We have been working our way through American history in our homeschool. So far we have made it through the Revolutionary War. We live not far from Boston so our area is rich with field trips relating to this period and we have tried to do the relevant ones. I thought I would share with you how those went in case you are contemplating seeing the historical sites of Boston, especially if you might be coming from a greater distance and want to make the most of your time.
Historical Field Trips in the Boston Area:
I say “Plymouth,” because that is the modern town, but the colonial one is properly written Plimoth. There are a number of sites to see here and all are well worth the visit. They are not cheap and discounts are few. There are combo tickets which allow you to visit some or all of the sites for a few dollars less. If you live locally, you may also be able to get a library pass to save a little money. Nonetheless, these sites are worth the visit.
The Mayflower II is the historical reconstruction of the original ship. There are a few exhibits to see just before you enter the ship; they alone would not be worth the money, but they are a nice touch and if the ship is crowded, as it can get, especially if a school group gets there just before you, they give you something to look at while you wait for things to clear out. The ship itself is not huge, but it is worth seeing for the historic value. Imagine 100+ people living there for 3 months! If you come on a rainy or cold day, be aware that most of this site is outdoors (it is a ship after all) and come prepared. There are no bathrooms on site but there are ones maintained by the national park service just a short distance outside.
Plimoth Plantation (see the spelling?) is a short drive (3 miles, I think) from the Mayflower. There is a main building with gift shop, food sales, a movie introducing the site and some exhibits. There is a nice children’s area here too; I prefer to save that for last. Then there is the Wampanoag village — wigwams, a dugout canoe you can help make, a garden and of course real members of the tribe to answer your questions. From there you can walk to the reconstructed pilgrim village (there is a lot of walking and outdoor time here too). Check ahead of time for what special presentations there might be so you can plan your day accordingly. The one on worship is good (the pilgrims were Separatists, not Puritans, you know). The re-enactors at Plimoth village stay in character as inhabitants of the town as it would have been in 1630. Basically, the town consists of a main meeting-house which served as a church and fort –there are cannon to see upstairs and a nice view of the ocean — and a bunch of houses and their gardens laid out along one street. It is simple because that is how it was at the time — simple. Unlike Sturbridge Village (an 1830s reconstructed town about an hour from Boston and well worth the trip though it is not Revolutionary) there weren’t separate shops. There are only slight differences in the size of the houses and their furnishings. After the town, or before if you prefer, check out the arts building. Here modern day people make things as the early settlers would have. There are also bathrooms and a gift shop here as well as in the main building. Lastly there is a barn though I have only visited it once briefly. The kids are usually tired of walking around before we get there.
The Mayflower and Plantation are the best known sites in Plymouth but there are others. With your combo ticket, you can also see the former Jenney Grist Mill which I believe is now called the Plimoth Grist Mill. This hidden treasure is small but worth a visit. It is back in the center of Plymouth and is walkable from the Mayflower (not from the Plantation which is down the road a few miles). The key here is to get the very knowledgeable staff to talk to you which we had no problem with in the two times we’ve been there. The mill is not huge, but the staff are happy to answer questions and tell you all about it. There is also a hands-on children’s area.
Pilgrim Hall Museum, also a short walk from the Mayflower and the mill, is a separate charge to enter; it is not on the combo ticket, but it is not expensive (as I recall). There are a number of real artifacts here, things that the pilgrims really used. There are scavenger hunts for kids and adults. When they complete them, they get a free postcard. These are not the easiest hunts so be prepared to help your kids find things.
Not a historical site, but if you plan to visit and stay overnight, I recommend the John Carver Inn. It is right in Plymouth, practically across the street from the mill. There is a Mayflower themed pool with a big slide and a hot tub bang-splat in the middle for adults to sit in while they watch their kids swim. They also have a great, home-cooking style restaurant named Hearth and Kettle.
Lexington and Concord:
The federal government runs the main historical sites in these towns as the Minuteman National Historical Park. The big plus here is that they are free. The park itself is spread out and while you can bike from location to location (and the bike trail is quite a nice one), you cannot walk it. There is a fair amount of walking involved from parking lots to the sites so watch the weather again.
The actual green where shots were first fired in Lexington is not in the park (too built up) and does not have much to see most of the time other than a statue of a minuteman. Come Patriots’ Day (aka April 19th; it’s a holiday in Massachusetts) there is a parade here, not to mention a reenactment of the battle at North Bridge in Concord for which one must get up early, early in the morning. The sites along the trail in the national park vary in their interesting-ness. The main visitor center is definitely worth seeing. There are only a few displays but there is a very nice multimedia video presentation which really makes the events come alive. I highly recommend making this your first stop; it will help you understand the rest fo what you see. There are also bathrooms and gift shop here. Many of the sites along the trail are just houses one can’t get into and which have no facilities and no helpful interpreters. Buckman Tavern is an exception. Not only can you see the tavern, there are park rangers to answer questions and a few times a day there are musket firing demonstrations; check schedules ahead of time. These are more than just firing a musket; they are very educational and well worth seeing. The tavern is a bit of a walk from the parking lot; I suspect there are ways to get closer if you are truly handicapped, but for little kids keep in mind that there is some walking involved. Also the bathrooms are near the parking lot so use them when you can.
In Concord, the big site is the Old North Bridge (not actually the original bridge; we asked). There is a museum to see if one walks over the bridge and through a meadow. My kids were beat and we didn’t make it there so I can’t tell you how it is. A few times a day there is a ranger near the bridge (look for the area with wooden benches). This is nicely done and you can ask any questions you like. There is also an Old Manse near by which I haven’t seen in years. As I recall it dates to mid 1800s transcendentalist (there were oodles of these in Concord) times and is basically a fancy (for the time) old house. I suspect it is better if you have someone to explain it to you.
Just by the parking lot we used by North Bridge there is a new little house whose name I am forgetting. It had been a former slave’s house on the poor side of town way back when and has been moved to its current spot. It too was free. There was nothing in it when we saw it but a super talkative interpreter. She really loved having kids come in and wanted to know how to make it more interesting for them. If you have a few minuets, do stop in. Though there was not much there yet, I was really impressed with this woman. Most of what she had to say had to do with how they knew the history of the house and the family who lived there. It could be interesting to discuss this with older kids — how do we know what we do about the past?
If you have more time in the area, there are many other sites around. The National Heritage Museum in Lexington often has good exhibits; they change periodically and I have not been there in years so you might want to check ahead what they have at the time. In nearby Lincoln is Walden Pond with a reconstructed version of Thoreau’s cabin. In Concord there are a number of sites: Sleepy Hollow Cemetary with the graves of famous authors, Louisa May Alcott’s home which is nice for girls who have read her books to see, the Wayside where many authors met, and the Concord Museum which has a nice display of Christmas Trees decorated in storybook themes in December. There are probably more sites I don’t remember off the top of my head too.
Boston and the Freedom Trail
Many of the historic sites in Boston itself are laid out along the Freedom Trail and are managed by the National Park Service. This trail which runs through the city is marked by either a red painted line on the sidewalk or in some places a different lay-out of the bricks; either way, you follow the trail and not only will you get a good work out, you will see many of the sites Boston has to offer. Here are some of the biggest:
Old South Meeting House‘s main claim to fame is that there was a rally held here which led up to the Boston Tea Party. There is a small fee to enter (around $3/person, I believe). I have not been inside it in years but am told that the exhibits are few.
The site of the Boston Massacre is really just a bricked over square (more triangular and rather small) today. There is a plaque there commemorating the massacre and it is nice to note it as you walk the trail but there is not much to see unless you are on a guided tour with a guide who will tell you lots of facts.
Paul Revere House is tucked away in Boston’s North End. We went on a weekday when kids should have been in school and there was still a line to get in. There is also a fee but it is only a couple of dollars a person. The house itself is not large and is basically another colonial house — at least that’s how my kids who have seen ton of them felt about it. There was an interpreter there talking to people but my kids had no patience at that point and the house was crowded enough to make it hard to stop and look if one is low on patience. I think this site would be better for adults and older kids.
Not far from Paul Revere House is the Old North Church. This is in many ways just a typical colonial church, white with a high pulpit and box pews. There are a few displays, mostly in the form of placards on the walls. Surprisingly, my kids seemed to like this site. Years ago we went on a tour which included going up into the bell tower (can’t actually remember if they take you all the way up) and down to the cellars. This was cool. You buy tickets for it across the street in the gift shop; and they only run every half hour or so. We had just missed one and didn’t want to wait around so we didn’t do it this time, but, as I remember it, it is worth doing. The church itself is free to enter though there is a box for donations; the tours cost money.
There are other sites along and near the Freedom Trail. If you have not been to Boston, it is worth poking around a bit and seeing things. The Boston Common is an attractive grassy area. It has a nice little playground and a shallow manmade pond to splash in in the summer or skate on in the winter. The Make Way for Ducklings statue is also nearby in the Public Garden and there are swan boat rides which one should do once in nice weather. Personally, I like a nice old graveyard too and the King’s Chapel and Granary ones are right by the Common.
One site which is not part of the Freedom Trail but is within walking distance is the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum. Because this site is privately owned, it is significantly more expensive. If you are local, google it online and you can get a discount. I also saw one discount on one of those Groupon like sites so it is worth poking about around online to see what you can find before you come. Despite the price, this is definitely worth doing. It is a 90 minute tour that begins in a reconstructed version of the Old South Meeting House (part of the reason we didn’t then feel we had to see the Meeting House itself). The tour guides take on characters — Sam Adams, etc. — and give you a character to be as well as well as a feather stamped with “Boston Tea Party” that you get to take home. You get to learn about offensive gestures in old Boston (kids loved this) and then go on a reconstruction of one of the ships and kids can toss a cask of tea overboard. It really is very well done and was quite entertaining and informative. When we later watched Liberty’s Kids (a cartoon set in the Revolution; see this post), the kids were able to point out what was inaccurate.
I know there are probably a bunch of sites I have missed. The Bunker Hill Monument comes to mind. I hear there is a nice museum there and we hope to get there soon but haven’t yet (I will edit this post when we do to include it). This area is really chock full of tiny museums and spots with historical markers. Perhaps there are some treasures you will discover. Be sure to tell me about them.