Mayflower: A Story Of Courage, Community, And War, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Sometimes the familiarity of a story can blind us to its quality and character, and such is the story of the Mayflower. The author apparently wanted to write a revisionist story about the settlement of Plymouth but decided instead to broaden the scope of the Mayflower to discuss the fateful nature of various choices, including the absence of pastors for Plymouth and the insatiable land hunger of the second generation of Pilgrim and Puritan settlers and the way that decisions and choices made by people avoided conflict or created a near-genocidal war that has shaped New England to this day. The author notes the struggles of community and how it is that people can be blind to the way that they appear to others, and this book does a good job at framing Thanksgiving in such a way that the mutual appreciation of the Pilgrims and their neighbors did not last as the Pilgrims and Puritans forgot their initial struggles and made decisions that led to the disastrous and sanguinary King Phillip’s war, a war that was far larger than its often ineffectual namesake, a war that was a genuine civil conflict among the native peoples of North America.
This book is a bit more than 350 pages and it tells the story of the Pilgrims from the late 1500’s and early 1600’s to the bloody aftermath of King Philip’s War in the late 1670’s. We begin with a look at English Separatists and their attempts to be free to practice their beliefs (even if they were not always keen on giving those freedoms to others) and to remain English in the face of cultural pressures in the Netherlands. Despite numerous problems, including their capacity for being duped, the Pilgrims found themselves struggling to establish themselves in a Massachusetts that had been decimated by disease shortly before their arrival, but thanks to some support and their own diplomatic and military skills, they managed to preserve their own safety and encouraged a larger Puritan settlement within ten years of their own arrival. The growth of their communities and the dispersing of people in search of land and money led to increasing pressures on native tribes, which eventually exploded into a war that the author talks about in considerable detail for its fierceness and for its consequences on the people of the region and their historical reputation.
This book is a long one, but its tale is one that is worth thinking about. The author’s approach to his subject points out that history is made up of the repercussions that spring from the choices of people, ourselves included. The author has some clear points to make about those choices, seeing in people like Benjamin Church and William Bradford the opportunity to learn from others and seek to deal fairly with others, and seeing in others the hostility and lack of knowledge or interest in others that can lead to disastrous mistakes that can have serious consequences for the lives of societies as a whole. While there are other writers who have sought to deny the Pilgrims as being people of decency at all, this author can be praised for having a far more complex view of humanity that shows the way in which honorable conduct, severe weaknesses, and personality drama unite the personal and political and demonstrate the common humanity that we all struggle with and that sometimes allows us to, even in spite of ourselves, become people of grand historical importance, as was the case with the people discussed in this book, for all of their diverse backgrounds and worldviews and perspectives.