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The Pilgrims’ Unenduring Legacy

In 400 years, the town the Pilgrims built has collapsed countless times. It's worth asking what really remains, and what will remain much longer.

Two bridges cross the canal to Cape Cod from the main body of Massachusetts. The Bourne, fed by interstates 195 and 495, takes the brunt of traffic from the west—mostly horrible New York tourists. The Sagamore, sat at the end of Boston-born MA-3, takes traffic from the north; in summer it’s mostly the city bourgeoisie, heading off for long weekends at beach houses on the Cape.

The speed limit drops to 35 on the bridge, and with two narrow southbound lanes closed in by a raised sidewalk on the right and northbound travel on the left, traffic slows and backs up for miles up Route 3 in the summer. To cope with the heavy traffic, the MassDOT built a rest stop—or a meager excuse for one: an oversized, 24-hour McDonald’s with a rack of tourism pamphlets in the lobby—15 miles before the bridge, in the middle of Plymouth, America’s Hometown. (On a good Friday this is where the traffic grinds to a halt; on a bad one it’s the midpoint in the jam.)

In front of the McDonald’s, impossible to miss from the highway, is a carved wooden Indian head about 30 feet tall. (The artist, Peter “Wolf” Toth, was born in Hungary, but his life’s work has been to place an Indian-head sculpture in each U.S. state.) Maybe I’m alone, and maybe I’m crazy, but there’s something about it I find jarring. The contrived nod to a pre-American history paired with, well, a McDonald’s—I can’t imagine the Pilgrims would be happy about any of it.

The Wampanoag inhabitants of Patuxet—whose legacy begat (quite unintentionally, I imagine) the rest-stop Indian—had been wiped out by diseases carried (accidentally again) by European traders and explorers, just a few years before the 1620 arrival of the Puritan colonists whose own legacy begat (the running theme here being unintended consequences) that behemoth of a McDonald’s. When the Mayflower first anchored at the tip of Cape Cod it was still the middle of November, but encounters with Indians there forced the travelers to continue on their search. By December 7th—400 years ago today—the ship’s shallop (a small boat made for coastal navigation) was assembled, and an expeditionary crew set out to find a more suitable site for permanent settlement. And a permanent site was soon found: the ruins of Patuxet. Within 11 days the Mayflower herself had reached the place, and in another three the first round of passengers had come ashore.

December 7th is the fateful moment: unwilling yet to war with the Indians they met upon first anchoring—whose presence in force was at least a sign that the land was good—the Pilgrims set out for a place of their own. When at last they came upon the dead Patuxet village, they took the barrenness as providence: cornfields barely overgrown, acres of land conveniently cleared, no hostile inhabitants to be found—and all in a location sheltered from the ocean by a small, then-wooded peninsula. At the decisive point, the famously superstitious Puritans must have had a lapse in judgment; they ought to have taken the omen for what it was.

Patuxet’s second death came down that very winter. Unable to complete even half of the buildings they had planned, most of the colonists stayed aboard ship in Plymouth Harbor, while teams went out during the day—those days when the harsh weather relented, at least—to build. From scurvy, cold, and a host of other afflictions, 45 had died by spring. By the famous first Thanksgiving in the fall of 1621, only 53 of the Mayflower‘s 102 passengers remained. That hard first winter is no secret; it appears in every history book as testament to the Pilgrims’ perseverance. But we rarely consider the brutal reality of the moment. It was not a hardship endured; it was an absolute devastation of their vision. Their families, their workforce, their hoped-for utopia of 102, all had been cut in half—not to mention their prospects for repaying the debt owed to their English underwriters. At the first Thanksgiving the Pilgrims’ hopes had already been crushed once.

But the next month, November 1621, saw Plymouth’s second birth. A second ship arrived, the Fortune, carrying 37 new inhabitants. Two more ships in 1623 and a string of others later swelled the colony’s population to just under 300 by the end of the decade. But the second wind was a mixed blessing. When the Fortune arrived—unannounced, and with few provisions of its own—the settlers had just celebrated a successful first harvest (in the three-day feast retroactively deemed Thanksgiving). Now, the fruits of that harvest were to be split between a population suddenly doubled.

What’s more, some of the newcomers weren’t even Separatists themselves. The Anne in 1623 brought colonists unbound by the Pilgrims’ civil and religious associations, who established their own neighborhood at Hobs Hole just a mile to the south. In 1627 population growth and the strain of limited resources forced further expansion, with both Mayflower pioneers and later arrivals branching out to form new towns to the north, all under the purview of Plymouth Colony. Already by the end of the decade, the village of 1621 became unrecognizable.

That expansion, together with a generational turnover, brought Plymouth once again to the brink of destruction. Massasoit, the powerful sachem of the Wampanoag confederacy, had been a friend to the English settlers since the Mayflower‘s arrival. But on his death in 1661, Massasoit’s elder son Wamsutta inherited his father’s role. While maintaining the appearances of peace, Wamsutta—whose English name was Alexander—was suspected of plotting war against the settlers at Plymouth. In 1662 he was arrested at gunpoint by the Pilgrims, allegedly for unauthorized sales of land to Europeans. Soon after his release, the sachem died of a sudden illness; his people suspected he had been poisoned at Plymouth.

The sachemship then descended to Wamsutta’s brother, Metacom. Metacom—fearfully honored in American memory as King Philip—attempted to maintain the peace of his father. But continued slights by the proliferating colonists led Metacom to war in 1675. The ensuing conflict was ferocious. Nothing like it would be seen on the continent again until the colonists’ descendants took up arms against the troops of the English Parliament a full century later. By the end of the three-year war the Wampanoag had been practically destroyed, but even the victorious settlers had been decimated. Twelve of the colony’s towns had been utterly destroyed. The economy of Plymouth, just then escaping from its hazardous early years, now saw few prospects for recovery.

Indeed, Plymouth as such did not last long. In 1686 the Dominion of New England was established with authority over the entire region. Plymouth, like other Atlantic colonies, was absorbed into the short-lived union. When the Revolution doomed the project in 1689, representatives from Plymouth joined a delegation of colonists seeking new charters from the government in London. Plymouth, never royally chartered to begin with, had no luck. It was folded into the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Plymouth’s legislature met for the last time in June of 1692.

The merger is often glossed over in popular history, but it is far more than a footnote to the story. Plymouth was no longer itself. What little was left of the Pilgrims’ dreams then left their children’s hands. Never again would Plymouth claim the kind of independence for which its founders crossed an ocean. Never again would it incur more than a passing reference in the grand history it had begun. More than the plagues of Patuxet, more than the winter of 1620, more than Metacom’s War, this was the place’s greatest death.

Of course, it did not vanish. Most of daily life would have gone unchanged. (It’s a small-scale answer to an interesting question: do we even notice when a civilization collapses?) The costs were entirely potential: Plymouth never became what its architects intended, and now it never would. It lived on for nearly two centuries as a sleepy fishing village, popping up occasionally as a minor player in grander stories: in the spring of 1775, for instance, Plymouth’s militia captain heard news of the battles at Lexington and Concord, and swiftly marched north to the British barracks at Marshfield—one of the first settlements to branch off from the initial village—pushing its forces back to Boston without firing a single shot. But little happened in Plymouth after it left its founders’ hands.

Until the 19th century, that is. In the dynamic economy of a young, ambitious nation, Plymouth found another life. The Plymouth Cordage Company, founded in 1824, grew rapidly into the world’s largest producer of rope. (Maybe not the most interesting revival, but a revival nonetheless.) It was also the town’s largest employer. Whole neighborhoods blossomed to house the factory’s workforce. In classic American fashion, whole families could be supported on a husband’s wages from making rope. A thriving downtown and a slew of schools and churches grew up at Plymouth in this period.

This remained the case well into the 20th century, as Plymouth Cordage’s specialty in ship-rigging helped build and uphold American hegemony the world over. But in 1964 the town experienced its last collapse to date. Unable to compete with synthetic manufacturers, laden with debt and struggling for decades, the company closed its doors, and the engine of the town’s economy disappeared. The same would happen in towns across America two decades later, as global competition made Plymouth’s fate the national rule.

The early closure of its factory, though, makes Plymouth an interesting case: a post-post-industrial town. The trends that began in the ’80s elsewhere have already played out further in the land of the Pilgrims. There’s the descent into poverty and near-poverty—not just near the corpse of the factory, but in some of the expansive town’s remoter reaches (by land area Plymouth is twice the size of Boston). There’s a hollowing out of civic institutions—its four Catholic parishes and host of Protestant congregations are barely keeping their doors open. There’s the aging of the population, especially as retirees flock to the seaside town.

But those retirees may just be one part of a broader trend that came to fruition a few decades after the factory’s collapse: population boom. The late 20th century found Plymouth once again ready for colonization. At first it might have seemed a genuine revival, as white-flight communities themselves started to decay, and salt-of-the-earth New Englanders whose parents had fled Boston fled further out into the wilderness. A combination of vacated old houses and vast land (mostly forest) ready for development made housing cheap. Young families started to flock to Plymouth, often in planned communities that sprung up practically overnight.

But Plymouth’s restoration has now moved into another chapter. It was too successful. It became prime real estate for sprawl. Four centuries after English Separatists took it as their foothold on an untamed continent, the Pilgrims’ village is once again a frontier town of sorts—this time on the border between Boston’s prosperous, progressive metropolis and the remnants of an old New England.

As the city’s upper-middle class moves out to places like Plymouth, the post-industrial blight has given way to something new. The Plymouth Cordage Company campus, after housing a Walmart for a while, now contains offices, retail space, and a train station with service into Boston. A few big shopping centers have cropped up, and ever-more expensive housing developments populate their clientele. On paper, it’s a vibrant community, moving rapidly into the post-industrial economy.

But there are real costs to gentrification, which make it hard to even tell whether we’re looking at revival or collapse in the cycle that’s defined the town for four centuries. Cost of living, especially real estate, has skyrocketed. Culturally—like countless other traditional towns—it’s easy to see that Plymouth is being absorbed by one of the most progressive cities in America. There are essentially two towns occupying the same space, and they can’t coexist forever. They go together as well as a 30-foot Indian (the kind of thing the newcomers might take for a rich cultural landmark) and a 24-hour McDonald’s (the kind of place a holdout might go 20 times a week).

Personally, I’ve always been a pessimist on Plymouth’s prospects. I don’t know anyone my age who plans on staying. (And even if they wanted to, hardly anybody could: in the fall of 1998 my parents bought their 3-bedroom house for $122k; today, you’d be lucky to find one half the size for triple the price.) By and large, the people I knew in childhood are either seized by the drugs and depression that have overtaken the old town, or off to college with no intention of returning. It’s not yet obvious to everyone, but it won’t be long before the Plymouth that exists now is replaced by something altogether different.

The town the Pilgrims built, the town I grew up in, is dying. It’s a depressing prospect, but maybe less so when you look at the history. If there’s one thing Plymouth knows well, it’s collapse. It is a reasonable hope that the town that survived the onslaught of Metacom’s confederacy will outlive an invasion of Boston yuppie liberals.

The town the Pilgrims built is dying. This is true—it always has been. But it’s not dead yet, and that’s no small thing.