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Opinion ‘The Pilgrims’ challenges the myths of the first Thanksgiving

The Mayflower II at sail in Plymouth Harbor. (Kristen Oney/Plimoth Plantation)

“I think we feel that we’re such a new country that we need to know how it all began,” the writer Nathaniel Philbrick says early in “The Pilgrims,” Ric Burns’s new documentary, which airs tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. “What people forget is that it wasn’t all fated. These were normal people under extraordinary circumstances, and they were making it all up as they went along.” The story we tell ourselves about America’s origins and values, the one that undergirds the holiday we celebrate every fourth Thursday in November, is a relatively comforting one: a successful harvest, a coming-together of people from two dramatically different cultures, the beginning of a partnership.

But the power of “The Pilgrims” is that it’s discomforting. “We need to go back and ask questions about why we picked that story, what it was about these people, what it was about their people that we wanted to see reflected in our own national image,” Kathleen Donegan, a historian of early America, tells us in the film. “There’s been a tremendous amount of memory produced around the Pilgrims. But there’s also been a lot of forgetting. That memory is very selective.”

Part of what we select out is exactly what it is the Puritans believed. “You might say, if you wanted to be critical, they’re religious nutters who won’t settle for anything except the most literal reading of the Bible, they want to transform a nation-state into something that resembles what they take to be a godly kingdom,” British historian Pauline Croft tells us. Religious scholar Susan Hardman Moore puts it in rather moderate, less judgmental terms: “They were transient citizens of the world, and ultimately citizens of heaven. And they were on a journey towards purity, that’s what they sought.”

Whatever language we use, “The Pilgrims” does a useful job of grounding the Pilgrims in their theological goals and reminding us of the political implications of those views: In England, to say that no authority could stand between individual worshipers and God was to challenge the monarchy. And if that rebuke to the king’s authority was allowed, further rebellions might follow.

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“The Pilgrims” also does a stark job of reminding us just how long the odds were against Puritan success. The British had poured huge numbers of colonists into their outpost in Virginia, but struggled to keep the population above a thousand people. “Like many people from cults, they were really naive when it came to the rest of the world, so it meant that they were very prone to being duped when it came to figure out how are we going to do this? Who are we going to hire? Who’s going to be our military officer?” one historian notes. “They had this huge list of problems.”

Despite their theological extremism, oddball reputations and the logistical obstacles to success, the Pilgrims managed to plant themselves in America. It may not be comforting to see even the broad parallels between the Pilgrims and the extremists of the Islamic State (both groups shared a sense that the apocalypse was — in the form of the Thirty Years’ War — or is nigh), but it’s true that some small, determined religious movements do actually change the world.

“The Pilgrims” gets even grimmer once the pilgrims arrive. Plague had devastated Native American settlements to the extent that people went unburied: “Not because we didn’t have rituals and observances but because there wasn’t anybody left to take care of the ones who had passed away,” Tobias Vanderhoop, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, says. The Pilgrims interpreted the depopulation of whole villages as a sign that “it was meant to be that way for them,” Vanderhoop continues.

And the pilgrims suffered their own losses from disease, scurvy and the miserable conditions aboard the Mayflower. Gov. William Bradford’s first wife slipped overboard and drowned; she may have committed suicide. The first winter, so many people died that a man named Phineas Pratt testified in a court case that members of the settlement told him that the dead and dying were dragged into the woods and propped up against the trees with their muskets to give the impression that the pilgrims had defenses.

“In Bradford’s history [of the colony], he really turns away with the corpses,” Donegan says of the way the terrors of that first year were gradually erased from history. “Later when Increase Mather is writing a history of Plymouth, he quotes Phineas Pratt, but right at that transgressive moment, he changes the text” and says instead that the pilgrims buried their dead at night to hide their losses. “What really happened gets completely dropped out of the history. It is too transgressive and really dangerous. . . . They had to make some kind of meaning out of that. It couldn’t just be a wasteyard of bones for everyone.”

The settlers did further violence to their Native American neighbors, too. The famed treaty between the pilgrims and the Patuxet tribe, brokered with help from Tisquantum, grew out of military need; the Patuxet saw an opportunity to steal a match on their rivals, and the assistance Tisquantum gave the Pilgrims in growing their successful crops was as much about keeping his new allies alive and healthy enough to be useful as some sort of convenient fable of generosity. When William Bradford remarried, the Puritan teachings against decoration were suspended to accommodate a standard soaked in Native American blood as a warning.

“I think it’s necessary to ask who the savages were,” the anthropologist Margaret Bruchac says. “Were they the people who had lived in this territory for millennia? Or were they these people who had forced themselves into someone else’s home?” That’s a sort of rhetoric that can easily become trendy and hyperbolic, but “The Pilgrims” brings the historical ammunition to back it up, while also providing a fair assessment of the community’s genuine accomplishments in self-governance.

That commitment to a comprehensive understanding is what makes “The Pilgrims” useful, rather than merely polemical. It’s a call to enlarge our understanding of Thanksgiving, rather than to chuck the holiday out altogether as some sort of political gesture. “They had been in such misery and that they had lost so many people,” Donegan says. “That day of Thanksgiving is also coming out of mourning. It’s also coming out of grief, and this abundance that is a relief from that loss. But we don’t think about the loss. We think about the abundance.”