It was so much darker than we imagine

Wednesday, November 27th, 2019

Ric Burns’ The Pilgrims might surprise audiences used to pleasant Thanksgiving myths:

It was so much darker than we imagine. The suffering and the violence were so much greater. The likelihood that they succeeded was so small. Death played a huge role in almost every aspect of the story: they came to a place of mass death, where Native Americans had been decimated by one of the worst plagues in history, and where the Pilgrims themselves would lose half of their number in the first three months. The Pilgrims’ relationship with Native Americans was at times more violent than we like to remember. We dwell on Thanksgiving, which didn’t really happen the way we think it did, but fail to register the decapitated head of the Massachusetts leader, Wituwamut, that was placed over the meeting house at Plymouth Plantation in 1623, to be a “Terror unto the countryside,” as William Bradford reported.

I think people will be surprised by almost everything: by the radical nature of the Pilgrims’ beliefs; by their almost complete lack of preparation for what lay ahead of them; by the fact that they were the least likely of task forces to attempt to found a permanent English presence in the New World; by the fact that, though we think of them as the “first comers” — a phrase they used for themselves — they weren’t even the first permanent English settlers in America, having been beaten to the punch in 1607 — 13 years before the Mayflower sailed — by the colonists at Jamestown.

They weren’t meant to have ended up on the site of present day New York, but decided to land off the shores of Massachusetts when they were caught in dangerous shoal water, well north of the legal patent they carried from the Virginia Company, thus making the Pilgrims, in that respect at least, the first illegal aliens. The place they settled on to build their plantation — what the Wampanoags called Patuxet and what the explorer John Smith called New Plymouth — was actually ground zero for the worst virgin soil epidemic in recorded history, a horrific plague, brought over in 1616 by European fishermen, that swept a twenty mile swath down the New England seaboard, killing anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the native populations in its path and totally annihilating the approximately 2,000 Wamanoag residents of Patuxet.

The Pilgrims’ first winter wasn’t just hard: it was nearly annihilating, and devastating and traumatic in ways we can hardly imagine. More than half of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower died in the first three months, wiping out five whole families, and leaving no family intact and not grieving. With the exception of their alliance with the Wampanoags, the Pilgrims’ relation with other Native American groups was marked by conflict, suspicion, competition and violence, culminating in a horrific spasm of bloodshed in March 1623 in the killing by Miles Standish and seven other colonists of seven Massachusetts Sachems and the decapitation of the leader, Wittawamut.

For nearly a decade, the colonists couldn’t find a way to make ends meet — they went bankrupt in 1626, only to find an eleventh hour economic salvation in 1628 in the form of beaver fur harvested from the Kennebeck River valley in Maine. Material success, in the end, was the one challenge the Pilgrims could not overcome, as William Bradford’s beloved religious experiment found itself fragmented and abandoned in the aftermath of the founding of Boston.

We would scarcely remember the Pilgrims at all, and certainly not as we do without William Bradford, an orphan boy from Yorkshire who became the most famous Pilgrim of them all, governor for more than thirty years and the chief guardian and caretaker of their memory, and without the extraordinary text he left behind: “Of Plymouth Plantation,” the first great work of American literature and history. There is literally no other account of early American settlement like it, and none that shows us what the inside of a radical Protestant conventicle was like, from the earliest days in the North Parts of England, through their escape to Holland in 1608, and then across the Atlantic in 1620 and on. The story of the book itself — why and how William Bradford wrote it, and how the text itself was almost lost forever to posterity — is a gripping, riveting tale, that sheds enormous light on how history and memory are shaped by a heart-stopping blend of accident, circumstance and the powerfully transforming lens of posterity.

The fact that we have the book at all is a more than minor miracle. It was looted from Boston in 1777 by the retreating British army, given up for lost for eighty years, and almost accidentally rediscovered just before the American Civil War, when a scholar in Boston was flabbergasted to read unmistakable quotations from the missing Bradford text in a new English history of the Anglican church in America, published in London in 1855. It took more than forty years to finally repatriate the manuscript itself, which is lovingly housed in the State House of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Boston. There is no more important text in American history. Seeing it, and turning its pages, and filming the actual manuscript Bradford wrote in his own hand was one of the most thrilling moments of my filmmaking career.


  1. Graham says:

    While it’s true that most people probably do just assume some lighthearted myths, if they think of the Pilgrims at all, this sounds like another “Ken Burns breathlessly discovers things we already knew, but then presents them nicely.”

    I mean, Jesus, who unless wholly disinterested hadn’t heard of the diseases wiping out Indians? Indian wars, even disease among settlers usually get namechecked in the most rudimentary history.

    It was the 17th century.

    As for the Pilgrims’ beliefs, they were and have always been identified as religious radicals even by the standard of their time. I’ve never heard otherwise except perhaps in A Child’s Big book of Thanksgiving level stuff. Granted, they seem even more radical by the standards of today.

    Sorry. This sort of pop history gives me a huge Aaaargh reaction.

  2. Graham says:

    Of course, pop culture now actually assumes every settler was a drooling, almost devil-worshipping slaver.

    There was a show about the witch trials a couple of years ago [Salem?] that confusingly portrayed the witches as real and actually in league with dark powers, and yet the trials and inquisition as [now inexplicably] also evil, tyrannical, and vaguely satanic. The entire colony was rife with magic and conspiracy.

    Naturally, one of the queen witches had an African slave-girl who also had gnarly magic powers redolent of the jungle, and who was at once portrayed as the avatar of all innocent slaves and a dark sorceress whose powers were the root of all evil in the New World. It was quite a melange of racist caricature and typical anti-slavery tropes of modern fantasy fiction.

    The whole thing more or less served to set up the entire history of America as a primal battle between good and evil, or two kinds of evil.

    And over all, the dark forests of New England looming and brooding in solid Lovecraftian fashion. It was tiresome, but visually evocative.

    I would also recommend the first couple of episodes of the otherwise tedious American Gods as illustration of this cultural take on the early colonial era, though only in fragments of what is otherwise a story set in modern times.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    I’ve been to Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was a sad little tourist trap on the way to the Cape, surrounded by uninhabited forest.

    The colony never amounted to anything at all. In a way, that’s sadder than a clean, honest failure.

  4. Graham says:

    Interesting. As an outsider in particular, the history of Plymouth just merged into the general history of Massachusetts and Boston for me. I had no idea what became of the original settlement as such.

    Salem would probably be the same, if not for the witches.

    I never visited Plymouth, but I took the train from Boston to Salem 20 years ago.

    I learned quite a bit more about Salem than the witches: the Hawthorne connection, the maritime history, the sheer geographic scope of its ships’ reach and the town’s wealth into the 19th century. Compared to that, the town was lovely and well appointed, but there was SFA sign of its once world-spanning commercial prominence. You really would have to squint to see the ghostly images in the empty harbour. That was an education in and of itself.

    I recommend the trip, though. The town really was nice, even in December.

  5. Ezra says:

    Massasoit the American Indian chief was friendly with the newcomers. And as you might suspect not from altruistic reasons. The trible of Massasoit had just lost a war with a neighboring tribe with the best of his [Massasoit] lands lost.

    Massasoit realized instantaneously that the advanced firepower of the Pilgrims could be put to good use and signed a mutual defense treaty, English and American Indian.

    Massasoit wanted his best lands back and who cares he gets them.

  6. Graham says:

    Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

    Though if in any given scenario you are the Greeks, offer gifts. It works with less genre-savvy adversaries.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    A lot of arguments over history would just go away if we could accept that no one is without sin and no one’s motives are as pure as the driven snow.

    But most arguments about history are really about ideology. And ideology needs to idolize and demonize. Shades of gray just don’t work for rhetorical purposes.

    I believe Salem was a much better spot for a colony than Plymouth. It had a better harbor and better soil. The whole Plymouth area just never had much potential.

  8. John Harrison says:

    They did not have the benefit of satellite imagery in selecting their colony site. The selection at the map stores of the time were likewise atrocious.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    Fair enough, but several much better spots were to be had within a hundred mile radius. They might have done a bit of scouting before committing to that spot.

    If the weather were bad, they could have wintered at that sorry excuse for a harbor and then sailed around the neighborhood come springtime.

    Or maybe the natives were a problem, and they had to settle for a place where the natives were too weak and demoralized to put up a fuss, rather than face the ones who had beaten the Plymouth locals. But a few years later, those natives were weak, too. Plymouth by all rights should have been a temporary stop.

    Well, at least they didn’t settle at P-town.

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