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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Saints and Strangers: getting it wrong, getting it right

Posted on December 9, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, American history, Colonial America, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our brief series on the NatGeo channel’s Thanksgiving offering Saints and Strangers. Here we’ll go over highlights of part 2.

The episode begins with the English party going out to meet the Wampanoags who have kidnapped an English boy as a reprisal for the English raiding the Indians’ corn stores the previous Fall. This is a prime example of the show getting some things wonderfully right and others bafflingly wrong. It is accurate in presenting kidnapping as an Indian tactic, and in showing the kidnapped boy treated very well, and given clothes and gifts by his captors. Most kidnappees, Indian or English, were fully adopted into the groups they were kidnapped by (often to replace young men lost in battle) and treated very well. It is inaccurate in showing William Bradford apologizing for stealing the corn.

Remember how episode 1 showed Bradford refusing to help fix the mast on the Mayflower, even though the ship would sink without the repair, because he wouldn’t work on the Sabbath? This is a complete fabrication, but it was conjured up out of thin air to try to make a point about how devout Bradford and the Pilgrims were (as opposed to the non-Separatists on board). Having him apologize for stealing the corn is another fabrication meant to make us identify with Bradford as a good man. This is  acceptable in the context of reminding modern viewers that the English settlers did not come over with the intent of murdering as many Indians as possible, or with an immovable hostility toward all Indians. But the way in which it’s inaccurate is large and complex.

First, just as he approved fixing the mast on a Sunday, Bradford approved stealing the corn. There were two reasons: first, the settlers knew about the smallpox epidemic that had devastated the Indian population in today’s southeastern New England and actually fully consumed some groups, so when they found the corn caches untouched, they assumed the people the corn belonged to were dead. Therefore, taking their corn was not a problem. Second, even when he found out the corn’s owners were not dead, Bradford maintained the position that the corn had to be taken for the settlers to survive, which is true—they did not have enough food to last the winter.

The show’s determination to make Bradford sorry for stealing is part of its attempt to make a 17th-century person conform to 19th- and 20th-century cultural norms. The show portrays Bradford as apologetic because he recognizes the Indians as his equals, despite their race. That is a 19th/20th-century idea. For early-mid 17th-century Europeans, the only differentiator that really mattered was religion. Indians were not alien to the settlers because of their race; it was their religious difference that mattered most. They were not Christian, but almost more importantly to the Separatists, they were not people who had left the Anglican church to practice more pure Protestant worship. It was that specific for them. As we point out in The Puritans and Freedom of Religion, in Europe at that time, most people saw those who did not practice their exact form of religion as demons, heathens, spiders, monsters, and antichrists. The vitriol showered over Catholics by Protestants—and vice-versa—will turn your stomach if you read it. And within Protestantism, the proliferation of different sects produced just as much hatred. The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the principalities that became Germany, produced war crimes and atrocities that boggle the mind, and justified them on the basis of religion. Whole towns were set on fire and the population kept inside to be burned alive because they were Protestant, or Catholic.

So the Separatists in Plimoth did not hate the Indians for being heathens as much as they hated the Catholics and disdained their unreformed Anglican brethren. At least the Indians, unlike the Catholics, had the excuse of not ever having heard the Gospel. Neither did they hate the Indians for their race. Race was a concept just getting off the ground in the mid-1600s, as African slavery came to the Americas. When Bradford faced the Wampanoags, he faced them as potential allies or potential enemies, and practiced as sophisticated a diplomacy as he could to maintain them as allies. But he wouldn’t have apologized about the corn because he would have maintained that God provided it for his people. He would have told Massasoit this, to impress upon him the supernatural support the little group of settlers enjoyed. That godly support was a bargaining chip, and it was hard for Massasoit to completely dismiss it, after seeing his people and neighboring groups harrowed by disease that the English people seemed immune to.

That’s a long, long digression on a short point, but it seems like an important one.

Here’s something the show gets very right: when Bradford wants to build a separate church building, Stephen Hopkins counters that they need to focus their energy on paying off their investors, which was absolutely true. The colony lived under the threat basically of repossession if it didn’t send valuable raw materials back to England that its investors could sell. Copper and gold were the (vain) hope; fur was the sure thing, but timber was the resource that the settlers were able to send first. Any trees cut down that first year after houses were built had to be prepared for shipment back to England, not for building a church.

Hopkins also claims that the colony is first and foremost a commercial venture, which is exactly how the non-Separatist majority of settlers saw it. The friction between them and the Separatists who saw they colony as first and foremost a religious safe-haven would eventually see the Separatists buying the non-Separatists out so they could go their “separate” ways.

One badly anachronistic moment is when, after joining forces with Hobbamock to attack the Massachusetts, English military leader Miles Standish tells the surviving Massachusetts “if you force us to violence it will reverberate for generations to come”. This foreshadowing is something that would never have occurred to Standish. It wasn’t the kind of threat Europeans made at the time. They would have said “we will kill every single one of you right now so you have no posterity”. There were to be no future generations reverberating with anything for heathens.

Another thing the show does well is to keep us guessing about Squanto’s loyalties. We will never know what his motives or goals were, whether he loved the settlers or hated them or saw them merely as pawns in his own game of power and survival. We will never know if he loved Massasoit or hated him or saw him merely as a pawn in his own game. We just don’t know. All we know is that both settlers and Wampanoags mistrusted him from time to time. So when Squanto does not translate Bradford’s words accurately when Bradford is addressed Canonicus, sachem of the Narragansetts, and turns Bradford’s words into an insult, we are left wondering why, just as everyone at the time was left.

The show goes to great lengths to tell us that Bradford really loved Squanto as a friend, and risks the colony’s survival to protect him when Massasoit demands his head. But Bradford’s own account says that he protected Squanto because “[the attack on Squanto] was conceived not fit to be born; for if [the English] should suffer their freinds and messengers thus to be wronged, they should have none would cleave unto them, or give them any intelligence, or do them service afterwards; but next they would [attack the settlers] themselves.” [160]

Bradford later writes this very direct assessment (he writes in the third person):

…they [the English] began to see that Squanto sought his own ends, and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear, and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself; making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they [the English] kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians, and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him than to Massasoit, which procured him envy, and had like to have cost him his life. For after the discovery of his practises, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly; which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died. They also made good use of the emulation [jealous rivalry] that grew between Hobbamock and him, which made them carry more squarely. And the Governor [Bradford himself] seemed to countenance the one [Squanto], and the Captain the other [Hobbamock], by which they had better intelligence, and made them both more diligent.

This is powerfully different from the show’s presentation of Bradford’s deep friendship with Squanto. Here Bradford says he, and all the settlers, began to see that Squanto would use anyone to get more private power, and that he only stayed with the settlers because he was afraid of being killed if he left Plimoth. When Squanto and Hobbamock became enemies, Bradford prudently pretended to trust Squanto while Standish pretended to trust Hobbamock, so they could get as much information out of both men as possible to protect themselves.

This is just Bradford’s side of the story—we don’t have Hobbamock’s or Squanto’s—but it rings true for the English approach to American Indians. Bradford appreciated the practical help the settlement got from Squanto regarding planting and farming, and believed God provided Squanto to help them in that way. (Bradford would likely have been glad that Squanto had been sold into English slavery so he could learn English and eventually help them.) But he did not trust Squanto, and seems not to have considered him a friend.

Oh criminy, then comes the First Thanksgiving. The biggest problem here is that Wampanoag women are shown at the tables, which did not happen.  As we point out in Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving, only Wampanoag men came (about 90 of them eventually) and the time was spent hunting and holding shooting games. No women. A tiny note is that there a lot of chairs at the tables as well as benches, but chairs were an expensive rarity in Plimoth in 1621.

Mrs. Billington yells “damn them!” twice when the men heading to Wessagusset steal the settlers’ corn, which would have gotten her whipped and/or fined in the real Plimoth, where cursing was not allowed.

When Squanto dies, Edward Winslow and Bradford talk about him, and Winslow says Squanto was a schemer. Bradford grabs him by the shoulders and says “The Lord forgives you for believing you are better than that man,” another example of 19th-century religion being foisted onto 17th-century Plimoth. The Separatists did believe that they were better than Indians—and Catholics and unreformed Anglicans and anyone else who was not an English Separatist.

Right: Winslow goes to help tend Massasoit when he seems to be dying. This was a critical turning point in the difficult relations between the two groups, and the Wampanoags seemed to have believed Winslow’s god helped their sachem.

The show nears its end with a terrible myth, which is Bradford saying we have to prepare for our second Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was not an annual tradition in Plimoth. Thanksgivings were held when appropriate, to thank God for his beneficence, just as days of humiliation and fasting were held to beg God’s mercy. There was no “second Thanksgiving” at Plimoth, but the show insists on it. At this mythical Thanksgiving, Indian women are again present and dance with English men, which was out of the question at that time.

At the very end, Bradford has a voiceover: “They called us Pilgrims, but what have we become? Saints, strangers, savages. We came for God, to move forward, for ourselves and our children.” His son arrives from Holland that Spring, and the circle is complete. Though no one ever called the Separatists Pilgrims in the 1600s.

We’ll quickly wrap this up next time—we promise it will be brief!

 

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Saints and Strangers, myths and misunderstandings

Posted on December 2, 2015. Filed under: 17th century America, Colonial America, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

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!

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