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A new documentary on the ‘Great Dying’ uncovers a tragic chapter in Indigenous history before the Pilgrims arrived

Paula Peters of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and filmmaker Jim Smith.PBS

It’s been 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, and there’s still much to be learned, and unlearned, about the complicated history of that first gathering between members of the Pokanoket Wampanoag and a group of English colonists in the village of Patuxet, now known as Plymouth.

One piece of that history is the prequel to it, which is little explored. Prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, a mysterious plague decimated the coastal Indigenous population in the region, and a new documentary, “Surviving New England’s Great Dying,” aims to delve into the story.

Directed and produced by filmmakers Jim Smith and Phil Vaughn, the documentary, which recently debuted on New Hampshire PBS and can be streamed online, stemmed from what was going to be a dive into Smith’s past after he learned he was a Mayflower descendant.


“In the process of retracing my steps, I found mention multiple times of this terrible sickness,” said Smith, who formerly worked at WBZ. “In reading on, I concluded there was an even more important story to tell.”

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, a vibrant Indigenous community of an estimated 100,000 people lived along the coast of what is now New England, from Maine to Cape Cod. Over the course of about 30 years leading up to the Pilgrims’ 1620 arrival on the shores of Patuxet, approximately 75 percent to 95 percent of the population had been wiped out, according to the film.

“The waters were teeming with fish, the woods full of game, but where are the people?” Smith asks in the documentary. “There is evidence of a settlement, but the inhabitants are gone.”

The 30-minute film looks at what happened during that period, although much is still unknown. The disease is thought to have started in the region that is now Maine when European fishermen began trading with the Abenaki people, who’d long lived on the land.


“Interactions between Indigenous people and those new arrivals appeared to have been the gateway for sickness,” Smith says in the film.

The film features leaders and members of local Indigenous groups as well as historians and educators discussing the impact of the disease, its devastating spread, and the loss of oral histories and culture.

“And their customs, the customs of [Indigenous] people is to gather and pray over [loved ones],” said Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “It was in their custom beliefs to spread the disease even quicker without even knowing it.”

The documentary also draws parallels to the current pandemic, addresses vaccine hesitancy among some Indigenous populations, and looks at how choices are being made in some communities against a backdrop of government mistrust.

“We know disease was weaponized in American history,” Northeastern history professor Chris Parsons says in the film, touching on laws enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that forced sterilizations on Indigenous populations. “Medicine has not been a neutral thing for Native Americans.”

The film also asks viewers to consider how the course of European colonization might have been different had there been no plague when the pilgrims first arrived on the shores of Patuxet.

“I don’t think they would have been welcome,” said Peters. “I think the ship would likely have been turned away, and they would have been instructed to go find somewhere else to colonize.”


The documentary is also a story of survival and resilience among Native American communities. Amid the COVID pandemic, tribal leaders are trying to rebuild a measure of trust in the medical system at a moment when vaccines offer strong protection from severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

“I feel like I owe it to my next generation,” Peters said of her decision to get vaccinated. “Imagine if 400 years ago the Wampanoag had some sort of vaccine for that Great Dying, in what a different place we’d be in today.”

“We’ve lasted through history and I don’t think COVID is going to stop us,” said Attaquin Weeden of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “I see a lot of beautiful babies being born. We’re still growing.”

At one point in the documentary, Smith talks about learning he is a Mayflower descendant, and shares a reflective moment with Peters, whose ancestry traces to Patuxet.

“I don’t hold you accountable for the actions of your ancestors,” Peters says to Smith in the film. ”I hold you accountable for the future ... I don’t want to say these are reparations, but we certainly need to tell the story of our ancestors in an accurate and complete way and with balance.”

The two filmmakers hope the documentary project can be used for educational outreach. The Great Dying is rarely taught in public schools, and Smith and Vaughn plan to distribute the documentary nationally with education materials, in addition to hosting public screenings and discussions.


“We want the content to be used in classrooms — whether it’s at a university or elementary school — we want to provide teachers with support and content to help them incorporate these lessons in classrooms,” Vaughn said.

“This is an important story in our history that most people don’t know about,” Smith said. “It needs to be told through Indigenous voices, and as Paula said: ‘We’re still here.’ That’s an important point that needs to be made.”

The documentary will air nationally on PBS in January.

Watch “Surviving New England’s Great Dying”:

Brittany Bowker can be reached at brittany.bowker@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @brittbowker and on Instagram @brittbowker.