parish Church in 1801 in protest of its Unitarian-influenced theology – separatists from the separatists, it’s fair to say. It almost seems these days that the two churches are trying to outdo each other in wokeness – with First Parish claiming non-denominational and even non-faith openness, and the Pilgrimage claiming the first openly Gay minister in 1973 and the first woman minister in 2017. The Pilgrimage Church is not open to tours, but you are welcome to join a service – even if you are not of Christian faith, but be prepared for a purely Christian service.

The Church of the Pilgrimage

Burial Hill

After visiting the Square, head on up the stairs next to the Pilgrim Meetinghouse to Burial Hill. Ahead of visiting, I recommend that you read this excellent article about Burial Hill by the Friends of Mount Auburn, and if you’re not familiar with common early colonial gravestone images, this is a good guide). Take some time to wander and read some gravestones (and appreciate the views of the harbor) and note the location of the Pilgrims’ first fort and meeting house (behind the current Meetinghouse). 

Entrance to Burial Hill
Burial Hill

There’s a certain hush to this cemetery, more so than you would expect, weighted down with the early history of European settlement, especially when you see recognizable names, like William Bradford and William & Mary Brewster. It’s worth imagining for a moment that you are an early settler burying a family member, and wondering if you’ll really be able to make it in this new land.

The earliest stones were made of wood and so have not survived, and of course a number of the original Mayflower passengers were buried on Coles Hill – some later perhaps moved here and others’ remains in the sarcophagus on Coles Hill. But you’ll see current markers going back to the late seventeenth century. Some of the earliest you’ll find encased in granite to preserve them. Others have been cleaned so that they look much more recent than they really are.

There are some wonderful epitaphs on these stones. Check out this site to read some of them.

If you’re still game for more exploring, you can switch right over to the Life Goes On tour.

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