By Robert Jennings Heinsohn, PhD, PE

THE HISTORY CHANNEL three-hour special on the Pilgrims' troubled journey and the founding of the Plymouth Colony World premiere Sunday, November 19, 2006 at 8pm ET/PT


The History Channel's Desperate Crossing

Desperate Crossing, the untold story of the Mayflower is a splendid documentary, viewing it is an inspiration. As its title implies, the program concentrates on the Pilgrims' experience aboard the ship and their preparation of the voyage. To an unfamiliar audience, it will be an untold story, to many SMD members it may also be an untold story, since they will learn new things, or things they've forgotten. The text is drawn from Bradford's Of Plimoth Plantation and begins with the Separatists' persecution in England under James I, their flight to, Holland, their decision to emigrate to America, the perilous voyage on the Mayflower and horrific loss of life in the early months of 1621. The documentary concludes with the years following the first Thanksgiving.

The documentary is skillfully prepared, visually stunning, corrects errors and misinformation held by the general public about the Pilgrim experience. The documentary makes a wholesome contribution to the historical literature and will increase the public's knowledge, and hopefully appreciation, of the Pilgrims' experience. At a time when multicultural chitchat dilutes our understanding of America's past, the program should be a foundational item to educate the public, particularly school children, about the Pilgrims' and the Wampanoag's contribution to America's history.


The documentary was written, directed and produced for The History Channel by Lisa Q. Wolfinger, of the Lone Wolf Documentary Group. Lisa Wolfinger has written and produced many programs for The History Channel, Disney and PBS. The documentary will be presented in three, one-hour segments on The History Channel beginning November 19, 2006.

Brewster and Bradford

The actors are professional actors of England's Royal Shakespeare Company, although SMD members will recognize the faces of some Plimoth Plantation interpreters. The number of Pilgrims with major roles in the documentary is small owing to the constraints of time and money, thus SMD members will miss seeing their ancestors in some of the dramatizations. The documentary consists of dramatizations separated by commentary from historians, experts from the Plimoth Plantation and members of the present day Wampanoag community. It is a pity that Jeremy Bangs was not a commentator since he has written extensively about the Pilgrims' lives in Leiden. Connecting the dramatizations and commentary is narration that provides continuity to the documentary. The actors' language has an authentic ring to what viewers would expect Pilgrims to use living in the latter Elizabethan period. The Pilgrims' display religious piety some viewers may find unbelievable, indeed incomprehensible. Nonetheless, viewers will find such religious speech and behavior authentic, indeed reassuring given today's jaded appreciation of religious belief. The costumes are scrupulously authentic owing to guidance by the Plimoth Plantation.

The documentary begins by describing Englishmen persecuted by King James I because they were dissatisfied with the Church of England and wished to practice their faith in ways they believed were consistent with scripture. The documentary describes their secretive flight to Holland. The commentators provide wonderfully succinct definitions of Puritans, Separatists and Pilgrims. The Pilgrims' life in Leiden and their reasons to emigrate to America are depicted accurately including the testy negotiations with the London merchant, Thomas Weston to secure financial backing by the Merchant Adventurers.

The documentary contains many useful maps showing the movement of the Pilgrims. One map shows the abortive path of the ships at sea until the unseaworthy condition of the Speedwell forces the ships to return to England and delays the departure of the Mayflower for a month. The language of passengers captures the emotional intensity experienced by physically stressed people cramped below decks. Scenes aboard the Mayflower are vivid and evoke the experience of smelly, crowded conditions below decks, miserable food and the terrifying storm that cracks ship's main beam. John Howland's rescue from a stormy sea is unfortunately omitted.


Dramatizations of the Pilgrims as they approach the shore of Cape Cod and explore Cape Cod are powerful, in part because background music underscores their anxiety. Scenes of the Pilgrim men traipsing through the snow on the Cape Cod beach are vivid impressions viewers have never seen before. Raiding buried Nauset corn, dodging Nauset's arrows, Bradford's being hoisted in a Nauset foot-trap further increases their unease. Dissension between the Pilgrims when they discover they've landed north of the boundaries of their patent lead some to demand sailing to the mouth of the Hudson River or to Jamestown. The resulting near-mutiny is powerfully depicted. Settling the dispute with the Mayflower Compact is dramatized effectively with only the viewers realizing that the Compact represents the first fully representative form of government in America. Maps show the path Pilgrims followed in their shallop in the dead of winter to explore the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay and select the abandoned Indian settlement, Patuxet, to build a permanent settlement. The documentary depicts effectively the horrific deaths in the early months of 1621 when over half of them died.

Dramatizing Samoset's appearance (from seemingly nowhere) in March 1621 to greet the Pilgrims in broken English is performed with amazing visual effect. Meetings of the Pilgrims with Massasoit and Squanto are done well. Viewers unfamiliar with the Pilgrims' experience will be amazed to learn about the countless landings of European fisherman and adventurers to American shores in previous decades. Amazing to viewers will be Squanto's description of his kidnap by the English adventurer, Capt. Thomas Hunt to be sent into slavery in Spain. More amazing, is his description of escaping to England, recruitment by Sir Ferdinando Gorges to be an interpreter for expeditions to New England, and his escape from Capt. Thomas Dermer's ship in Patuxet Harbor only to find that everyone in Patuxet died in an epidemic years earlier. Details of the first Thanksgiving are dramatized well, particularly the little known fact that there were over three times as many Wampanoags as Pilgrims.

A crucial element in the Pilgrims' story is the nuanced relationship Bradford forged with Massasoit to maintain peace between their respective communities. Unfortunately this relationship is only alluded too rather than illustrated with the detail it warrants. The documentary dissolves to an ending after the first Thanksgiving with only the commentator and narrator providing a summary of the peaceful relations Bradford and Massasoit preserved that continued after their deaths.


'Below' deck on the Mayflower

The documentary's stagecraft contains idiosyncrasies that challenge reality but do not detract from the story; they may be missed by most viewers, but SMD members will be bemused. While the headroom below decks was stated as less than five feet, scenes show men walling upright below decks. Statements that the ship carried goats, pigs and chickens is not supported by most historians. It strains credulity to see a chicken in wicker cage hanging from a beam, while there is no mention of the spaniel and mastiff dogs that are known to have been aboard. It is stated that passengers and crew consume one gallon of beer per day while at sea. Such consumption amounts to over 8,000 gallons and one wonders how such a quantity could be aboard. It boggles the mind to comprehend how the 33-ft, disassembled shallop could be stored below the decks of a ship 90-110 feet long carrying 102 passengers and a crew of approximately 30. Similarly, how the shallop was reassembled and made sea worthy to explore Cape Cod Harbor is not explained. Several Wampanoag and Nauset men appear on snow-covered ground in late winter with bare arms and shoulders even though Indians wore fur garments in the winter. The commentator, Francis T. Bremer teaches history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, not Millersville U of P, i.e University of Pennsylvania.


The writers are to be congratulated for describing the voyage authentically. The cinematography is superb, the music is omnipresent but not intrusive and the acting very convincing. Events are described in terms of how individuals of the 17th century experienced them, i.e. through 17th century eyes and with 17th century perspectives. Popularizers of history today are apt to use 21th century perspective and values. While this may make it easier for contemporary viewers to understand events, it is patently dishonest. Thankfully the writers of the documentary do not embrace this deception.

The documentary ends with the assertion that while "the Pilgrims created a community of fellow worshipers..... it was the Indians who made them (Pilgrims) realize the great work of living is living with others. And that is the true importance of the Pilgrim story. This nonsense is a pitiful paean to multiculturalism ... a gratuitous pandering to identity politics. The true story is how the diplomatic skill of both Bradford and Massasoit forged relationships that sustained peace for over 40 years. The great work of living with others is a two-way street that Bradford and Massasoit learned when both parties work at it. It requires diplomatic skill and accommodation to each other as situations warrant, and then persuading their constituencies to follow their leadership. Such skill is called leadership. Each party is as important as the other which makes it possible for two disparate communities to live with each other peaceably. It is the need for leadership that is the lesson to be drawn from the Pilgrims and Wampanoags.