We’ve romanticized the settling of this country in so many ways. From the tale of the pilgrims to vilifying the Native Americans, the notion of how this country came to be settled largely by Europeans is something we often wear as a symbol of national pride.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there was more to it than that.
With the spate of reality shows out there, PBS jumped on the bandwagon. Together with Britain’s Channel 4, they produced a series of shows where a group of people from modern times is sent to live in an earlier era. This serves two purposes. One, it helps show just what it was like to really live in that time, outside of the tales we read about in history books. The other is it shows whether people have changed too much to actually be able to cut it in that time period.
In Colonial House, a group of strangers from the 21st century travel back in time to live as new settlers in New England in 1628. Seventeen people were chosen out of thousands of applicants. They must dress the part as well as have to use the same tools that people of that era used. In addition, there are behavioral guidelines to cope with. For women, it is very hard to go back to the way women were treated and thought of. They were not expected to have input in any of the decision-making.
There are two polar opposites in the group, just to make it interesting. The Wyers family are Southern Baptists from Texas, whose patriarch is a minister. The Heinz family (a couple actually) are a bit older and from California where the patriarch is a professor in religious studies. They are, however, quite liberal. A third family, the Vorhees, are from New England and are atheists. In the middle are many Freeman and servants, all of whom fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
They sail on a ship to their new home for the summer along the coast of Maine. Although their trip doesn’t take the ten weeks it took the colonists back in 1628, they still get a very good idea of what the crossing was like. The area they will live in is two miles up an inlet and accessible only by a rowboat.
Of the settlers, one is appointed to be the governor. Jeff Wyers, the Baptist minister from Waco, TX, is called to the job. Will he prove to be a good choice? He is accompanied by his wife, son, and two daughters. Don Heinz, the professor of religious studies in California, is appointed the spiritual leader of the colony. These two leaders are polar opposites in their beliefs in the 21st century.
Two-thirds of the colonists will be indentured servants, in keeping with how many settlers managed to fund their trip to the New World. Paul Hunt is a young man from Manchester, England who is appointed to be one of the governor’s servants. Julia Friese is another of the governor’s servants while the Lay Preacher also has a servant, Jonathon Allen.
One of the Freemen is Danny Tisdale, an African-American who grew up in South Central L.A. and at the time of this filming was a teacher in Harlem.
I could already see a problem with Michelle, John, and Giacomo Vorhees. Michelle says right off the bat that she’s not about to embrace the behavioral guidelines but is approaching this as seeing how well her family could live off the land without modern conveniences. As soon as I heard her say that, within the first few minutes of the production, I questioned whether they should be there.
Although they try to be authentic, there are homes built for them nearly to completion when the colonists arrive, complete with some of the livestock they would have brought with them from England.
Kind of makes you wonder what kind of life we had in England that we came here…
The resulting show is actually one of the better in this series although it did have its faults. First, too many people aren’t willing to surrender to the cultural and social mores of the time. They struggle against the six hours they are supposed to spend in Sabbath services on Sunday, the behavioral guidelines that marginalized women, the amount of work they are expected to do, as well as the status of servants in the colony. There were no real consequences for breaking the rules. Although the narration tells what the consequences would have been in certain situations, it is never acted upon in reality.
There are some triumphs and tragedies throughout the experiment. Quite a few people leave, something I have never seen happen before. In one case, it was quite understandable and I commended the family for trying to push through what was happening and complete the project, but it just wasn’t to be. Two others who left made me scratch my head. I think they had an awakening during Colonial House but I didn’t quite understand what they felt they gained by leaving.
What was quite interesting – outside of the sheer amount of work that had to be done – was a few of the insights people gained. I don’t think many of the participants expected to feel how they did. Especially interesting was how the sense of community developed among these people who depended on each other to survive. It didn’t matter whether they shared the same beliefs. Unlike today where we can just decide we don’t want to deal with someone we don’t like, they had to learn to get along no matter what.
I was surprised to learn that most of the colonists in history did not come seeking religious freedom, but came for profit. It’s a popular notion in most textbooks that religious freedom was all there was to it, and I’ve never heard about profits for both the colonists and the sponsors as being a motivating factor. These settlements were “the internet stocks” of their day, as it’s put. In the desire to be profitable, the “company” sends in a treasurer to check on the colony, since they have paid back less than 10% of their first year’s debt. The colonists resent the intrusion, especially the governor. I could see him trying not to appear that he has his nose out of joint when this man with considerable power comes on the scene, but it does slip through. More people also join them at some point during the project, and I wish they had received more screen time.
One thing it showed that was different was at the end of the project, the entire colony, still in their period clothing, raids a drug store before cleaning up in a hotel. It was a bit of humor added before the participants were revisited some months after they returned to the 21st century.
The cinematography is beautiful. I live in this general area, and yes, it is that beautiful. The skies do get as blue as this – something that never fails to dazzle this former city-slicker.
I thought Colonial House was well worth watching. It was educational about what it was really like to live in a colony in the New World as well as entertaining. Even my kids were interested in what happened and how things worked out. The narration fills in missing facts quite well and the pace of the production is very good.
Episode 1: A New World
Episode 2: Harsh Reality
Episode 3: City of God
Episode 4: The Outsiders
Episode 5: Regime Change
Episode 6: The Shake Up
Episode 7: The Reckoning
Episode 8: Judgment Day
• The Making of Colonial House
• Colonial House Auditions
• More Diaries
Categories: Television Reviews