Saints and Strangers, myths and misunderstandings

Yes, we sat through the four hours of Saints and Strangers on the National Geographic channel (“NatGeo”), and entered into it fearing the worst. The series made an effort to be authentic, using primary sources for some of the dialogue, but in the end the show was a queasy mix of fact and fiction.

There are two main problems with this and with almost all shows that address history: the people making the show don’t understand what their historical subjects really believed, and therefore can’t use their firsthand quotes properly; and anachronism creeps in almost unavoidably.

Saints and Strangers has another problem, which is since they announced that they used primary sources, viewers are led to believe that everything they hear the characters saying is authentic, something they actually wrote down at the time. For instance, when William Bradford first lands in America, and he and his party are exploring, he says in a voiceover “there were some things God neglected to mention”—just as Indians begin to attack.

This is not 17th-century language by any stretch; Bradford never said that.  It’s 19th-century language trying to evoke “old-fashioned” talk. But beyond this relatively small problem, a larger problem with the show is revealed here: the settlers are fixated on Indian attack. Yes, the settlers are shown worrying about lack of food, but even that is all about Indian attack: how will we trade for food if the Indians are our enemies and attack us? will our pillaging of food stores bring on an Indian attack?

The English settlers we call Pilgrims (they did not call themselves that, nor did anyone else at that time; it’s really a 19th-century term although the show has Bradford saying “they call us Pilgrims”) were worried about many things, most likely in this order: 1) will the Separatist minority in the colony be able to found and maintain it as a haven of true religion; 2) will the colony make enough money to pay off its investors; 3) will more Separatists really come from Holland to bolster the fledgling colony, or will they abandon us; 4) will we have enough food to survive until the Spring; 5) will the non-Separatist majority overwhelm us and take over the colony’s government, or will they just go back to England in the Spring?

These were the main concerns because they addressed the main reason for founding the colony of Plimoth: to set up a godly commonwealth in America. The non-Separatist settlers, who were not on a righteous mission to reform Protestantism, were concerned that the Separatists were too otherworldly to run a colony and do what had to be done, and they worried that their own chances of survival would be hampered by the religious nuts running things.

Neither group was unfamiliar with American Indians. English sailors had been visiting the Atlantic seaboard (today’s New England) for decades before 1620, fishing and trading with the Indians. That’s how the Indians eventually contracted smallpox, in the 1619 epidemic that decimated the native population so awfully, just before the Pilgrims arrived. That’s how Squanto and Samoset knew English (Squanto having also been kidnapped by sailors and sold into English slavery). So Indians were not an unknown and utterly terrifying quantity. The settlers arrived feeling relatively confident that they could establish trade relations with the Indians just as their predecessors had.

For their part, those Indians remaining were not deathly afraid of the English. The English just weren’t a threat: there were less than 100 of them after a few months, and they had no power, no alliances, no nothing. The Wampanoags, Massachusetts, and Narragansetts saw the English as potential pawns in their ongoing political game of chess and nothing more. There was no reason for them to immediately destroy Plimoth.

The grave-robbing that some settlers carried out was a terrible insult and desecration, and it was taken very seriously by the Indians. The show does not make it clear that when the settlers broke into mounds that they thought were corn caches but found to be graves, they were frightened and repulsed, and usually left them to find corn caches. While the Reformation in England saw some fanatics desecrating traditional Catholic graves, and while it was common in large towns to remove old bodies when a graveyard became full to make room for new bodies, straight up robbing a grave was not “okay” in England. American Indian graves were sometimes opened by Spanish and English settlers to get an understanding of the local people’s spiritual beliefs. But the first time Plimoth settlers began to open what they thought was a corn cache and found it to be a grave, they hastily put everything back in order and left.

But in the show, one of the settlers deliberately breaks into what he knows is a grave and holds up a skull that seems to have long blonde hair—clearly implying that the Indians who lived there killed an English person (woman?) and therefore are criminals who don’t deserve any consideration. This bizarre moment is inexplicable to the Plimoth scholar, who knows that the actual Plimoth men were divided about what this meant: was an English sailor adopted into an Indian community and honored as one of them by being buried in a traditional way? or had he been murdered? They weren’t immediately panicked. And, on a side note, no women are recorded as having joined English fishing parties to America and again, an English woman would have been far more likely to have been adopted into an American Indian tribe than murdered.

To return to breaking into corn caches, Bradford vehemently protests that this is wrong; they can’t steal food, God is testing them by showing them corn that they mustn’t eat. If the makers of the show had opened Of Plimoth Plantation, Bradford’s history of the colony, they would have seen that Bradford had no such qualms. He calmly says they found corn and took it without a second thought and thanked God for it.

The urge to have Bradford reject stealing from Indians is problematic. The show’s makers want him to be a hero, so he can’t be racist. But that is not at all how the issue was framed at the time. We’ll get into this problem in the next post.

For now, the show’s intent to present Indian attack as the only concern, the only possible concern, of the settlers sits ill with the show’s generally positive portrayal of the Wampanoags, especially their leader Massasoit. This portrayal is contested by some Wampanoags, mostly on linguistic and material cultural grounds, but it’s the first time we’ve really seen American Indians presented as actual human beings who have virtues and faults and opinions and worries and axes to grind and suspicions and generosity just like any other people (rather than Noble Savages or George of the Jungle). To present the Indians as real people but the settlers as cartoon characters scared to death of savages is inaccurate and unhelpful.

Other issues: the show seems to claim that Dorothy Bradford, depressed and scared, killed herself by throwing herself overboard in the harbor. This is infuriating, and an example of not understanding the Separatists. Dorothy is shown as a weak, nervous woman (hysterical, in fact) who, when someone on the Mayflower talks about how Indians torture their prisoners screeches out to her husband, “Is such a place safe for settlement?!” She can’t accept the fact that they had to leave their young son behind in Holland, frets when William leaves the ship, and, of course, being so weak of mind, kills herself.

Where to begin. First and foremost, a woman like Dorothy Bradford, who had devoted herself completely to Christ, was extremely unlikely to kill herself. Taking your own life was a sin that damned you inevitably to Hell, and insulted God. As scholars, we posit that no devout Separatist would take her own life after so short a time of trial as the journey to America. And Dorothy Bradford was devout: you didn’t marry a man like William Bradford if you weren’t as iron-hard dedicated to your religion as he was. Second, Dorothy Bradford had already left her home to go to Holland, where life was not easy, and was not a weak, fainting female who couldn’t stand the challenges of America. She slipped overboard on the freezing, sleet-covered deck and drowned. Why is that inevitably a suicide? When the sailor falls overboard on the way over, he’s not labeled a suicide. John Winthrop’s son Henry fell overboard from the Arbella just days after it arrived in what is now Boston Harbor in 1630, but he is never labeled a suicide.

In the show, when Bradford asks what happened, he is told that she slipped on the wet deck, that it was an accident. That makes sense. But the build-up to the accident, where she is crying on deck, then her face goes deadly calm, and then she is falling face-first in a swan dive into the water, all claim suicide.

—Why are all the non-Separatists presented as loud, crude, mean, and lusty characters from Shakespeare? The show’s writers show more snobbery against them than the Separatists ever did.

—Why do the landing parties carry guns and wear full armor, but whenever they are confronted by Indians run away? Why carry guns you’re not going to use?

—When the mast of the Mayflower cracks and the ship is imperiled, Bradford says he and his men can’t help fix it because they don’t work on the Sabbath. This never happened. Separatists were not idiots, and Bradford does not record this protest in OPP. (He does, however, accurately describe the break as the result of deliberate “cunning and deceit” on the part of the ship’s owners who consistently over-laded the ship, weakening the mast, and then pawned it off on the settlers as fixed).

—When a young boy dies on ship, Dorothy Bradford says “He suffered for the sins of others.” This is a religious idea utterly alien to the Separatists that she would never have thought or said. Anything that happened to a person happened because it was God’s plan for that person, end of story. Only Christ suffered and died for the sins of others.

—Why are the houses they show in episode 1 in Plimoth so enormous? The first houses were tiny.

—A man enters his freezing hut in Plimoth in the dead of winter, where there’s a one-foot gap at the top and bottom of the door, and immediately takes his coat off since he’s “indoors” now. Then he washes his hands in a shallow basin of water. Pretty sure no one took their coat off for about 5 months over the New England winter, and water would have frozen solid inside any house. When the man’s wife dies, Bradford says “God doles out hardship to those with faith strong enough to accept it”, which is another anachronism better suited to the 19th century. Trials from God were strictly meant to reveal God’s will, and show a person how to fulfill it.

—When Squanto asks Bradford if he misses home, Bradford says “this is my home now.” Squanto asks, “Is the Lord with you now?” and Bradford stares mournfully into the distance, unable to answer. If you have read even one paragraph of William Bradford you know that his answer to that question was always, ever, and unequivocally yes yes yes. Because he believed it, and because no Protestant at that time (or now, really) ever believed God was not watching them.

—When Edward Winslow marries Susanna White they have a marriage ceremony with everyone gathered; this never happened for any Separatist. Marriage was not a sacrament (which is why divorce was allowed) and was carried out in a very brief civil ceremony with only 2 official witnesses.

—Few of the women wear caps to cover their hair, which is terribly inaccurate, and those who do have their hair flowing out from under the cap. Caps did two things: they kept your hair out of your face and your work, and they modestly covered your head as God willed. The women wore caps and kept their hair completely under them.

Next time,  part two and a wrap up. It has some good things to say about the show, and won’t be as long as this!

12 thoughts on “Saints and Strangers, myths and misunderstandings

  1. The sole issue I take is what you write of Dorothy Bradford’s implied suicide. You’re unable to say, without equivocation, that she “would absolutely NEVER kill herself” is an assumption based purely in religious dogma.

    Given (yes even then I’m sure) a vehement religionist who found herself desperate enough would INDEED (it can be imagined) take her own life.

    That statement alone threw me off your piece. You cannot know what lies in another’s heart, not even a Separatist in the 17th century. You simply can NOT know this as an absolute.


    1. Hello Richard; thanks for writing. You are right of course, but then we cannot state, as the show does, that she committed suicide out of depression. Our experience with Puritan and Separatist writing is that it is always very direct: if someone took their own life, it is stated as such. It’s never obfuscated or glossed over, because it was so awful. So if the wife of the leading Separatist killed herself, that would have been clearly recorded, even by Bradford himself, as an object lesson of terrible consequence.

      Add to this the frequency with which early English settlers during the first 50 years of colonization fell off ships large and small, in rivers and bays, and their patent inability to swim, and we think you get a far more convincing case that Dorothy Bradford was the victim of a tragic accident.


      1. We don’t have it to hand right now, but we will watch that scene again to see exactly what they tell Bradford when he returns to the ship and she’s dead. For now, we watched the video of the actress who played Dorothy, Anna Camp, talking about her character. It’s a shame, and it reveals how very little—really how nothing the show’s cast know about the people they are playing. She says Dorothy is “incredibly hopeless” and her husband “doesn’t get how in pain she is; there’s not a lot of emoting, no one knew how alone or emotional she way because people just didn’t do that.” She finishes by saying Dorothy can’t even tell her husband she loves him—it’s not allowed.

        If you read anything about these people you know how deeply, wildly, passionately emotional they were: about God, about each other, about their children, about politics, about their mission. No Separatist was forbidden to express love! It’s so ridiculous. Not feeling any emotion was a terrifying state of being that Separatists and Puritans feared and described with vivid language. They called it being “dead-hearted”. It was the ultimate rock-bottom for them, as it is for us.

        All this said, Camp clearly believes Dorothy committed suicide, and since she was “educated” about her character by the show makers, it seems they clearly believed that. What else would a miserable woman forced to choke on her emotions do?


      2. In which case, you may well (with the exception of the dug up blonde corpses’ reinstatement) well prefer Ric Burns’ PBS documentary on The Pilgrims, first aired on the 24th last (assuming you’ve not seen it).

        For all the negatives one can say about Governor Bradford – were it not for his History of, we’d had much less to go on.

        I find it immensely disheartening that people are so willing to scrutinize and attempt to decry what little information survives.

        In Burns’ The Pilgrims, you may feel a greater source of comfort should you not have seen it since the Wampanoags are widely presented (their descendants here on Cape Cod) doing some of the speaking.


      3. We have not yet seen that—it’s a busy Pilgrim-watching season! Thanks for reminding us to take a look. It’s true that when we do have primary sources, we should be true to them. That doesn’t mean we don’t question and challenge them, but it does mean that we allow people to say what they really said and believe what they really believed, and start from that point.

        S&S wasn’t all bad; it got some crucial things right that we’ll take up in the next post. So why couldn’t it have been all good? It is indeed frustrating.


      4. Again, the program did not state is as fact, they gave it as a possibility. And given Wm. Bradford’s omissions in his History, I think (had she indeed taken her own life), he’d have thought more than once about recording it.

        As we all know, Bradford’s History (while immensely valuable) is his own take solely. There exists nothing to compare it against. To dispel the notion of despondency in Dorothy Bradford’s mind at that early stage in the founding of that Colony is to underestimate what they’d all gone through.


      5. Despondent, yes. Suicidal, perhaps. Acting on suicidal thoughts? No. Separatists and Puritans sometimes felt suicidal, but their entire religious society was organized around mutual watch: when people felt suicidal, 99% of the time they shared that feeling, with many many people, so they could be helped. We have primary accounts of such outreach, and the response they received, which was always supportive.

        Suicide amongst these people was vanishingly rare. To be blunt, despondent women in Puritan Massachusetts and Separatist Plimoth far more often murdered their children than committed suicide. In our opinion, it just does not wash to say Dorothy Bradford would kill herself.


      6. To state as an absolute that a Separatist would not have taken her own life, is, in my view, inaccurate and monstrous leap on your part. I find it irresponsible.

        You have no realistic (recall I wrote ‘realistic’) place from which to draw that contention as an absolute (and recall, I wrote ‘absolute’). It makes what you write as erroneous (IMO) as when they write “the Pilgrims were on their way to Virginia”.

        I say you ought to make allowances for human nature be it then, 1066, or 2015.


      7. We began by saying that you are correct that any absolute statement is not supported by facts; our vehemence in denying her suicide is therefore ungrounded, and we grant you that. Arguing that the bulk of available evidence fails to support the claim that the show clearly makes that she committed suicide is quite supportable. We’re willing to tone down our language a little in the post, but not to take on the odium of being irresponsible. We appreciate the conversation we’ve had with you on this topic, and know that it will be instructive for everyone who visits this post.


      8. I don’t recall the show saying, definitively, that the first Mrs. Bradford took her own life. I recall it gave it as an option. Perhaps you’re right. Perhaps I am. To dispute further will take a review of the program.

        Watch Burns’ The Pilgrims. I think you’ll find it much more to your way of interpretation. I found it dependable, and that it simply didn’t “go” to places that lie in the realm of myth/fact.

        I found the insistence on the “blonde burials) for lack of a better term interesting in that it was used in BOTH programs. I can’t imagine Mr. Burns simply watched S & S and copied an invented story.

        I suspect that aspect of things (now recorded in two separate television programs) needs to be investigated further.

        Burns only RELATES the incident. He does not expound other than to say that they were of European background.


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