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The Pilgrims at 400

Updated: Mar 17

By Peter Murray Banks '67


On November 20th the 2016 video production for PBS The Pilgrims by Ric Burns will once again return for your television viewing. For those of you hoping to delve into some comforting, seasonal heritage reminiscence, by all means look elsewhere. This so-called “documentary” is more informative about the perturbations of our revisionist historians than it is about the historical subject itself.


Two versions of this Burns production were made, one for The American Experience series with PBS, the other for Steeplechase Films with the BBC. While much of the same script is utilized, there are important differences. The British version provides greater insights into the cultural and religious background of the group and, in particular, its chronicler William Bradford and is less dismissive and historically misrepresentative.


In the American version this low budget production restricts itself to many fewer scenes along the way, showing predominantly helicopter shots of the replica Mayflower, scanning views of a still drawing depicting a forest floor strewn with human skeletal remains and the face of a mournful William Bradford, frozen in a tear-stained gaze (the actor is credited posthumously). The quoted experts report more detail about the specific illnesses suffered by the colonists than is actually known and suggest that these were largely the result of exposure to the elements, whereas in fact the crew remaining on board the Mayflower eventually suffered fully as severely. Recent studies suggest a particularly transmissible and deadly European bacterial disease, leptospirosis or “Weill disease”, as the culprit for both the preceding almost total extermination of the native population and the subsequent losses among the colonists*. Most poignant for today’s reader of Bradford are the courage and dedication of those colonists, dealing with a highly deadly contagion, even while tending to their daily needs for sustenance and defense. Unavoidable is the comparison to our response to a viral illness with a death rate of far less than 1% .


Lincoln’s creation of the national holiday in relation to the Pilgrims is treated as a quirk of history. And yet, in its context it was entirely appropriate. Bradford’s History of the Plimoth Plantation had been discovered only 8 years earlier, and in the hardships of the Civil War the need for a uniting national heritage was extreme. Indeed, to commemorate the noble and lasting contributions of this tiny group was then and is today entirely appropriate: fundamental systems of elective government, self reliance, decency and mutual respect, all of which came to distinguish the New England region over its first centuries. Upon arrival the Pilgrims first organized a “compact” for their own government and then formed a detailed mutual defense treaty with the Massachusetts Confederation of Indian tribes, one which lasted 50 years and was honored in combat against hostile tribes. Reflecting equal due process under the law, in 1638 three colonists were hanged in Plymouth for the murder of a native. Having initially instituted a socialist system of uniform harvest distribution, in their second year they modified this to a mixed system which allowed those more productive to retain their own produce over and above the required distribution, with improved prosperity and universal popularity. The meeting house session for the election of new officers became the New England Town Meeting, now a popular format for television politics.


More unfairly treated in the American version is William Bradford, depicted as a despairing failure in his final years. While the arrival of thousands more colonists into the Boston area in 1630 is represented as a reversal for Bradford, in fact these were his theological cousins, the Puritans, in large part inspired by reports of Plymouth’s success. Their governor John Winthrop became a lifelong friend and supporter of Bradford. Close friend and fellow colonist Edward Winslow is portrayed in the American version as a deserter, whereas in fact he travelled three times back to England to defend both the Plymouth and Boston colonies against misrepresentations and even a plot to displace them with an Anglican colony devised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In his later years, with the luxury of some leisure time, Bradford studied both Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible in its original form. Passing in 1657, Bradford was the most prosperous and revered member of what was to be known as “The Old Colony”, which, by the time of its integration into the New England Colony in 1691, had reached an estimated population of 6000. For the reader who has delved into Bradford’s account and come to know the writer for his qualities the belittling message of the Burns film is particularly grating. A humble and ruthlessly self questioning individual, Bradford’s words of faith and historical perspective overcome the separation of 400 years: “Thus out of small beginnings greater things have been produced by His hand that made all things of nothing, and gives being to all things that are; and, as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many...”


* Marr JS, Cathey JT. New hypothesis for cause of epidemic among native Americans, New England, 1616-1619. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 2010;16:281-286. doi: 10.3201/eid1602.090276.


Peter Murray Banks, M.D. is from Charlotte, NC. He is a graduate of the class of 1967.

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