Home Sweet Home
On January 1, 1621, the leaders of Plymouth Colony made land assignments by counting “how many families there were, willing all single men that had not wives to join with some family as they thought fit, that so we might build fewer houses; which was done and we reduced them to nineteen families,” wrote William Bradford. “We went to labor that day in the building of our town, in two rows of houses for more safety.”
Image: English Style Thatched Cottages
The thatched roofs of sun-dried reeds were thick so the water would drain off, but they must have leaked during heavy rainstorms, and they were likely to catch fire if a spark went up from the fireplace.
The colonists were assigned land plots that were 50 feet deep. The width of the lot was about 8 feet multiplied by the number of members in the family—so a family of six would have received a plot of land approximately 50 feet by 50 feet. Each family group was responsible for building their own house, and for assisting in the building of community storehouses and sheds.
We do not have any examples of the houses in Plymouth Colony—the oldest houses in Plymouth date from the 1640s—but we can make some educated guesses at what they might have looked like. Most likely, they were modeled after the English cottage—a wooden frame with a steeply pitched roof that allowed for a small storage or sleeping area above the main room. They were sided with wide boards or narrow clapboards, not logs. Undoubtedly, they were very small.
The floors were made of wood or just bare earth soaked with water and flattened smooth. The rooms were dark except for the light from the fire. Windows were small, but allowed some light in during warm weather. In winter, they were covered with cloth soaked in linseed oil to keep out the cold.
There was very little furniture. If anyone had a good chair it was the man of the house. The others sat on long benches. Beds in Plymouth were straw or feather mattresses put on the floor. Cradles were placed near the hearth for added warmth. Additional furnishing might have included trunks, a cupboard, and a stool.
The hearth was not only used for warmth, but also where the women and girls did the cooking. The fireplace was well furnished with lugpoles, pot hooks, and kettles. For eating, there was a table made of one long board set on two barrels. For plates they used what were called trenchers, made of wood or pewter.
Plymouth Colony Gardens
Before leaving Holland, the Pilgrim women had gathered a wide selection of seeds, and perhaps live plants, for vegetable and herb gardens in the New World, and for larger crops such as barley, peas, and wheat. Raised beds were the established method for growing vegetables in 17th century England, and thus in the early English settlements in America.
Behind the small thatched houses, each yard was carefully subdivided into small rectangular beds. The paths between the garden beds were just wide enough for the women to weed the plots from either side. The gardens had to feed the family until the field crops could be harvested, and enough surplus to be used for cooking and medicinal purposes throughout the year.
Each family was also assigned a field plot just outside of town, where they could grow corn, beans, peas, wheat, and other crops that required more space to grow. Unfortunately, none of the garden seeds the women brought with them ever produced a good harvest.
Some typical foods were root crops like potatoes that were gathered and stored, fruits and vegetables that were pickled and preserved or strung and hung from rafters to dry like onions, corn, and herbs. Fish were gutted, dried, and salted.
In December 1621, Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow wrote a letter in which he said “we have built seven dwelling-houses, and four for the use of the plantation.” They surrounded the entire compound, which they called Plymouth Plantation, with a stockade fence to protect them.
The first street in Plymouth Colony led from the harbor up the hill to the cannon, where they later built a fort. At the intersection of the first cross street stood the Governor’s house. Everyone had access to the brook where flagons were filled with drinking water and clothing were washed.