Sure, pilgrims were thankful ... just to have (barely) survived

It all seems bountiful now -- turkey and football and pie and parades and such. But that first Thanksgiving, in the fall of 1621, marked survival against fierce odds. A well-crafted mini-series starts Sunday, focusing on that. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

When the Pilgrims
had that first feast, almost 400 years ago, there was a good reason
to give thanks.

They had survived
... barely. A flawed idea had worked out.

“They were very
average people who took this kind of amazing leap,” said Vincent
Kartheiser, who stars in the new “Saints & Strangers”
mini-series. “(They) were faced with really daunting tasks.”

They needed to farm
and hunt ... skills few had. “They had previously been cobblers,
store owners,” said Seth Fisher, who co-wrote the film. “Suddenly,
they had to learn how to use a musket, build a house, form a

Previous colonies
had floundered. One, on Roanoake Island, N.C., disappeared; another,
at Jamestown, Va., had temporarily disbanded, after 80 per cent of
its people died, then re-formed.

Now the Mayflower
headed toward Virginia, was pushed north by strong currents and ended
up the less-known Massachusetts. Onboard were the mariners and 102
settlers, including:

-- More than 50
separatists. To avoid the Church of England, they had fled first to
the Netherlands and then helped charter this voyage, looking for a
new life. “It was decidedly a more conservative life,” Fisher
said. “They refrained from singing hymns .... They didn't celebrate
Christmas as a holiday.”

-- Others who wanted
fresh starts. “The Mayflower's journey was a commercial venture,”
Fisher said. “The whole group was supposed to send back any sort of
profit, any harvests.”

-- And a guy who
knew what to expect. “Stephen Hopkins is the only one who actually
had been to the New World,” producer Gina Matthews said.

Previously, he'd
been shipwrecked on an island, led a failed mutiny, was sentenced to
die and then ws pardoned. He'd worked at Jamestown, returned home
after his wife died in England ... then headed back on the Mayflower
with his second wife Elizabeth, who was pregnant.

He'd promised “that
the baby would be born in Virginia,” said Natascha McElhone, who
plays Elizabeth. “Not only is it not born in Virginia, but it's
born at sea. It survives and is called Oceanus .... She married quite
late, ... then did go on to bear five children, amazingly.”

Mostly, though, the
plan for a vibrant population failed. By the time of the harvest
feast – almost a year after they'd arrived – about half the
Pilgrims had died, including 13 of the 18 adult women.

One of the deaths
was John Carver, the first governor. William Bradford – whose own
wife had fallen overboard and died while he was in the landing party
– took over. He would be elected four more times, leading during
the majority of the next 36 years.

“He was actually
such a modest and humble guy that he rarely mentioned himself in”
his books, said Kartheiser, who plays him.

Bradford became “the
moral compass of the new colody,” said Tim Pastore, National
Geographic's chief of original programming.

And yes, Kartheiser
said, that's a leap from his “Mad Men” character. “Pete
Campbell was the opposite of that – almost no moral compass at

The mini-series was
filmed in South Africa, with a flood of historical advisors. The
native characters, Pastore said, speak “Abenaki, a dialect today
spoken by less than 20 people.”

We'll hear the
Pilgrims' biases against them ... and tne natives' anger at other

“They're letting
us de-santize the idea of Thanksgiving,” said Raoul Trujillo, who
plays Massasoit, a tribal chief. “We bring it down to the
nitty-gritty of ... human beings and trying to make a better life.”

-- “Saints &
Strangers” two-parter, 9-11 p.m. Sunday and Monday (Nov. 22-23),
National Geographic.

-- Full miniseries
airs 7-11 p.m. Monday (repeating 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and at those same
times on Thanksgiving; also, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 29, 3-7 p.m. Nov.