Back to Plimoth Plantation

March 2, 2023 | 8 min read

This past summer, I took my son to Plimoth Plantation. That’s what it was called when I was growing up in New England in the 1980s; it’s recently been rebranded as the Plimoth Patuxet Museum. But it is neither exactly a museum nor quite so devoted to portraying the Patuxet village of the Wampanoag Nation as its website would suggest. Over the past decade, the Plimoth Patuxet Museum has become embroiled in scandal—a fact I only began to learn about halfway through our visit. The contours of this scandal are almost as bizarre as the experience of actually visiting the place, which forces its guests to play accomplice to one of American history’s most pernicious fictions. 

For the unfamiliar, the Plimoth Patuxet Museum is a reconstructed seventeenth-century settlement inhabited by trained historical reenactors portraying actual citizens of the colony at Plimoth. As a child, I revered Plimoth Plantation: the reenactors with their handmade clothes and funny accents, the spiced pudding for sale at the cafeteria, the casual opportunities to write with a quill pen or herd chickens back into their coop. To enter the recreated colony is to take part in a play, though your own role is unclear. 

 Literature given out at the site advises visitors how to engage with the museum. They remind you: “The people you will meet are living in the year 1627. They don’t know anything beyond that year. (You may ask modern questions at other places in the Museum.)” It’s a little difficult to think of ways to strike up a conversation given these parameters. I’m clearly not alone in feeling this way, because their guide offers the following sample questions for engagement:

  • “What ship did you arrive on?”
  • “How do you get your food?”
  • “What sort of work does an 8-year-old girl do?”
  • “Why did you want to leave England?”

Such questions yield very nice and programmatic answers but are still difficult to ask because one thing that remains true from my memories of my last visit over 30 years ago is that almost everyone at Plimoth Plantation is quite mean. In some sense, it tracks that religious extremists living in conditions that we would now consider dire poverty, by the ocean, in the winter, in New England would not be too friendly to visitors. But their meanness still rankles. 

Immediately when you enter one of the Pilgrim houses you get the sense you’re in deep trouble. “What brings you here?” a guy in his twenties wearing britches and a waistcoat and a jaunty little hat declares as I duck my head through the doorway. I am at a loss for how to answer this and find myself telling him we come from the West. “Ah, a long over-land journey. You must be quite tired, have a seat,” he gestures, and then begins yelling at us about taxes or insurance. I have a hard time following because I’m too distracted by my six-year-old, who is perched on the edge of a wooden chair looking like an abused child in a Roald Dahl novel. One’s first Pilgrim rant is invariably alarming.

Some visitors who were recruited to engage in a military drill that involved marching whilst carrying long poles were viciously upbraided for failing to follow commands. Later, I engaged in conversation with a young reenactor who informed me she had married a man twice her age that already had seven children. She has since given him more. Trying to get her details straight, I asked how many of the children were her own, and she snapped back, “While two are of mine own issue, all are my children by god.” I felt properly chastised, and yes, it is still a little fun to hear someone talk like that. (She pronounced “issue” with at least three syllables, like a very devout snake.) 

One of the houses in the village is a hands-on exhibit where they have some toys visitors can play with. My son picked up the hoop from a stick-and-hoop game and began throwing it like a boomerang so it would return to him, a trick recently acquired at circus camp. A reenactor loudly boomed, “Don’t you know how to trundle a hoop properly?” I get that he was horning in on a lesson, but the whole pilgrim affect is just very jarring. You never get used to it.

One problem with the Plimoth Patuxet Museum is that, like New England as a whole, it takes itself way too seriously. Another problem is that it doesn’t take anything else seriously enough. The website advertises that the historic Patuxet homesite, which has been a part of the museum since 1971, is recently expanded. I only vaguely remembered the homesite from my childhood visits as a couple of huts we passed by on the way to the Pilgrim settlement, but the website featured some promising pictures of Wampanoag reenactors engaging with visitors—certainly never part of the show before. (They have since taken these images down.) I found myself deeply curious to hear how the Wampanoag reenactors would explain the situation of living so near to the Pilgrim settlement and what they would say of their interactions with them. 

When we arrived in the area denoted as the historic Patuxet homesite, we found it nearly deserted. A garden at its center was simultaneously overgrown and underwatered. All the herbs, like the guests, had bolted. There were only three structures, two of which were uncompleted. And there were no reenactors—only a guide wearing a polo shirt and khakis, who I found to be uncharacteristically kind and forthcoming. The guide identified themself as affiliated with a non-local tribe and as one of the last of the Native staff members still working there. When I asked why, they described the terrible working conditions the Native reenactors had faced, most of whom were Wampanoag. The living conditions were uninhabitable—leaky and poorly ventilated trailers—and the museum supervisors ignored their reports of alarming visitor behavior. Visitors to the museum, the staff member told me, would taunt and even grope reenactors, and the management had suggested this was the reenactors’ fault for not properly engaging with the guests. Then we talked with my son about the sister plants—corn, beans, and squash—to stave off his begging to go back to the more populated and therefore more interesting Pilgrim settlement. 

The current iteration of the museum sets up the thousands of schoolchildren who visit it each year, as I did so many times in my own primary school days, to believe that the Pilgrim settlement was far more developed and thriving than the Wampanoag village. This both is and is not true, sort of like the elliptical logic underpinning the time-traveling pretense of the whole place. The Wampanoag village at Patuxet predates the Pilgrim settlement. When the Pilgrims arrived at Plimoth, the Wampanoag that lived there had been almost entirely decimated by disease. Some historians believe it was contagion from previous European visitors, while others believe it was a form of zoonotic illness known as leptospirosis. Either way, the village as the museum presents it is either inhabited or not. If it’s inhabited, then it should be a thriving and far larger place that is set in an earlier time period than the rest of the site. If it’s not, then there shouldn’t be reenactors present. I’m not sure if that was the goal of the disarray I encountered, but it certainly lends the impression that Wampanoag life was a footnote to the awe-inspiring accomplishments of the Pilgrim settlers, which could not be further from the truth. 

Back at the Pilgrim village, I asked the reenactors about the Wampanoag. They shooed my questions away, saying they don’t interact with them much, that they’re not interested in trade because they get everything they need from the English supply ships that come once a year and their little farms and gardens. Also fish. They talk in glowing terms about the fishing. 

My son, whose fear of the reenactors was gradually traded for enthusiastic suspicion, followed a female colonist to a large house at the back. The door opened and I spied a well-appointed modern breakroom inside. A sign on the door read Museum Staff Only. When he went off-piste again, he found a shed full of what looked to be Indigenous artifacts, several large rolls of twine, and some modern gardening tools. These glimpses behind the curtain reminded me that we were in what is ostensibly a history-themed amusement park with its own narrative about the colonial past, not dissimilar from the fantastical medievalism of Disney World.

After we left, I learned a bit more about the history of the relationship between the present-day Wampanoag and the Plimoth Patuxet Museum. In July 2022, just a month before my visit, Camille Madison, a Gay Head (Aquinnah) Wampanoag tribal member, announced a boycott of the museum on social media. This was a culmination of a discontent that had intensified since 2016, when the Indigenous Programs Director, Wampanoag tribal member Darius Coombs, was “moved out of his position,” according to the Cape Cod Times. When the museum changed its name, rather quietly, in June 2020, Wampanoag observers noted that while this name change purportedly signaled a renewed commitment to the representation of Wampanoag history, it also resulted in the removal of the word “Wampanoag” from much of the museum’s literature. The historic Patuxet homesite seems to have been reimagined to represent a vanished nation, rather than the history of a people whose culture and traditions continue to exist today, and who, furthermore, have a lot to say about the story that’s being packaged and sold at Plimoth.

Every year, the museum offers three distinct Thanksgiving dinner “experiences”: the Thanksgiving Day Buffet, “The Story of Thanksgiving” Dinner, and The New England Harvest Feast, all of which require highly priced, advanced-purchase-only tickets. According to their website, at “The Story of Thanksgiving” Dinner, guests are told about how, 

For the original participants – the Indigenous Pokanoket people and English people – a successful harvest was reason enough to rejoice. On land Indigenous people call Patuxet, the great sachem of the Pokanoket, Ousamequin (Massasoit) and 90 of his men, shared in three days of feasting and entertainment with the English. Patuxet/Plymouth is the place where ancient traditions of gratitude in both Indigenous and European cultures merged in the autumn of 1621, and a new holiday of gathering and giving thanks began.

One of the many things that’s curious about this description is the use of the word “Pokanoket” to describe the Indigenous people present at the event that took place in the fall of 1621. Pokanoket refers to the village where Ousamequin was “great sachem” or Massasoit. It is a general term used to designate the historical leadership of the present-day Wampanoag. The museum’s use of “Pokanoket” here suggests a continued desire to disassociate the history of the Wampanoag people from the present of the Wampanoag people, a present that is the direct result of that day in 1621 when the museum would have us believe they came in gratitude.

Wampanoag story keepers see that day differently. Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag author and educator, recently told the Washington Post, “We don’t acknowledge the American holiday of Thanksgiving.… it’s a marginalization and mistelling of our story.” This is because that day signals the start of a long period of colonization that all of us still live within. It was only relatively recently, in 2007, that the Mashpee Wampanoag won federal recognition as a tribe. This was a battle victory in what is a longstanding—since the 1970s—legal war to reclaim some of the land that was taken from them first by the colonists and then by the United States Government. 

At the Plimoth Patuxet Museum, stolen land comes with a stolen history. This past December, however, it was Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Brian Weeden who was charged with theft, for breaking into the museum and stealing four Wampanoag cultural items on the night of November 7, 2022. The museum released a statement about the supposed theft, opining that “a crime against a cultural institution is always more than any price that can be put on the stolen objects.” It is a sad reversal of a centuries-old position, an irony unbelievably lost, it seems, on the authors of the statement. Weeden, like Darius Coombs, was formerly employed by the museum. Weeden pled “not guilty” in court in January, and the tribe officially denies his involvement in any theft. Coombs is now Cultural Outreach Coordinator for the Mashpee Wampanoag Education Department. Wampanoag cultural programs are regularly made available to the public and Coombs visits schools and museums to offer a clearer picture of his people’s history than what the Museum is selling. 

Casey Figueroa, who worked at the museum as an interpreter for years before leaving in 2015, was quoted by NPR as saying, “There’s this unwillingness to acknowledge that times have changed. The Native side of the Plymouth story has so much more to offer in terms of the issues we’re facing today, from immigration to racism and climate change, but they went backwards instead. They totally blew it.” It’s a truly logical take. While, in the current state of the museum, I wholeheartedly support the boycott announced last July, and wish I’d known about it before I visited myself, I also think we all have a lot to lose if the site continues to replicate the injustices of the period it captures. 

Visiting Plimoth Plantation was a foundational experience of my childhood, as I’m sure it was for many who grew up in or around Massachusetts. It played no small part in shaping my desire to learn more about the history of the places where I live. It’s disappointing that I won’t be taking my own child back to the Plimoth Patuxet Museum any time soon, but no children deserve the version of history I was given there myself so long ago—a version that took years to unlearn.

is Associate Professor of English and Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Wyoming. Her essays can be found at several sites and she is the author of Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures and the forthcoming Writing Against Reform. Learn more about her work at her website.