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!