Nathanial Philbrick's The Mayflower
Nathanial Philbrick's The Mayflower follows the Pilgrim's adventures from the early days in England to after King Phillip's War. The history is detailed, thorough, and clear. Each chapter presents the information in a balanced way and finishes with convincing analysis. The characters from history jump from the pages, and Philbrick succeeds in making the Pilgrims trial and tribulations real for the reader.
The book is equally divided between the founding of Plymouth colony and King Phillip's War, a lesser known war to modern Americans, but, according to Philbrick, one of the shaping events of our early history.
King Phillip's War is considered to be one of the most bloody wars in North America. To provide contrast: America lost less than 1% of our male population in World War II, 4-5% during the Civil War, but Plymouth colony lost 8% during the 14 months of King Phillip's War. Clearly, this was a devastating engagement, and despite the heavy loss, it did not correct the "Indian problem" but heightened the issue. The thick barrier of 'friendly Indians' was eliminated, laying the colony open to attack by other, presumably unfriendly, Indians farther West. While some of the Indians that fought in KPW were obviously hostile and resentful of the English, many were friendly and relied heavily on the English for trade, goods, and income. Many of these were also recent Christian converts, named Praying Indians, and they, particularly the Praying Indians on Nantucket Island, stood staunchly against King Phillip and his plans for supreme power in New England. The myth that KPW was strictly English versus Indian debacle is not true.
Philbrick illustrates the inconsistencies of the fabled story of Thanksgiving and corrects other misconceptions. The Indians and the Pilgrims did work together at the beginning, but it was not as beautiful and peaceful as the story the elementary school children learn. From the beginning, there was controversy between the English and the Indians over land and resources; though for the first few decades there was a peace, largely architected through Massoit, the leader of the Pokanokets and Edward Winslow. However, even this was tenuous, as Massosit, though powerful, could not speak for the entire Indian population. This initial peace, made between friends out of a shared need for resources, ended in the next generation when Winslow's son and Massosoit's son, King Phillip, realized that there was not enough room for both Indian and English interests.
Our perception of the Pilgrims is largely the product of subsequent generations' memories or views of the true history. In the late 1600s, Thomas Faunce, elderly and feeble, wanted to return to Plymouth to see where his father first landed. He assigned a large rock near the original colony as the first landing spot for the Pilgrims. As a result of Faunce's assignation, the myth of Plymouth Rock was born. Philbrick makes clear that there is no mention in the journals written by Pilgrims from the Mayflower of a landing on a rock; in actuality, the Pilgrims most likely pulled their small landing boats onto the beach. Nevertheless, Faunce's 'memory' was too romantic a notion to ignore. In another way, the myth of Thanksgiving sprang out of the need for a shared history during the Civil War. Lincoln commemorated this day to provide a means for the North and South to find common ground during the war. Prior to this, Thanksgiving was celebrated, in a way, on Founder's Day, which was in December.
Today, many of these realities of this early life in New England have been wiped away to make room for patriotism and myth-making. As Philbrick says, history makes an odd jump from Plymouth Rock to Lexington and Concord, with no real attention made to the steps in between. Philbrick's book attempts to fill in some of this forgotten area.