Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Desperate Crossing....The Untold Story of the overview of how tough the Pilgrims had it when they arrived in the New World

Being from a family with longstanding lineage in Massachusetts, Thanksgiving Day has always been a special day as we live in the shadow of the Plymouth Colony in SE Massachusetts.

My family's first ancestor arrived in Weymouth, MA in 1635, 15 years after the Pilgrims. While we cannot claim Mayflower heritage, I have found the compelling story of how the Pilgrims actually came to be on the shores of Plymouth was given a true overview in the History Channel's three-hour docudrama,
"Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower."

I watched this great show a few years ago, with historical detail taken from the actual Pilgrim's diaries. It was a good overview of how tough the pilgrims had it and how poorly they were prepared for what awaited them in the new world.

In addition to providing an enlightening picture of the Pilgrims who made their way to the Americas, this documentary begins to unveil the true documented history of the Wampanoag Confederation and provides the viewer with a glimpse of the character and spirit of its people. It is a respectable introduction to the world of the Wampanoag of the 1600s, the diplomacy of its leader, the Grand Sachem, Massasoit (first known as Ousamequin or "Yellow Feather"), and it awakens uninformed viewers to the existence of modern Wampanoag communities.

The lives of the Separatists, later known as the Pilgrims, are brought to life. A comprehensive picture of their history, and how they came to their decision to immigrate to the Americas, is clearly and thoughtfully presented. They face persecution in England, and later endure adversity in the Netherlands. They make the decision to leave the Netherlands, where they are allowed to freely practice their religion, to traverse to the New World with the naive belief that this move will make their lives easier and eliminate unwanted outside influences on their children. As already known, the crossing was arduous, the Pilgrims were ill prepared for what they were to endure and by the time the Mayflower arrived in the New World, the Pilgrims were in bad shape.

Their first landing is on outer Cape Cod, near modern day Provincetown. They send a landing party ashore and find store of food left there by the Nausets, a war-like group of Indian who lived on Cape Cod. The Nausets have had men taken from their tribe by fishermen from Iceland and Greenland who made their way down the coast, and want no contact with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims get into a skirmish with them and decide not to stay there. They make their way across Cape Cod Bay and arrive at present day Plymouth, known to the Indians as Patuxet.

They believe that the will of God will protect them because their motive for going to the world is noble and they have a plan to propagate the gospel to the American Natives, who they consider to be 'savages'.

It is winter and the Pilgrims try to make rudimentary structures but too many are sick and are unable to assist with the work of building structures. They manage to build some houses but have little food and many die that first terrible winter. When the Spring arrives, they are down to a little over 50 men and just 7 women.

The Pilgrims' relationship with Tisquantum, more commonly known as Squanto, is shown. Squanto was one of the last citizens of Patuxet, the place the Pilgrims inhabit and call Plymouth. The Indians who lived in Patuxet died due to a plague that swept through the area from 1616-1619. This plague happened long before the Pilgrims arrive but was instrumental in allowing the Pilgrims to establish their colony. Squanto and another brave named Samoset help the Pilgrims, who the Indians regard as sickly and in terrible shape.

There are overviews of actual meetings that the Pilgrims had with the Wampanoag Indians such as the meeting with Massasoit and the encounter with Samoset, a Wabanaki Sachem who spoke English. Samoset is thought to have been called upon by Massasoit to serve as a diplomat to pave the way for a relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims.

Squanto is accurately portrayed as interpreter for Massasoit during the scene when the Wampanoag leaders are discussing how they should proceed with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims are in terrible shape and need the assistance of the native citizens in what is now Massachusetts. Squanto advocates for the Pilgrims, telling Massasoit that they are sick and have little knowledge of how to grow food or what will grow well in their new homeland. Massasoit makes a great offer to the Pilgrims, allowing them to have the land where the Plymouth Colony is located. He
tells them of the sickness that swept the Indians from Patuxet and that they consider that area to be bad. He further tells them that all who live there die and if they want the land in Patuxet, they are welcome to it as his people see that place as cursed.

This terrible plague provides an opportunity for the Pilgrims, making it possible for them to settle as if the Patuxet Community had not perished due to disease, the Pilgrims would have found a thriving native community and likely have been told to go elsewhere.

The focus of the documentary is the Pilgrims and their plight but the viewer is left with a romanticized view of the 'harvest feast', the legendary event. It is something that we have come to accept and like many American legends, it has changed over the years. The details of how and what occurred have varied over the years, and the version most commonly accepted is what we prefer to think about at this time of year. The Pilgrims and Indians celebrating a large harvest feast after a long growing season in 1621, which allows the Pilgrims to become settlers of the new world....It is slightly romanticized and made tidy but essentially, it was that same story, just not as neatly told through the years. If any of us was able to go back in time, we would likely find history slightly different than we have been told.

The Thanksgiving Holiday that we celebrate to day also owes it's prominence on the American landscape to Abraham Lincoln, FDR and others who instituted it as a truly American Holiday and one that marks the end of Fall and the start of the Christmas season.

Now if we can just get the retailers to stop running it down with early sales, and get the radio stations to stop playing " All Christmas Music" format starting in early November, we would all be able to enjoy Thanksgiving for the wonderfully American Holiday it is....Happy Thanksgiving!

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