History and the Seeds of Memory: Reflections on Ric Burns’ The Pilgrims

pilgrims_pbsamexperienceIn his now classic study of early nationalism, historian Benedict Anderson wrote “I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined….”[1] While Puritan society was not a “nation” in the sense that Anderson meant it, his reflections nonetheless are evident in Ric Burns’ documentary, The Pilgrims. Burns seeks not to merely retell the Thanksgiving story, but to understand why Plimouth Rock and the popular Thanksgiving story (much of which is inaccurate) is such a pervasive part of the American origins story.

Burns’ documentary, which is based in part on Nick Bunker’s Making Haste from Babylon, and Kathleen Donegal’s Seasons of Misery, features dramatic reenactment, archival footage, and commentary from historians, including Michael Braddick (Sheffield), John Demos (Yale), Bernard Bailyn, Joyce Chaplin, Jill Lepore (Harvard), Susan Hardman Moore (Edinburgh), and Linda Coombs (Aquinnah Wampanoag). What sets this film apart from the many documentaries on the Pilgrims, is both the focus on myth making in American History, and that the treatment of Native American History goes beyond tokenism.

The Pilgrims begins by raising the question—given that Plimouth Colony was not the first English settlement, or even the first recorded Thanksgiving—why does it hold such a dominant place in the national American narrative? The answer lies in a combination of the circumstances of the Pilgrims’ arrival in North America, Anglo-American geopolitics, and the nature of the historical record. Little, if any of what Burns discusses in the film will come as a surprise to an Early Americanist. Much of this ground has been covered by Edmund Morgan, Francis Bremer, David Hall, and others.[2] Nonetheless, it is a much more nuanced and sophisticated than many other publicly-accessible histories on this period. Those familiar with Michael Kammen’s work on history and memory may particularly appreciate what Burns sets out to accomplish.[3]

Following an introduction of William Bradford, and other key Puritan figures, The Pilgrims describes the arrival of the Mayflower’s passenger’s off the coast of Cape Cod. Critically, it also notes that in the few years leading up to the arrival of the Pilgrims, illness had devastated the Wampanoag villages, resulting in a 50-90% total population loss. The devastation of the Wampanoag people, and then the high death toll faced by the Pilgrims in the year following their arrival in the New World are a key piece of what came next. The film, which rightly describes the Pilgrims as immigrants, mentions that there was initially no contact between Bradford’s landing party and the Wampanoag. Significantly, Pawtuxet, among the largest of the Wampanoag villages, and the most devastated, was found empty. Tisquantum, one of the few survivors of the village, had been kidnapped before illness killed many of his people, and had made his way back, only to find everyone gone.

This all gave the land the appearance of being abandoned. In writing about their exploration, Edward Winslow reported finding grave mounds, but William Bradford did not. Burns argues that the choice to depict the lands as empty was convenient, and gave the veneer of the Pilgrims’ arrival and settlement being “God’s provence.” Furthermore, he also notes that the Pilgrims had, in fact, landed north of the legal bounds of their charter, making it politically messy. The Mayflower Compact, in which they described themselves as a covenanted society was crafted to address this lapse. It also, as Burns correctly notes, partly accounts for the narrative of the early settlement of Massachusetts as a band of people who sought religious freedom. While religious freedom certainly was important to these early settlers, it is not the full story. The Mayflower voyaged had been financed by the Company of London Merchant Adventurers, who expected a return on their investment. The chain of events that pushed the Mayflower further north than expected, to devastated lands, and provided the opportunity for crafted the Mayflower Compact helped to change the narrative, even as Bradford and company would face anger from the other side of the Atlantic that for its first several years, the Plimouth Company was utterly without profit.

What The Pilgrims shows is that the Pilgrims were actually fairly conscious of their actions. Bradford and company took great pains to hide their dead, going so far as to carry their sick men into the woods, leaving them with guns, so that anyone observing them would think they had a guard. These details appear hidden in court documents, reported by one Phineus Pratt. Increase Mather later changes Pratt’s story, suggesting that the Pilgrims buried their dead at night. Mather’s “night burials” are remembered as the true story is seen as “too transgressive,” notes Kathleen Donegal. These measured alterations to the story also assigned different meanings to Indian and English death. It is part of an erasure of Native Americans, wherein Indians became “carrion,” and English deaths were part of the seed of a new civilization.

The Pilgrims also faced a crisis in the form of Thomas Weston, one of the London merchants who was displeased with the lack of fiduciary return. He attempted a new settlement, north of Plimouth, which Bradford and company dismissed as “profane and disorderly outsiders.” There was also no recreation of the alliance with the Wampanoag, which had been the product of two vulnerable peoples seeking mutual support against powerful Massachuset and Narraganset neighbors. And, news of the Jamestown Massacre in Virginia also haunted Pilgrim leadership.

At this point, a 40-year-old William Bradford began writing his account Of Plimouth Plantation. While even English newcomers in Boston took pains to avoid offending the Pilgrims, Bradford would not have seen settlement as a success; not his City on a Hill. Burns argues that Bradford’s writing of this volume was an act of trying to preserve his vision in history, even as the Colony was under significant duress. Trying to preserve his vision in his history, even as it’s falling apart around him. Settlement was not a success for Bradford because the community failed to live up to John Winthrop’s utopian City on a Hill. The “heart of community is being lost. Its integrity is personal to Bradford, and this was not his congregation of Saints,” observes Nathaniel Philbrick. Bernard Bailyn also concurs that Bradford was well aware of what was happening around him.

After Bradford died, his manuscript was, for about 100 years, passed down in the Bradford family, and then given to Old South Church in Boston. Massachusetts’ Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson consulted in in 1767, and then the manuscript was taken by the British at some point in 1777, and disappeared.[4] It was later discovered at Lambeth Palace, in the Library of the Bishop of London. The Bishop declined requests to return it, but allowed a copy to be published in 1856, on the eve of the Civil War. Near the end of the War, President Abraham Lincoln would officially anoint Thanksgiving as part of the national narrative, setting it on the last Thursday of every November. In 1897, the Bishop of London relented, and Bradford’s manuscript was returned to Boston, amidst celebration.

The film has some minor errors that will probably go unnoticed by most viewers. For example, Puritans are depicted as reading from the King James Bible, rather than the Geneva Bible. But these are small details that don’t really undermine the larger themes and points that Burns makes, and overall, the film is thoughtful and well done. The focus on the context beyond the creation of historical documents, such as Bradford’s history of Plimouth, may also help give a non-specialist audience a better appreciation for the craft of history and historical interpretation.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

[2] The literature is vast, but see especially, Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams the Church and State (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007); id., Visible Saints: the History of a Puritan Idea (New York: New York University Press, 1963); Francis J. Bremer, The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1995).

[3] Michael G. Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: the Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1991).

[4] Undoubtedly during his research for History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts Bay.


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