Documentary Review: Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower

1:57 AM

Hello and happy Thanksgiving! Today I wanted to review one of my favorite documentaries, "Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower". It aired on the History Channel for the first time in November of 2006 and I remember their rather intriguing ad campaign for it (you can watch one of the ads here). It definitely peaked my interest, and I tuned in. They've aired it several times since during the Thanksgiving holidays. I don't have cable, though, and it's proved difficult to find online except for clips, so I ordered a copy from Amazon last year.

Check out the trailer:

So does it deliver on its promise to give us the untold story of the Mayflower? Yes and no. It definitely fleshes out the story of the Mayflower and its passengers beyond the typical elementary school play version, and there are a few things you might find shocking, but all in all, it's just a fuller story. Despite being a little short on the shock factor, I still think it's worth your time because as with most periods of American history, school curriculum tend to drastically oversimplify it.

I liked that it spent a good amount of time chronicling the English separatists of Scrooby's struggles to find a place where they could worship God in the way they saw was right without fear of harassment or prison. Our religious freedom is something we talk about a lot in America today but ultimately, it's something we often take for granted. The way that the separatists (also called "congregationalists") were seeking to worship has a lot of similarities to the church I'm a part of, so this part of the documentary was very eye opening to me. They were facing imprisonment (and more) for something I do usually more than once a week. The documentary also did a good job of showing their difficult escape from England to Holland, and their thought process as many began to see that their arrangements in Holland were not ideal either. They had the freedom to worship, but many found it difficult to make a living in Holland and they were afraid that the Dutch were setting a bad example for their children. They had also come to Holland during a time of peace, and by the time they were making plans to leave, the Dutch were preparing for a war. Going into detail about their years long search for a place where they could worship freely really gave greater context to this story. Religious freedom is always a part of the story but it's usually so rushed that it feels like they suddenly got frustrated in England and decided to pop on over and give North America a try. The reality is so much more involved than that.

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This documentary also showed the congregationalists' struggles with "the strangers" the other Englishmen who were to join their new colony, people they hardly knew, differed from them greatly in their religious views and therefore outlook on life. The fact that not everyone on the Mayflower was a separatist is something that is often overlooked when discussing this historical event. The congregationalists also had disagreements with those financing their journey. Negotiations lasted years and most did not find out until the last minute the extent of what would be required of them (a six day work week with no personal time included, among other things).

The Mayflower Compact was brought out, as were the reasons it was believed necessary (they did not land in "English" territory like they had intended and some believed that that meant none of their previous laws and agreements were binding). I think maybe it could have been brought out more, given its importance to this story and to the broader story of America.

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The difficulties of the sea voyage and the first winter, as well as the great loss of life, were documented here, though they too could have been emphasized a little more. The devastation that had befallen the Native Americans that had previously lived in the area that the colonists eventually settled, was also brought out, and the impact that it had on Squanto, the only survivor of that village. He had survived because he had been kidnapped by the English years earlier and after escaping his captors, he returned to find all his loved ones had tragically died of disease. The relationship between Squanto and this group of English settlers is one that's usually included in the many tellings of this story, but this documentary does expound on it using the writings of certain settlers and through members of the Wampanoag nation sharing what how certain events would have been seen in the eyes of their ancestors.

The feast that the colonists and the Wampanoag people shared is included in this documentary, of course, but it's not the main focus of the film. More historical context is given through the writings of some of the colonists and through interviews with members of the Wampanoag Indigenous Program, whose goal is to educate people about the Indigenous people of southeastern New England. Important details that are highlighted are the significance of the Wampanoag people gifting certain men of the colony with deer, as well as the fact that three days would have been considered a short celebration in Wampanoag culture.

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Often in the telling of what we call "the first Thanksgiving", Squanto is the main Native American in the story. The colonists owed their lives to Squanto's help for sure, but another key figure that is often overlooked in basic retellings is Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag tribe that the colonists made a treaty with. The colonists owed their lives to him as well! The tribe had been weakened by disease and was in need of allies, but if Massasoit  hadn't decided to accept these colonists as allies, they surely would have been at an extremely vulnerable. The colonists ongoing relationship with Massasoit  (primarily carried out through Edward Winslow, who often acted as ambassador) is detailed here but I think to truly comprehend it, you would need to know much more about Massasoit himself and his culture. The focus of this documentary was intended to be the Mayflower passengers so one would have to look to another source for this.

What I believe this documentary does really well is fleshing out some key characters in this story, making them seem more like real people, as opposed to construction paper cut-outs from the first grade. It does this with Squanto (though I still wish there was a little more about him), but I think it does this best with William Bradford and Edward Winslow, as their writings served as good bit of the source material for this documentary it seemed. By getting to know their first hand accounts, down to gritty details of their experience, this historical even feels real and relatable in ways that it didn't before.

This is a three hour documentary, and while what it covers is good, my biggest complaint with it would have to be that it's still a little oversimplified. There's a lot more that could be covered if they made it longer! There are plenty of primary source materials to draw from so I wish they had done even more than they did, and they could have included more from their representatives from the Wampanoag Indigenous Program. There is so much wrapped up in the experience between this group of settlers and the Wampanoag people that became their allies. 

I believe some of final statements of the documentary draw a good conclusion (paraphrase):

The separatists set out to create a community of fellow worshipers and like-minded people, but the Wampanoags taught them that the real work of life is learning to live with others.

Those are wise words that are still true today. Sadly, the peace between the colonists of the Mayflower and the Wampanoag tribe under Massasoit lasted throughout the lifetime of those leaders but was devestatingly destroyed within a generation as thousands more settlers from England arrived. The fact that we as American people have not yet learned to live with each other in a way that respects other people's rights and cultures has truly been our greatest tragedy. I think looking to this early example of peace and thanksgiving (however brief), with the full knowledge of everything that lead up to it and everything that followed, is still a worthwhile thing to do. As one of the representitives from the Wampanoag Indigenous Program said, it gives us a chance to see "where some things went right, and where some things went wrong."

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Good points: It does a good job of fleshing out the story of the Mayflower passengers, and a passable job of portraying the Wampanoag people who became their allies. The characters feel like real and relatable people and it doesn't just stick to cliches, forcing the reader to view situations more complexly. I also liked that they made a point to draw on primary sources, mainly the writings of William Bradford and Edward Winslow. Including interviews with members of the Wampanoag tribe for cultural and historical context was also a good feature of this documentary.

Bad points: It was still too simplistic, though this is understandable given that it's hard to cover all the nuances of this important historical event in just 3 hours. In focusing on bringing out lesser known aspects of the story, some of the more important parts were somewhat brushed over. I would have liked to have seen even more quotes from primary sources, as they are abundant. I would have also liked to have seen more from the Wampanoags' point of view, though that wasn't necessarily this particularly this documentary's focus.

Cautions: There is occasional violence, though not graphic. Seasickness is dramatized and other bodily functions are discussed in the context of being on a ship. The birth of a child on the Mayflower is dramatized and discussed (nothing graphic). This documentary deals with death several times, sometimes on a large scale, especially during the first winter when a large percentage of the colonists died. The death of a young child is discussed at one point and it is presumed that he died from being overworked to help his family survive. When Dorothy Bradford dies, commentators discuss whether or not it might have been suicide. King James is shown being very mean to a young boy in his court. 

Boundless Adventure's recommended age: 11+ or junior high with parental/adult guidance (though probably not a good idea for particularly sensitive children), otherwise 14+ or high school

Other recommendations: This is a good documentary for parents and teachers to watch with their children. A good topic to discuss is learning to see historical events and people as real, like you and me, and looking beyond stereotypes and cliches. I would also recommend following up with another documentary or reading material about the Wampanoag tribe. I will publish an article soon with some good follow-up material.

Conclusion: Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower might not have all the shock value that its original ad campaign implied, but it does a good job of helping us view the broader scope of the Mayflower Passengers' story, especially the story of the separatists. It brings out many overlooked aspects of this important historical event. The message it leaves about learning to live with others who may be different from us is incredibly relevant. While it's not a perfect documentary (being far too short to cover everything), it does begin to open our minds to the complexities of the Mayflower story.

If you'd like to watch it for yourself, you can purchase it here:

Or purchase it as a part of a 3 DVD set (DEAL!):

Love cheap books? I do!

Disclosure: I am an associate of Amazon, but NOT of the History Channel, though if they wanted to sponsor me, I'd accept it! I couldn't promise any positive reviews about shows involving swamp people, storage containers, or attributing historical events to aliens...

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