If you’ve done the Mayflower II, Plymouth Rock and Plimoth Patuxet, it’s time to go deeper. This tour will take you up Leyden Street – the first street of the colonists – through Town Square and its historic buildings, and up to Burial Hill. This is a nice walking tour, with plenty to see and great views of the harbor.
After this, if you’re still game for more exploring, you can connect to the Life Goes On tour.
William Bradford Statue
William 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. Since Bradford had four children and at least eighteen grandchildren, you would imaging that there must be a plethora of Bradford descendants 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.
Bradford’s journal on the Mayflower journey and early Plymouth Colony – Of Plymouth Plantation (a modernized “translation”) – is considered the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims’ journey and colonization.
Originally called First Street, this was indeed the first that was created by the Pilgrims in 1620. The location of the street was practical, running alongside Town Brook from the harbor, providing the Pilgrims with ready access to fresh water and fish. First to be built was a common house which housed both the pilgrims and their stores. That was followed by construction of two rows of houses along the emerging street, beginning on Christmas Day in 1621. Seven houses were completed in the first year, and 32 were in place by 1624.
While none of the original homes along this street survived to the present, you can visit its reproduction at Plymouth Patuxet.
In 1823 First Street was renamed to Leyden Street after the city in Holland where the Separatists dwelled for a period after escaping persecution in England.
National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse
At the top of Leyden Street is Town Square, and presiding over it, at the foot of Burial Hill, is the National Pilgrim Memorial Meetinghouse, formerly known as the First Parish Church of Plymouth. It is an impressive 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, with the first having been the Pilgrims’ first meetinghouse built in 1621. It’s possibly the oldest continuous western spiritual institution in America. The First Parish has maintained records dating back to 1606 in Scrooby, England. These are in the care of the Society, which now owns the building.
The Parish continues to hold its worship services in this beautiful building, and welcomes people of all faiths and philosophies. As of this writing, the Society has finished renovations of the exterior and are working on the interior. A museum is in the plans, which will enable more access to this historic building.
1749 Court House Museum
The 1749 Court House Museum, a white clapboard building occupying the south 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.
Church of the Pilgrimage
The third building of note in Town Square is the white clapboard Church of the Pilgrimage, built in 1840. The Georgian architecture building occupies the north 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.
Next to the Pilgrim Meetinghouse is access 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).
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. Take some time to wander and read some gravestones, while appreciating the views of the harbor. This is a special spot in Plymouth.