Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Much has been written about the Pilgrims and their first few years in America, but as Nathaniel Philbrick explains in his book Mayflower a lot of what we have been taught is false. Philbrick does an excellent job chronicling the first sixty years of the Pilgrims’ settlement in America.

The book briefly covers the Pilgrims’ persecution in England and how many of them escaped to Holland to avoid further persecution – and why they choose to leave Holland for America. It then details the torturous sea voyage on the Mayflower and their first hesitant steps in the New World. The bulk of the book covers the first few years of the Plymouth Colony and their relations with each other and the Indians. The book generally builds up for the last part – King Philip’s War – and how it affected race relations from then on in New England.

Philbrick has written a masterpiece on the first years of the Plymouth Colony. He thoroughly dispels many of the myths we have about these first European migrants to New England. For example, the Pilgrims did not first step foot on American soil on the Plymouth Rock, but instead on a sandy spit on Cape Cod. Another example is the first Thanksgiving wasn’t a Norman Rockwell painting with people sitting inside around a table with a cornucopia of food. In reality, most people either stood or sat on the ground around open fires that cooked deer or fowl on spits.

Philbrick also thoroughly explains the complex relations between the Pilgrims (and non-Pilgrims because many of the first settlers were not Pilgrims) and the Indians in the area. Initially, many of the Indians were either fearful or outright hostile to the Pilgrims because of past transgressions of other Europeans and the Pilgrims themselves (they stole a hidden cache of corn and they pilfered a grave). However, due to the benevolence of one of the Indian chiefs, the Pilgrims were able to survive that first year and eventually prosper.

I like how Philbrick puts the blame for King Philip’s War squarely on both the Pilgrims and the Indians. Although the Indians may have prompted the Pilgrims into starting the bloodshed, the Pilgrims were just as much to blame in their condescending manner toward the Indians and their land grabs. Although the original Pilgrims were able to live in harmony with the Indians, their children were not. The pure arrogance of some of the Europeans is astounding – they thought they could beat the Indians with European-style warfare. Unfortunately for them , they were sadly mistaken.

This is a fine read for anyone interested in the first years of European settlement in New England.

1 Comment

  1. “The pure arrogance of some of the Europeans is astounding”

    My question: What hubris gives Philbrick the right to ‘rewrite’ history? Is he adjusting past events to fit current political thought?

    Jeff, I have been wandering in a later part of America than you, from 1740-the end of the century. And I have been grading the historians. No, not Philbrick, but other revisionists. What they have wreaked on the Founding Fathers is startling. (I understand revisonism, with its Marxist roots, first began in the early 20c.)

    So my question to Mr. Philbrick (whose title I passed up recently for more traditional histories) is: how can you morally judge the Europeans? What moral basis entitles you to judge them? Little of the academic morality I know today would.

    Marxism will offer alien bases for the revisionists; Philbrick may not be corrupted by it. Still I would insist though that he judge us by American biases, if he is writing as an American historian.

    I am skeptical of those today who ‘step into Indian shoes.’ The very culture that permits the making of this book is derived from European expansion. Its treatment of the Indians–for better or worse– is part of that fabric. You do well to acknowledge that limitation. I don’t think you can step outside that mixed past. Such should make for a balanced tolerance, a three dimensional story, for our ancestors, Indian and other.

    Indeed I doubt Philbrick’s facts are enough. Are they factoids created by his biases? Hopefully,in the interest of intellectual transparency, he uses a forward to advise the reader so. History, you see, is no science today. Nor an art. But it can often be ideology.

    Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis tell me some of the strange nature of contemporary academic history. When as a grad student, I asked a local university for a plan of study that emphasized the classical period and 18c. America, I was rebuffed. The young lady who interviewed me forced me to listen to her enthusiasm for women’s studies and African history.
    Neither of which is American history.

    Wood or Ellis notes that academic history bears little use for us, the public. Most revisionists will not be read beyond a few years, and then by other historians. Their special theories and frenetic scholarship will be wasted, for it is we, the people, who make the understanding of our history.

    I am here to understand my American past. To learn who I am.

    Not to sit in judgment of those who were my ancestors, lest they sit in the same for me. Indeed, a chilling thought, when one looks at contemporary academia, media, or politics.

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