From the perilous ocean crossing to the shared bounty of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim settlement of New England has become enshrined as our most sacred national myth. Yet, as author Philbrick reveals, the true story of the Pilgrims is much more than the well-known tale of piety and sacrifice; it is a 55-year epic. The Mayflower's religious refugees arrived in Plymouth Harbor during a period of crisis for Native Americans, as disease spread by European fishermen devastated their populations. Initially the two groups maintained a fragile working relationship. But within decades, New England erupted into King Philip's War, a savage conflict that nearly wiped out colonists and natives alike, and forever altered the face of the fledgling colonies and the country that would grow from them. Philbrick has fashioned a fresh portrait of the dawn of American history--dominated right from the start by issues of race, violence, and religion.--From publisher description.
The more irritating issue is Philbrick's susceptibility to melodramatic writing, especially towards the end of the book. There's nothing that bugs me more than coming across sentences in history books that sound more like the narration from a History Channel special. Sure, it's a popular history, but it's still a book and not a Hollywood historical drama.
To end on a positive note, Philbrick's treatment of the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans in New England was thoughtful and balanced, and he did tell a fascinating story. I would definitely suggest this book for a quick and enjoyable read on the history of Plymouth Colony.
The story of the first English colonists to wash up in New England has become a myth stripped of most of its reality. We have visions of dour Pilgrims in tall hats and shoes with buckles, seated at a deal table breaking bread with smiling, stoic Indians. It’s so ingrained that it requires some effort to come to grips with the reality. Here’s some things I learned -
The Pilgrims and later the Puritans were a bunch of intolerant, bloodthirsty assholes. Both sets of “christians” came to exercise their right to worship how they wanted, but neither could allow anyone else this right. Instead the both try to stamp out the other and anyone who dares to disagree; like the Indians and non-religious settlers. The Indians were appalled at the slaughter the English got up to when in battle. Normally an Indian battle was a show of force and bravado; only a few warriors were killed and never the elderly, women or children. Neither did they rape their female captives, something we know Europeans have long been enthusiasts. Eventually though, the Indians got the hang of wholesale slaughter and got pretty good at it.
Miles Standish wasn’t much more than a thug. A convenient bludgeon wielded by the Pilgrims who didn’t deign to carry out the violence they needed to keep the Indians down themselves. Instead however much they claimed to disapprove of Standish, they let him do their dirty work; inciting fights where there weren’t any or exacerbating disagreements until it escalated into bloodshed. Also he was a short guy who had to cut 6 inches off his regulation sword lest it drag on the ground. Funny.
Both the Indians and the English manipulated each other and exploited factions and divisions to further their own ends. In the case of King Philip’s War it started because the English would impose their laws on people who already had laws. Two Indians killed another and the English put them on trial and executed them. Things like that kept happening and almost against his will King Philip (aka Metacomet, sachem of the Pokanoket tribe) went to war to keep the English from taking more advantage. Because the English quickly decided all Indians were hostile and evil, a lot of other tribes got sucked into the conflict when they would rather have been neutral. Eventually the English realized that using some Indians against others was an advantage and the tribal divisions were used against them.
When the war was winding down and over, many hundreds of inconvenient Indians were sold into slavery, ending up at brutal sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
The Wampanoag tribe didn’t exist before the English colonists. It came about to bond several tribes together in the face of the English presence. Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanokets and King Philip’s father was instrumental in creating the new tribe.
We have an idea of Indians living harmoniously the the land and showing the backward colonists how to flourish in the harsh New England climate. Truth is most of them were living hand to mouth and went hungry a lot of the time. There was a visit from the Plymouth leaders to Massasoit’s village and there was no food. None for the people that lived there and none for the guests. For two days and nights the visitors ate nothing and neither did the villagers. This happened a lot and not just to one tribe.
There was no direct representative of the English crown or government until the 1690s when James II sent someone. No oversight. No governor. Nothing. Basically the settlers were sponsored by groups of merchants and were expected to pay them back in the form of goods, but they created their own laws and government, unlike Virginia and other colonies in the south. It shed a new light on why the New England colonists got so mad about the English crown once a bunch of them started to poke their noses into things.
Oh and a big Duh to me. If I’d been taught who King Philip was, I’d evidently forgotten (somehow I think I never knew), and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out which king it was. I never heard of an English King Philip. Maybe he was French or Dutch or something. But no, he was an Indian who changed his name. I didn’t know it was a common practice in Massachusetts at the time. And I wish more of the Indian place names were still in use, even though there are a lot of them that still are. Having been born in New England and lived there for 40+ years, I really liked returning to all those lovely words. Is Massachusetts the only state named for an Indian tribe? I’ll have to google.
Mayflower does a good job describing the Pilgrims' transatlantic journey and the harrowing first years of their settlement at Plymouth; every time I read a new description of that period, I grow more and more mystified at how the group survived at all. As Philbrick makes clear, that survival depended in no small part on the reaching of an understanding with the local natives, most notably the Pokanoket sachem Massasoit.
The second half of the book concerns the rapid expansion of English settlements during the decades following the arrival of the Mayflower, and the tensions that began to develop between the second generation of settlers and their native neighbors. Those tensions erupted into a cataclysmic war in the mid-1670s, resulting in massive losses of life and property on both sides, but which was particularly disastrous to the Indian tribes in the long run. It would have been quite easy for Philbrick to have lost his narrative in the complex warren of dates, names, and places, but he manages to hold his story-line together very neatly.
There are some problems with the sources Philbrick uses for his two focal characters (Plymouth governor William Bradford and later military leader Benjamin Church), as Jill Lepore points out in her excellent New Yorker review of Mayflower. Lepore, whose book The Name of War is an excellent account of King Philip's War, knows her stuff, and her criticisms of Philbrick are valid. It is unfortunate that Philbrick chose to rely so much on Church's 1716 book (published and probably written largely by his son) to reach his conclusions - this decision mars what would otherwise be an even better book.
Philbrick eschews footnotes, a practice which I normally find frustrating and annoying. He compensates (at least in part) by providing rich bibliographic essays for each chapter, which are important additions to the narrative and should not be missed. While certain elements of Philbrick's conclusion are overdrawn and may in fact be inappropriate, his overall account of New England's settlement and the war that nearly destroyed it are certainly worth reading.
While the book is named after the Mayflower, the majority of the book centers around King Phillip's War. Personally, I would have preferred less description of war and battles and more stories about everyday life, but overall the book was quite enjoyable. I also appreciated Philbrick's prose style. Although the book contains lots of dates and names, Philbrick tells it as a story, and as such I found it much more entertaining than most histories I've attempted to read.
Fans of Mr. Philbrick's earlier book In the Heart of the Sea will find much to enjoy in the first section of Mayflower. We learn the inner workings of 17th century trans-Atlantic travel in detail. We all know this part of the story, how hard the journey to America was and how the pilgrims and the sailors formed the Mayflower Compact to guide their settlement. Mr. Philbrick tells this part of the story well, but the book really picks up speed once the Mayflower gets to America and leaves the Pilgrims there.
Mayflower has been called a revisionist history, which seems to now mean that it puts in what other history texts have left out. The details Mr. Philbrick includes are fascinating: Miles Standish was so short he was known as Captain Shrimp, behind his back. He actually had to cut the tips off of his rapier so it would not drag on the ground when he wore it on his belt. The first words an Indian spoke to the Pilgrims were "Welcome Englishmen!" Squanto, who spoke fluent English after living in Europe for many years, became the main interpreter for the local sachem, tribal leader, out of an ambition for power. The Pilgrims did have turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but they'd already had it back in England since once they were imported to Europe domestic turkeys became widely popular there.
But Mr. Philbrick's real interest is in the Plymouth colony's second generation. King Philip's War and the events that led up to it, illustrate the deteriorating relationship between the colonists and the native population that would haverepercussions throughout the history of the United States.
Much of this part of Mayflower is focused on Benjamin Church, grandson of Richard Warren one of the passengers on the Mayflower. Benjamin Church became one of the central leaders of the English in the war against the Natives of New England which was started by King Phililp, the sachem or leader of the Pokanoket Indians who had been the saviours of the Pilgrims under the previous sachem Massasoit. For almost 50 years the English and the Native Americans has existed side by side in a difficult but peaceful relationship. However, the children of the first settlers did not think they needed the help of the Natives to survive and badly wanted to expand into their lands. A series of injustices, culminating in the execution of three innocent Indians who'd been charged with murder, led to the outbreak of war. Native Americans from throughout New England joined King Philip in his attacks on English settlements. Benjamin Church argued that the English should maintain as many friendly relationship with Indian tribes as they could. He argued that few Indians wanted to join with King Philip and that most could be convinced to fight alongside the English.
During the first half of King Philip's war, few English would listen to Church; even peaceful Indians with longstanding ties to English settlers were attacked and driven from their homes if not killed or captured and sold into slavery. King Philip was not a good leader and, though he won a few significant battles, he was soon on the run from the English and from Benjamin Church. Eventually, the English agreed to let friendly Indians fight alongside them, which made it possible for them to finally defeat and kill King Philip. The English had won the war, but lost any hope of maintaining a peaceful coexistence with the Native Americans who'd lost some 60% of their population to battle or to slavery in the West Indies.
What struck me in reading this section of Mayflower was that the divisions among the Native American population is what made it possible for the English to succeed. Massasoit and Squanto both were engaged in a power struggle with other tribes that led them to see the English as potential allies. This was a strong motivating factor in the help they gave the early Pilgrims. These tribal conflicts continued into the time of King Philip and Benjamin Church. Had King Philip been able to unite the tribes in an alliance against the English, the Native Americans may have been able to drive them from New England or at least keep them confined to the settlements they already had. American history would have been dramatically different in any case.
That the English were cruel to the Indians during wartime, that they used their justice system against them, came as no surprise to me. The time period is just prior to the Enlightenment age, Europe was a violent place, there was little that the Pilgrims did to the Indians that was not done to every defeated population in Europe at the time. What did surprise me was that they sold captured Native Americans into slavery. This included women and young children and was done for the expressed purpose of removing the Indian population from New England.
It is compelling to speculate about what might had been. If a few incidents had gone a different way, if this person had risen to leadership instead of that person, who knows what might have happened. What is clear from reading Mayflower is that the path of Manifest Destiny that led to the removal of the great majority of Native American people from their homelands was not the only option available when the English first arrived in what became the United States.
Mayflower is a compelling read that you may find hard to put down and it raises many interesting points and questions that will leave you thinking. I'm giving Mayflower by Natianiel Philbrik five out of five stars.
That said, it is not really about the Mayflower though, and covers history from England through the second generation of colonists in New England with much of the book being about King Philip's War. The different colonists are not well delineated but the casual reader may not care what the differences were between the Bradfords and Winslows of both the first and the second generations. I felt that the contrast between Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Bay could have been a little clearer although Philbrick does go into it in a little detail. The book seems to end abruptly with Metacom's death and only a brief reference is made to the bloody battles that continued in that area for at least a century afterwards. A paragraph tying it together might have satisfied me a little more. The notes in the back of the book were as interesting as the book itself and it's too bad more of the information wasn't included in the main body of the work. I found it interesting that Nathaniel Philbrick did not make a connection between (Ch 3 notes) Wampanoag or Wapanoos "means 'easterner' in Delaware", and Wabanki or Alnobak, meaning "dawnland people" when he put so much effort into describing the ongoing intrigues and battles of the major factions. It was also difficult to distinguish what was fact and what was just colorful writing on his part. I like to read both fiction and non-fiction but I like to know which is which while I'm reading.
I'd recommend this book to anyone as a starting point for understanding our American beginnnings.
info contained in this delightful book that reads like a novel
Philbrick's history books. He brings what he's writing about to life. In
Mayflower, Philbrick examines the history of Plymouth Colony. In the early
17th century, a small group of devout English Christians fled their villages
to escape persecution, going first to Holland, then making a 10-week voyage
to the New World. Rather than arriving in the summer months as planned, they
landed in November, low on supplies. Luckily they were met by the Wampanoag
Indians and their chief, Massasoit, who saved the colony from certain
destruction. For over fifty years, the Wampanoags and the Pilgrims lived in
peace, becoming increasingly interdependent. I almost fell out of my chair
when I read that the Pilgrims paid the Wampanoags for grain stores they had
broken into and also for the land they needed as the colony expanded.
But...in 1675, 56 years after the colonists' landing, Massasoit's heir,
Philip, launched a war on the English that, over 14 months, claimed 5,000
lives--a huge percentage of both colonists and Indians in the area.
Philbrick once again does a marvelous job. he sets the story straight on the
First Thanksgiving, and people like Miles Standish come to life. Personally,
I learned for the first time about Benjamin Church, and for me, he was the
most interesting character in the book (outside of the group of landlocked
pirates who decided to stay on dry soil and fight Indians). The first and
last thirds of the book were fascinating and well-paced. The middle third
dragged a bit, but more because the second generation of Pilgrims were
stodgy and forgetful than because of Philbrick's writing. That second
generation, who so conveniently forgot what their parents had to go through
in order to survive, is the one that caused all the trouble and King
Philbrick then provides a well written account of the Pilgrims and their first years in New England. He focuses mostly on the hardships, community politics and interrelationship with the native Americans. Philbrick doesn't stop at this point. He continues the story chronicling the remaining decades leading up to the devastating King Philip war. For most people the history of these early years of the settlement of New England will be new information. Even if you grew reading all those historical markers on New England roads, the early history of the native Americans as told by Philbrik will be quite an eye-opener.