So You Think You Know the Pilgrims …

One of the events of the History Film Forum in November was an advance screening of The Pilgrims, the newest documentary by Ric Burns. My primary interest in this was to see how they treated my family’s direct ancestor John Billington, infamous for being a knave and a scoundrel, but I was also curious to see how Ric Burns could give the Thanksgiving story the same thorough treatment he and his brother Ken had given The Civil War.

Because even the director-Mr. Burns himself, and the Film Forum program director acknowledged that the Pilgrims are not where one looks for a dramatic Thanksgiving story. We all know what happens, right? The Pilgrims set sail for America in search of religious freedom, struggled through the first winter, and were saved by the friendly and benevolent Indians, who fed them turkey and squash, together thriving into Massachusetts colony (later the Commonwealth of Massachusetts).


Welllllllllll, yeah sort of not really.

[  For an interview with the director, click here. I want to quote that entire article. Go read it before you click for more below. ]

First off, this film is nothing like the sanitized version we know today. This film included heads mounted on pikes and bad business ventures. Once the Indians showed up with food, problems were only just beginning.

What isn’t taught very well in schools (or at least when I was in school) is that the Mayflower was a ship chartered as a business venture. A tiny group of religious separatists (the Pilgrims) had left England for the Netherlands to escape the religious oppression of King James I. The Church of England had too many holdovers from Catholicism and the separatists wanted to be, well, separate. They wanted to be pure of thought and practice, without any of the intermediary steps to God that Catholics and the CoE have.

4320748_orig Billington, scoundrel and knave.

But for various reasons, they wanted to leave the Netherlands. Since they couldn’t go back to England, the solution was to go to the New World. In order to do that, they needed money. To get money, they contracted with the Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers. [wiki link here] Half of the people on the expedition (like John Billington) were not part of the tiny religious sect but had skills useful to establishing a new Colony. The Pilgrims knew these other people as the Strangers, and they mixed about as well as oil and water. Overall, the founding of Plymouth was almost exactly parallel to the founding of Jamestown, except Plymouth had the Separatists and the Strangers.

Now, cue the hardship. Something like over half of the entire ship died either on the ship or before the first winter was over. The weather and shore conditions were so bad that they landed two hundred miles north of their intended target of Virginia, which put them outside of the bounds of their business charter. The Strangers at that point wanted to leave but eventually signed the Mayflower Compact. Contrary to popular belief, it merely gave the Pilgrims and Strangers an uneasy governing structure until they figured out what to do. It did not establish world peace and is so broad it’s just lazy to say it is a deliberate precursor to our Bill of Rights or Declaration of Independence. From the link: “The Mayflower Compact was an attempt to establish a temporary, legally-binding form of self-government until such time as the Company could get formal permission from the Council of New England.” (which was granted in 1622)


In the meantime, they continued to struggle with disease, neighboring trading posts, other warring Indian tribes, the Strangers, dissent among themselves, and the natural elements.

As mentioned in my previous post, one of the challenges of historical films is deciding which story to tell because the natures of the medium and the subject prevent it from being fully comprehensive.

This particular film cuts through centuries of public mythology by telling the story through the words and experiences of William Bradford, the leader of the Pilgrims, who was a devoutly religious man with no tolerance for the Strangers. He kept a diary, Of Plimoth Plantation, and wrote as if he knew he was keeping a record for posterity, and indeed it is the only account of the earliest years of Plymouth Colony. It is practically mandatory reading for every university pre-Colonial history program.


What makes the film so successful is the voice they gave Bradford. An actor, Roger Rees, was hired to portray the governor, and he gave an incredibly powerful performance. There are many cinematic shots of Rees, old and grizzled, actually filmed in the modern historical site of Plymouth. He is seen reading, writing, and reciting passages from Bradford’s diary, which successfully grounds both the film and this particular story within the frame chosen by the directors.

IMDB lists this film as Rees’ last screen performance before his death last July. According to Ric Burns, Rees thought he was born to play this singular role. Both men (Bradford and Rees) experienced great loss over a short period of time early in life and both men eventually converted to Judaism, among other parallels. The end of Bradford’s diary is filled with Hebrew and in one of those twists of fate that seems to be more than just a twist of fate, they had already cast an actor who could read and speak Hebrew.

Bradford’s journal

The conclusion drawn from the research and all the scholars interviewed in the film is that the Pilgrims, led by Bradford, wanted freedom for themselves, but not for anyone else. Bradford struggled greatly when it became clear the Colony would not survive as a religious haven. He barely tolerated non-Pilgrims, whether they be the Strangers or nearby trading colonies. Ric Burns did mention that the Separatists provided an interesting dialogue with current events with Syria and Isis and religious freedom, practice, and authority, but he didn’t go any further down that particular road. (Thank goodness.)

Even for all of this, The Pilgrims chooses to present only one truth and there are many more to be told. The same treatment could be given to the Strangers, or the film could be from the purely business perspective, or perhaps from the perspective of Miles Standish, the secular military man. While the frame is powerful and its narrowness allows the film directors to present more information than one could think possible about the Thanksgiving story, it also highlights the fact that it is just one narrow view of the story and there are many more angles to explore.

So go watch it. Now.

Other reasons you should watch this:
– Bradford, pious and devout Bradford, cut off the head of the Massachusetts chief and mounted it on a pike outside of Plymouth Colony as a successful intimidation factor.
– The Colonists settled on the remains of a Wampanoac village wiped out by plague. Only one villager survived, a young man captured and taken to Europe named Squanto (or Tisquantum) Talk about coincidence.
– The Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers founded another trading post nearby on the successful model of Plymouth and called this new place Boston. Boston native Cotton Mather wrote one of the earliest accounts of the colony.
– A lowly servant washed overboard while on the journey. He was saved, survived, married, and had ten children, who each had many children. They estimate he’s got something like 1.4 million descendants today, including both Presidents Bush and Chevy Chase.
– According to family lore, John Billington’s son got lost in the woods and was found and returned by the Indians, facilitating the initial meeting with the colonists. In this film, a few curious Wampanoac Indians more-or-less walked up to Plymouth Colony and introduced themselves, which is far more boring as far as how-we-met stories go. [ see link to Squanto above ]
– When the Mayflower sailed back to England, the Company was angry at the venture because the ship bore no profit with it. In fact, Plymouth Colony nearly went bankrupt because their first years were such a struggle. They were only saved when England went to war with France and England could no longer easily obtain French beaver fur. Fortunately for us, Maine was full of beaver fur. Many beavers died in the making of the colonies.
– Foreshadowing the Civil War, there was (is?) a huge fight between Jamestown and Plymouth historians as to which came first. Chronologically, Jamestown is thirteen years older, but as for which was the seed of Colonial America, that is the subject of debate.
– [this is not in the film but needed to be included anyway] John Billington, a scoundrel and knave, was sentenced to hang by the neck until dead for a violent crime committed against his neighbor. First execution in the New World belongs to us. My family: practicing civil disobedience since 1620.


Image Source: John Billington

Image Source: Mayflower Compact Signing

Image Source: Bradford’s journal


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