You stand on the gun deck of an exact replica of the Mayflower. There, 102 people spent 66 days – they were never allowed on deck during the voyage. If you’re taller than six feet, you can’t really straighten up, and no matter how tall you are, you have to duck when you get close to the hull.
There are no portholes, just wooden shutters that would let in the cold and rain so they were closed during bad weather – and of those 66 days, only two were considered “good sailing.” The rest were storm-wracked and as miserable as the North Atlantic can be, so those shutters stayed closed almost the entire trip.
The 102 people shared about 1,200 square feet for every minute of that trip, tossed by waves and wind in the small ship. The gun deck was 68 feet long and 24 feet wide, at its widest.
Pause to consider: 102 people. 1,200 square feet. No light. No plumbing. Bad food, and not enough of it.
That’s what it means to be a pioneer.
So as we walked through that replica in Plymouth, just south of Boston, it started to become clear just how much sacrifice was involved in coming to America in 1620, a clarity not available by reading books or watching videos. The cramped reality of the Mayflower’s gun deck is, in a way, living history, and it’s one reason why a trip to Boston is worth taking.
Complementing the harsh reality of the Mayflower is the Plimouth Patuxet re-creation of life in New England in 1627. Set on 130 acres next to the Eel River, the site is close to where the Patuxet tribe had lived for hundreds of years, and also where the Pilgrims founded a settlement. (One reason the Pilgrims chose the spot is that the Patuxets were essentially wiped out by a plague, very likely of European origin, that devastated the Native Americans in 1619. When they arrived, they found abandoned fields already leveled and abandoned clearings already cut.)
The highlight of Plimouth Patuxet is the village that is a historically accurate representation of immigrant life in New England in 1627. The tiny houses are generally one room, with dirt floors and thatched roofs. The walls have cracks that would have let in the cold winter winds, and even the stacks of firewood that surround each house could not have warmed them much.
But inside was better than outside, so much like the Mayflower passengers, entire families would spend most of the winter inside these small, cramped houses, huddled around the smoky fire pit that was open to the sky (no, there were no chimneys). The food? Whatever could be salted and saved from the fall crop, and oysters and clams that had to be gathered in the bitter winter weather.
There were 163 people in this small outpost in 1627, by far the largest English village in New England. Even after the devastating plague, the Native Americans in close proximity numbered 50,000 or more.
This is what it means to be a pioneer.
For us, of course, soft and spoiled Americans in the 21st century, we interrupted our visit to the two sites with a nice lunch. The wine came from California or France; the clam chowder and cod were local; the service was excellent. No suffering involved.
After all, we live at the very top of the food chain on this planet, and there are many, too many, who live closer to the kind of life I’ve just described than to the life we lead. Even 150 years later, as tours of the houses of John Adams and Paul Revere showed, space was at a premium and the daily routine did not include microwaves and Starbucks.
Revere, for example, lived in a four-room house that usually was home to 10 or more people, who slept wherever there was room. The main bedroom was also the parlor, with all the best furniture – including a four-poster bed – in one spot. But the bed was small, because staying warm in the brutally cold New England winters required serious snuggling with whoever was nearby, siblings, apprentices, cousins or guests.
Adams’ house was on his farm in Quincy rather than in Boston proper, but still was cramped and crowded. He was a president, and wealthy for his time, but again, the number of people – people who seldom bathed -- crammed together in close quarters would be shocking to us today.
But you know, we really do need to be shocked. We do need to understand that flicking a switch to turn on a light would have counted as magic to the Pilgrims, and telling Alexa to play “Wrecking Ball” by Emmy Lou Harris would have been seen as the work of the devil.
We are human, of course, so we complain. We don’t like smoke from distant fires clouding the sky, we are angry when the power goes out, we are frustrated politicians can’t make our lives easier and smoother.
But dip down into the gun deck of the Mayflower. Contemplate spending a winter with your family in a one-room shack that’s smoky and bitterly cold. Oh, and then rise up and risk it all for a concept as murky as freedom.
That’s what it means to be a pioneer.