Susannah White married Edward Winslow on May 22, 1621, marking the first wedding in Plymouth Colony. And she still loves to tell everyone about it.
The Winslows are one of the 14 families represented in Plimoth Plantation's living history museum, which recreates the 1627 Pilgrim Village in Plymouth, Mass. Kate Moore, 42, portrays Susannah Winslow in the working village that represents the life of Pilgrims just before the colonists began to move away from the settlement.
Moore's official title is "program interpreter," which is not just a fancy term for colonial reenactor. Moore has studied numerous first-person accounts of Plymouth Colony. She explained that "Gov. William Bradford's book 'History of Colonies' is like our Bible." She uses the information she reads to depict how Susannah might have lived in 1627. She does not just give visitors a canned lecture from memory; rather, she assumes the identity of her character, adjusting for the level of sophistication of the audience.
"We portray actual people who lived in the colony at that time," she said. "We are role-playing 100 percent of the time. We never come out of character."
Sometimes, Moore and her coworkers can be too convincing. "I was in a grocery store after work and had stopped to buy lottery tickets while still in costume. The cashier thought we actually lived in the village. I just told him, 'I have lived there since 1622.' That seemed to be enough," said Moore.
During working hours, she and the other costumed interpreters from the Pilgrim Village reenact day-to-day activities of real citizens of the 1627 village, which included Myles Standish and other Mayflower passengers. Improvising as she interacts with visitors, Moore stays in first person, simulating Susannah's accent, knowledge, and perspective. She dresses in authentic period costumes, makes crafts, and performs activities in a replica house built by the interpreters.
The activities Moore and the other role-players engage in include cooking, gardening, tending to animals, and sewing. Moore works amid accurate reproductions, not just displays, of the furniture, tools, and cooking equipment used by Plymouth residents. She varies her tasks according to the time of the year and occasionally participates in weddings, feasts, and various games. However, Moore said, "It is the stories that set it apart." She added, "History was one of my favorite subjects in school."
She boasts to visitors that she was not only the first to marry in the colony, but also the first Pilgrim to bear a child. And she often does this while tending to corn in the field behind the house or making a cheesecake in a wood-burning stove. In fact, the food is one of the interesting perks of the job.
"We get a lot of free lunches," said Moore. "Some of the 17th century recipes are really good." Before becoming a professional pilgrim, Moore had worked in a restaurant for most of her adult life.
She stressed that the tasks, like cooking, are not staged. "I was once exhibiting a meal with roasted chicken in front of some school children. One girl said, 'They must be so full by the end of the day.'"
Moore's vast knowledge of the town, the time period, and specifically Susannah allows her both to entertain and to educate visitors. Many of the interpreters find the job appealing for that reason. It also allows them to display a variety of interests and talents.
When she was laid off from her restaurant job unexpectedly in 1995, Moore answered an advertisement in the newspaper out of intrigue, never expecting to take a job reenacting the pilgrim lifestyle. After a successful interview, she decided to give it a try. "I took a big pay cut. But I knew if I didn't do it, I would regret it forever," she said.
The profession is not for everyone. "You have to like working with the public, and you have to like to read. We are always studying," she said. "You also have to be patient and creative in order to answer 17th century questions in the 21st century."
In addition, the work can be unstable. At Plimoth Plantation, the season lasts from the beginning of April until after Thanksgiving. When workers serve as an apprentice - the first level of employment, which lasts two seasons - they often must find alternative work during the winter. After passing a test, an employee may be promoted to "colonial interpreter." However, year-round employment does not come until the final two levels, "lead interpreter" and "senior lead interpreter." During the off-season at these levels, employees may mend clothes in the curatorial department, build houses in the artisan department, tend to crops in the horticultural department, or go out to schools in the educational department.
There are various living history museums around the country, including Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Conner Prairie in Indiana.
Information about Plimoth Plantation is available at www.plimoth.org.
If you enjoy speaking with a 17th century accent and love home-cooked meals made over a wood-burning stove, grab your thimble or your musket...and dream on!