Finding Your Roots—sort of

Posted on November 13, 2014. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

We watched the latest episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., last night, which featured Sting, Deepak Chopra, and Sally Field. It was going along dependably well when the awful specter of ignorance about the Puritans invaded the last segment on Sally Field’s family tree.

Gates revealed that Field is directly descended from William Bradford, the governor of Plimoth Colony and the man who led the Separatists across the Atlantic to America on the Mayflower in 1620. The narration (done by Gates) described Bradford as a Puritan who was imprisoned in 1607 for non-conformity. We shifted a little uncomfortably, since the Pilgrims led by Bradford were not Puritans (who wanted to reform the Church of England) but Separatists (who abandoned the Church of England as a lost cause), and there was a great deal of tension between the two groups in England and outright hostility in New England once the Puritans arrived in 1630. But in 1607 Bradford had not yet separated, so we accepted it.

Field was told that Bradford sailed with other “Puritans” on the Mayflower and still did not recognize Bradford’s name as that of the governor of the colony, the famous Pilgrim who wrote Of Plimoth Plantation, the history of the colony and a crucially important record of early settlement in New England. We held our breaths as Gates’ narration described the voyage over, hoping against hope that he would not repeat the tired error that the Pilgrims intended to settle in Virginia but were blown off course by storms to Massachusetts, but that hope was lost. The myth was repeated (what really happened was that the ship almost capsized crossing a soon-to-be notoriously dangerous stretch of water south of Long Island and turned back, leaving the settlers on what is now Cape Cod).

Even after Gates told Field that her ancestor Bradford was elected governor, she did not make any connection. She had clearly never heard of him and had no idea that he is a famous figure. All of this was disappointing, but the worst finally came here:

GATES VO: UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF SALLY’S ANCESTOR, AND THE WAMPANOAG, THEIR NATIVE AMERICAN NEIGHBORS, THE PILGRIMS FINALLY GAINED A FOOTHOLD IN THEIR NEW HOME.

AND, INCREDIBLY, WE UNEARTHED THE LETTER DESCRIBING A NOW FAMILIAR EVENT THAT TOOK PLACE IN PLYMOUTH IN THE FALL OF 1621.

FIELD: Many of the Indians coming amongst us whom for three days we entertained and feasted. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us yet by the goodness of god we are so far from want.

GATES: And you know what they were describing?

FIELD: Thanksgiving.

GATES: The very first Thanksgiving.

FIELD: Well there you go. I’ve always loved Thanksgiving. It’s always been a big deal.

GATES: Could you please turn the page? Look at that painting.

FIELD: Oh, yeah.

GATES: Now –

FIELD: Okay are you going to tell me one of those is…

GATES: Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.

FIELD: He hasn’t changed a bit. (Laughs) You’re telling me he presided over the first Thanksgiving?

GATES: Right.

The errors in this exchange are glaring. First, the account of what we call the “first Thanksgiving” was not in a letter but in the journal of Edward Winslow, which he published in 1622 as Mourt’s Relation. Winslow wrote what became known as Mourt’s Relation (because it was published in London by a man named Mourt) with Bradford, who seems to have written many of the early entries. But the account of the thanksgiving is not in the first half of the book (it’s about 3/4 of the way through), and seems to be Winslow’s work. Second, it is hardly “incredible” that the researchers for the show “unearthed a copy of the letter” because Mourt’s Relation has been in print for centuries—every New England scholar and every college library has a copy. What is incredible is that they pan over a photo of a contemporary edition of Mourt’s Relation that has the chapter title “A letter sent from New England to a friend in these parts…”, which was the literary device used to frame the stories from Winslow’s journal. One expects a professional historian like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to know this—or at least have it fact-checked. Third, this was not the “first Thanksgiving” but the first thanksgiving the Pilgrims had in America. As we explain in our post Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving,

People often wonder why there wasn’t another thanksgiving the next year—we have seen that thanksgivings were not annual events, but came up often, and the idea of celebrating the harvest every year didn’t make sense to the Pilgrims. They had only held a thanksgiving for the first good harvest because it was a life-saving change from the previous fall. Once they were on their feet, they expected good harvests, and didn’t have to celebrate them. It was also against their Separatist beliefs to celebrate annual holidays—like the Puritans, they did not celebrate any holidays, not even Christmas. So to hold a regular, annual harvest thanksgiving was not their way.

Fourth, and most unbelievably, Gates shows Field a 19th-century painting of the First Thanksgiving and treats it like a historical artifact by saying “Historians guess that is William Bradford sitting at the head of the table.” Of course it is, because it was painted by a 19th-century artist who put him there! As if the 90 Indians and roughly as many colonists all sat at one table “presided over” by Bradford. It is the well-known painting of one long table inexplicably placed in the middle of an empty field with 12-20 very white Pilgrims around it, bowing their heads as they hear grace, and a mother rocks an infant in a cradle (inexplicably brought out to the empty field) and holds her toddler by the hand. No Indians are present. This is the item presented by Gates as a historical artifact depicting the first day of thanksgiving celebrated by the Puritans in North America.

That’s a lot to get wrong. Sadly, shows like this only misinform the American people, if the comments one viewer left on the PBS website for the episode are representative:

I had some uncomfortable feelings hearing the excerpt from a letter written by Sally Field’s distant relative, William Bradford in 1621 describing the feast in such a feel-good manner. Yes, the Pilgrims were praising God because they were finally “so far from want,” but in a 1623 sermon delivered by Mather the Elder, they were thanking God for the gift of smallpox that wiped out the majority of Wampanoag Indians, “chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth.” I know the purpose of this episode wasn’t to uncover the “truth” of Thanksgiving but I believe having this awareness will deepen our understanding of how much we of European descent have benefited at the expense of the indigenous New World inhabitants.

You can’t blame the viewer for having these views when this is the quality of information at hand. First, as we said, the account was not in a letter and was not written by Bradford in 1621. Second, and much worse, is that the “Mather the elder sermon” is a complete hoax. Richard Mather (the “elder”) was the patriarch of the family that gave us his son Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather. Richard Mather was a Puritan who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, not Plimoth, in 1635. He was not there in 1623. No one named Mather was in Plimoth in 1623. An intrepid independent scholar has a long account of the scam here. Long story short, the quote about young men and children is borrowed from Puritan “historian” Edward Johnson’s 1653 book The Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Saviour in New England, a subjective and lionizing history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Here’s the text from Johnson:

Their Disease being a sore Consumption sweeping away whole Families but chiefly yong Men and Children the very seeds of increase.  …Howling and much lamentation was heard among the living who being possest with great fear oftimes left their dead unburied their manner being such that they remove their habitations at death of any. …by this means Christ whose great and glorious works the Earth throughout are altogether for the benefit of his Churches and chosen not only made room for his people to plant but also tamed the hard and cruel hearts of these barbarous Indians…

Interestingly, Johnson says he will not talk about the Pilgrims’ relationship with the Wampanoags “particularly being prevented by the honoured Mr Winslow who was an eye witness of the work.” Winslow did not want the unreliable Johnson describing Plimoth because he knew Johnson would depict the Pilgrims there as Indian-haters when they weren’t.

The scam aside, yes the Pilgrims saw smallpox as God’s work, but they didn’t really celebrate it. God constantly struck people down—including Pilgrims. Pilgrims died of infectious diseases, their babies, children, and young men died from disease and accident, often in ways that severely tested their parents’ faith in God. Why did God strike down the young? Why did God torment his most faithful followers by striking down their children? The answer was always that it was part of God’s mysterious plan that no one could understand and everyone had to accept as eventually bringing about a greater good. They often used 17th-century English and called God’s will “God’s pleasure”, but this does not mean that it made God happy to kill people, even Indians. It meant that God fulfilled his will (acted at his pleasure). Johnson says the Indians’ deaths were caused by God (Christ) to make the land safe for pure churches. This had to be done, no matter how horrible it might be or how much howling and lamentation it caused. Unlike Johnson, when the Pilgrims or even other Puritans described Indian deaths from smallpox, they usually did not exult about savages dying; they saw God’s mighty will revealed through the deaths and moved on, hoping their own deaths would not eventually be necessary to further God’s plan.

It would have been nearly impossible for anyone in the 17th century—Wampanoag, Englishman, Egyptian, Japanese—to think outside the clannish box of us v. them and feel pity for people so obviously struck down by God. Humans, like all animals, are clannish; our first and strongest identity is being part of one group as opposed to other groups. It has taken centuries since the Enlightenment for humans to at least pay lip-service to the idea that all men are created equal and all are deserving of equal justice, that, as the bumper sticker says, “God bless the whole world—no exceptions”. So if an English settler in 1623 saw God’s providential hand in Indian deaths, that does not reveal and confirm the Pilgrims to be terrible racists. It confirms them as 17th-century human beings along the same lines as Indians, Asians, Africans, and everyone else who celebrated their enemies’ deaths in battle, sacked cities killing women and children, enslaved rival groups, etc. It is taking us a long time to change our ways.

And so we leave Finding Your Roots with heavy hearts and grave concerns about Americans ever learning their real history. Who will kickstart-fund the HP’s own TV series??

Make a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

5 Responses to “Finding Your Roots—sort of”

RSS Feed for The Historic Present Comments RSS Feed

To which I can only add “thank you”. As I watched Miss Field’s vacuous face as Gates impressed her with his self-satisfied facial prowess, I was jumping up and down in front of the television shrieking (like Kathy Bates in “Misery”) .. “That’s not what happened!! Have you all lost your cock-a-doodie MINDS????”

Like

Revaluation 3:20

Like

Thanks for this detailed analysis! I watch the show every week and I have noticed a great deal of oversimplification, especially with the DNA results. This week I waited until After I read your expose to watch the episode. I was amused by Field’s lack of recognition and disappointed that a historian like Gates would perpetuate several hoary inaccuracies. I also join you in not being able to understand why productions like this make such unnecessary errors, either in service of a misguided dumbing down policy or just from lack of attention to detail.

Liked by 1 person

Thanks for writing. If you’re going to be related to William Bradford, you should be able to celebrate it! All historians have a little tunnel vision—eagle-eyed to catch even small errors in their own field, less likely to catch them in others. Gates isn’t a New England historian, but he should have a good fact-checking team on board to make up for that. Everyone needs to hone their understanding of history, we suppose…

Like

I agree. I don’t think many American historians would know the difference between Puritans and Pilgrims, and I haven’t been scrupulous about remembering the difference myself. That being said, I realize the referenced show is “Infotainment” and not detailed history. Also, I wonder if someone has written Gates an informative and cited letter so that the error is not made again?

Like


Where's The Comment Form?

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...

%d bloggers like this: