Nat Geo Channel Examines the First Thanksgiving in SAINTS & STRANGERS

Saints and StrangersWhen I was growing up—and later when my children were in school—Thanksgiving offered a plethora of teaching opportunities. During the first three weeks in November, the elementary-aged children turned outlines of their hands into turkeys, pilgrims with hats or Native Americans wearing feathers, or shook jars of heavy whipping cream until it turned into butter. When they were older learned the names of some of the people on the Mayflower, where they landed and how the Native Americans taught the pilgrims to plant corn so they would survive. Satisfied that the history lesson was out of the way, on Thanksgiving Day, everyone sat down to watch parades and football and eat lots of turkey and dressing.

What was almost never taught—or at least taught completely—was what those people who were part of that first Thanksgiving faced. Saints & Strangers, a four-hour “movie event” airing tonight and again on Thanksgiving evening on the National Geographic Channel, takes a look at the events and people who were part of that first Thanksgiving.

After watching Saints & Strangers, several things may surprise viewers.

One is that the Mayflower was never intended to carry passengers. It was a cargo ship meant to carry beer and woolens. Yet 102 men, women and children were crammed into its hold, sleeping eating, giving birth and fighting–and sometimes dying–from disease.

Another tidbit is that there were other people on the Mayflower besides the pilgrims. These “Strangers,” as the pilgrims called them, considered themselves Christians, but they didn’t practice their faith as the pilgrims did. They didn’t mind working on a Sunday if the need called for it, they celebrated Christmas and—once they landed at Plymouth and found a seemingly deserted village that included graves—they had no problems pillaging it.

William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser, Mad Men), the leader of the pilgrims, protests this action. “We have stolen their very sustenance and disturbed their graves!”

Stephen Hopkins (Ray Stevenson Thor), one of the Strangers, shrugs. “Well, surely we were meant to find this, were we not? All part of God’s plan.”

The Native Americans who live in the area have different thoughts about the English settlers. The Nauset people, who lived in the pillaged village, were incensed over the actions of the English and believes they should pay for their theft. They also recall that previous explorers had brought disease and death. However, they cannot decide what to do? Attack? Allow the winter to reduce the English population? Leave them alone?

Only one Native American—Squanto (Kalani Queypo The New World) —is in favor of helping them. Able to speak English; he had been taken to against his will to Europe and lost his entire tribe to the English plague. However, he believes that the settlers might become powerful allies against the brutal Narragansett tribe. Squanto points out that the English are hungry and suggests teaching them how to farm the land.

Something else that might surprise viewers is how many pilgrims died. By the end of their first year in the New World, forty-five of the 102 pilgrims died. There wasn’t any family that wasn’t touched by death, either by disease, hunger or exposure. Bradford’s own wife, Dorothy (Anna Camp Pitch Perfect) dies before the settlement’s first foundation is laid.

Saints & Strangers is a well-constructed and well-acted film with an moving story. It presents a balanced look at the events surrounding the pilgrims and Native Americans, showing both strength and weakness, compassion and hatred from all the different groups of peoples.

Nat Geo does not present the pilgrims as greedy, fanatical religious zealots, but as devout believers in God, whose faith sustains them during those horrific conditions. “I am alone again,” one woman says. “But I have the Lord, and so I have purpose. Everyone else can vanish in an instant, but He is constant.”

Nat Geo’s website for Saints & Strangers has a plethora of information about the show and the actual historical events. You can play a game to see if you could survive the conditions at Plymouth, learn about the customs, maps of the different tribes and what foods were really served at the first Thanksgiving. Different Drummer, a Nashville-based marketing agency, has also developed a free Saints & Strangers companion study guide.

Saints & Strangers will air on the National Geographic Channel tonight and on Thanksgiving evening (part 1 at 6pm and part 2 at 8pm CST each evening).