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Pre-Plymouth Pilgrims

It's a holiday weekend, full of travel and history. We sent reporter Kitty Felde to the Dutch city of Leiden. She found a big piece of America, hidden on a narrow back street.

Pre-Plymouth Pilgrims
by Kitty Felde

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If you stand in front of the clock tower on Leiden's Beschuitsteeg -- or Biscuit Street -- you might notice a small sign on an ancient building that reads: "The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum."


Inside, American historian Jeremy Bangs is showing a group of Dutch and American tourists around the tiny one-room residence. It's dark inside; the only light comes from candles and the bit of daylight that makes it through the heavy leaded glass windows. Bangs says this is the type of dwelling Pilgrim leaders would have lived in during their long stopover in Holland en route to America.

Bangs: "There's a vaulted brick and tile water cellar for rain water which comes off the roof and which still works that way.If you go under the circular stair over there, there's a door, and it continues on down and you can get buckets of good fresh water still. This would have been clean water if they'd had the wit not to put their outhouse indoors next to it."

Bangs is the former chief curator at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. He has spent most of his life studying this group of religious dissidents who first left the Church of England and then left England itself for what they hoped was a more tolerant place: Holland. Leiden was a university town with a large refugee population. But by 1620, the Pilgrims were afraid of Dutch assimilation and looked for another home. Later that year, one hundred of them arrived in the New World. It was too late to build proper homes, so they lived together on the Mayflower in extremely close quarters.

Half the group died. Some of the relatives of the less fortunate passengers of the Mayflower remained in Holland. Some of their descendants still live in Leiden today. The Pilgrim Museum has a remarkable collection of buttons, buckles, tools, and toys of the era.


Bangs: "We have a couple of marbles -- Dutch marbles made out of clay that click together when you hit them -- called knickers in Dutch."

Children would play with the marbles on a special tray with compartments.

Bangs: "It was called a knickerbock and if you played it you were a knickerbocker, and that's the origin of Washington Irving's word knickerbockers in his knickerbocker tales -- a humorous name for Dutch colonists in New York area."

inside the museum

The tiny museum attracts about three thousand visitors a year, both Americans and locals like Dutch English teacher Eva von Santen. Von Santen says it took a classic novel to spark her students' interest in Leiden's role in America's beginnings.

Von Santen: "Well, it started last year, I think, when I was dealing with this American novel in my classroom, The Scarlet Letter. I started explaining things about it, the Puritans, then came to the Pilgrims, and explained to my students that Leiden so connected with the Pilgrims and so we went out in the streets a little later.

Because the museum is so tiny, Bangs provides a map so that overflow tourists can explore other Pilgrim connections in nearby streets. But American visitor Heather Ryan says it's worth the wait to get inside the Pilgrim Museum.

Ryan: "It's a wonderful place. It certainly has the feel of someplace hundreds of years ago, with all the candlelight and the tiny spaces and the stone floor. It's wonderful."

The Leiden American Pilgrim Museum is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from 1:00 until 5:00 p.m. Admission is three guilders, or about $1.75. In Leiden, the Netherlands, I'm Kitty Felde for The Savvy Traveler.

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