Book Review: Mayflower

History as it should be written. 

Some of you might remember that Doc Richards and I attended a Bunker Hill book talk featuring author Nathaniel Philbrick a few weeks back. Inspired, I decided to pick up Mayflower, another work of Philbrick’s which focuses on the Pilgrims, Plymouth Colony and the origins of America. I tore through it in a couple of days - a nice palate cleanser after the literary Long March that was Democracy in America (my previous conquest). 

Philbrick is an engrossing history writer who understands that good history isn’t about the recitation of dates and names, but rather the story which falls in between. Mayflower had me hooked. Given the approach of Thanksgiving, this seasonally appropriate book brings you inside the cramped ship which brought our Pilgrim forebears to the shores of New England, then charts the course of the colony they created, terminating decades later with the great bloodletting that was King Philip’s War.

The Pilgrims (as many of you already know) were Protestant separatists from the Church of England who journeyed to the New World in 1620 to create their own home and worship freely - theirs being a particularly hardcore form of Protestantism which frowned on frivolities like dancing, gambling and joy. Initially intending to setup shop in Virginia, they instead landed in Massachusetts and established rule of law by signing the Mayflower Compact. The Pilgrims then proceeded to suffer through a bitterly cold winter during which food was scarce and death abundant (they’d lose half their number by the Spring).  Eventually, they came to an understanding with the Pokanokets (the local native tribe) and secured the desperately needed agricultural assistance which enabled their survival. The Pilgrims held a celebratory thanksgiving feast, attended by their new found Indian allies. Afterwards, everyone would fall deeply asleep midway through the 2nd Quarter of the Cowboys game.

The Mayflower Compact was the governing document of Plymouth Colony. 

In substance, this traditional recounting of the story is true, but Mayflower does a great job of  coloring in the surrounding complexities.  For instance, of the 102 souls aboard the Mayflower, half were considered ‘Strangers’ who did not follow the Pilgrim’s faith tradition; tensions would result. They came along purely to assist in constructing and maintaining the colony at the behest of the Merchant Adventurers - the group of businessmen who invested in the Pilgrim’s expedition, hoping to establish a transatlantic trade empire. The colony’s military commander, Miles Standish, ranks among the best known Strangers and was, by most accounts, a short, bloodthirsty cuss with an explosive temper; Yosemite Sam in buckle shoes.

Interestingly, the Pilgrims & Strangers were only able to lay the foundation for long term stability and fend off chronic food shortages by eschewing their communalist tendencies. Philbrick explains, 

The Pilgrims had grown crops communally ... something drastic needed to be done to increase the annual yield. In April, Bradford [the Governor] had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. “The women now went willingly into the field,” Bradford wrote, “and took their little ones with them to set corn.” The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never starved again.
— Nathaniel Philbrick

Massasoit emerges as one of the book's real (albeit complex) heroes. 

The Pilgrims were also not the first whites to visit New England. The European fisherman who preceded their arrival had unintentionally spread the devastation of disease throughout the native population - a true holocaust which, in some tribes, decimated their numbers by fully 90 percent.  The tribespeople who first encountered the Pilgrims were survivors of this apocalypse. Massasoit (the Indian chief or ‘sachem’ whose tribe assisted the colonists) initially extended the hand of friendship to the Pilgrims out of fear that they might otherwise unleash a second devastating plague upon his people.  Massasoit’s principal adviser, Squanto (an English speaking native who had previously lived a captive among the Europeans), fed his sachem’s paranoia while building a strong personal relationship with Plymouth colony’s leader, William Bradford. Silently coveting his own chiefdom, Squanto cunningly established his indispensability as a bilingual go between, and secretly plotted the overthrow Massasoit.  Holy intrigue, Mr. Philbrick!

In truth, there did develop a true bond of friendship between Massasoit’s people and the Pilgrims but - much like a dysfunctional family locked in passive-agressive struggle around the holiday table - both sides were not immune from engaging in power politics and manipulation.  

Philbrick paints a layered picture of the English/Native dynamic and their surprisingly successful relationship which initially flourished, leaving you with a great historical ‘what if’ to consider. Fifty years later, the relationship inevitably disintegrated to the point of armed conflict; the first shot being fired by King Philip, the fatally flawed son of Massasoit and aspiring leader of a Pan-Indian alliance.  An orgy of violence spread like wildfire across New England, pitting desperate native people against equally desperate colonists and their Indian allies. The stakes were existential and the impacts enormous, but it’s largely been ignored in American memory.

King Philip's War was a watershed moment in the history of early America, with casualties proportionally equivalent to the Civil War.  

The book moves right along and while reading, you can’t help but wonder why there hasn’t yet been a screen adaptation.  There’s so much to work with and it’s got everything you want - a period piece with complex characters, violence, redemption, tragic heroes and abject villainy. Oh wait … evidently some television execs at FX have gotten the memo about Philbrick’s well spun yarn. Getya popcorn ready (but read the book first)!