Saints and Strangers and history

Posted on December 16, 2015. Filed under: American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Welcome to the wrap-up to our short series on Saints and Strangers, the NatGeo series on the Plimoth settlers. We’re keeping it brief, as promised.

We’re all pretty used to the fact that movies and TV shows and series that cover historical events are never fully accurate. It’s a shame that we all accept that, but it happens because most people don’t realize that what they’re seeing is inaccurate. Beyond that, most of the writers on these programs and movies don’t realize themselves that what they’re writing is inaccurate. Myths get passed down through the generations and become the basis of popular history, while facts get bullied into a corner and completely forgotten. This is doubly astounding because almost without fail, the facts are more interesting than the fictions. But because the facts are, sadly, less familiar than the myths, the facts are less appealing, no matter how interesting they are. Writers are also afraid to deviate from the accepted norms, to tell a story that goes against conventional wisdom, because they will be accused of violating the facts. It’s a real crazy-quilt of fiction given the gravitas of fact and fact being denigrated as deviation from the norm.

In the case of the Plimoth settlers, the norms/myths are taught early on, in grade school, in America. Pilgrims, First Thanksgiving, white caps, turkey, religious freedom. One thing we were immensely grateful that S&S abstained from was telling the apocryphal 19th-century “story” of Captain Standish courting Priscilla Mullins via John Alden, and losing her to Alden. (This myth was given a nod by S&S‘ decision to portray Mullins as a sassy, flirty beauty with long flowing hair who comes on pretty strong to the dopey Alden.)

The heart of the problem is that when you begin from a myth, any research you do will be bent to the task of supporting that myth. If you believe the Pilgrims celebrated a single Thanksgiving each November as a holiday, you will read Of Plimoth Plantation‘s description of thanksgiving days as proof of this, rather than proof that days of thanksgiving were as constant as days of fasting and humiliation, and you will completely ignore the fact that one of the reasons why the Separatists left England was that they refused to celebrate any holidays.

Thus were primary resources proudly cited by S&S, but we can’t get excited about it. Ignoring reams of facts while misapplying a few facts to support a general myth is not research.

It’s always dangerous to manipulate facts to promote your own worldview, as we see from multiple political races and the claims candidates make to support their wild variations from U.S. principles of representative democracy and make them seem like tried-and-true Americana. Long story short, if you’re interested in any topic, read objective histories about it, and then bring in as many primary sources as you can to test those histories, and then make a decision about what really happened, what it meant then, and how it reverberates now.

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3 Responses to “Saints and Strangers and history”

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In Ric Burn’s recent documentary The Pilgrims (and I understand in the National Geographic version of same), there was a reference made to a pre-landing at Plymouth Harbor finding of a shallow grave with two bodies on Lower Cape Cod. Both retained either red or blonde hair, suggesting European origin.

This was new news to me. Is there any historical precedent for it as presented in both programs?

If there is, I’d like to learn more about it.

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Hello Richard; a quick look through the relevant early sections of OPP does not uncover this incident directly, but here is some potential evidence. On page 145, Bradford tells this story: “The Pocanawkits, which live to the west of Plimoth, bear an inveterate malice to the English, and are of more strength then all the savages from thence to Penobscote. Their desire of revenge was occasioned by an English man, who having many of them on board, made a great slaughter with their murderers and small shot, when as (they say) they offered no injury on their parts. Whether they were English or no, it may be doubted; yet they believe they were… Squanto cannot deny but they would have killed me when I was at Namasket, had he not entreated hard for me.”

The Europeans who lured the Pocanawkits to their ship then attacked them may have been attacked previously on land, and the shipboard attack was their own revenge. Their dead bodies could then have been found. But Bradford, so far as we can see, does not mention this explicitly—that is, he does not describe finding skeletons with light hair. If you can find a place where he does, we’d love to see it and find out for sure.

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I have nothing. Sorry. I was simply astounded that it was given air time in both programs were there not solid evidence.

Thanks for your response.

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