Nathaniel Philbrick's remarkable "Mayflower" is everything you'd hope a history book to be: illuminating, lively, and authoritative. This was simply a terrific read, a fascinating glimpse into the events and people serving as the first bricks in our nation's foundation.
Beyond the fairytale images of "The First Thanksgiving", most basic American history skips from the Mayflower's 1620 landing in Plymouth the American Revolution, glossing over the rich and brawling century-and-a-half spanning these two events. Philbrick zeroes in on the first half-century, stripping away the myth and homily typically associated with the Pilgrims and laying bare a fascinating tale of courage and deceit, of trusts forged and broken, of politics, religion, brutality, and war. All the familiar figures are there - William Bradford, Miles Standish, Pokanoket Indian chief Massoit, Squanto, and Edward Winslow, but Philbrick focuses on less celebrated figures like Benjamin Church and Massoit's son Phillip, who while hardy household names today leave behind legacies that helped shape what would become a century later the United States of America.
This is a story ripe with opportunity for politically correct revisionism, but the author walks a balanced line, alternately praising and condemning the deeds and players of both the English and the Native Americans. We learn, for example, that near-starvation in the first two years had as much to do with the Pilgrim's failed experiment in socialism as it did with harsh winters and poor soil. This led Bradford to adopt a policy allowing each family to grow and hunt not for the "commonwealth", but for themselves. Thanks to Bradford's newly discovered spirit of capitalism, the colony is soon producing a surplus of food. There may be a perverse humor in the irony of contemporary images of God-fearing Pilgrims in tall hats and buckled shoes when matched with the reality of a people who would draw and quarter their enemies and display their heads on pikes. But this is no less naive than euphemistic views of New England's "peaceful and noble Indians", who in fact warred with rival tribes for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, and showed no lack of talent or imagination for treachery, torture, and manipulation.
In short, "Mayflower" is that rare historical chronicle that reads with the all intrigue and energy of well-written novel, and important expose of an overlooked period of our history with lessons as relevant today as they were three centuries ago. Well done, Mr. Philbrick.
I enjoyed Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick, so picked up his latest, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. Mayflower is actually two books in one. The first part details the story of the Pilgrims and their establishing Plymouth Colony. The second part deals with an Indian war since named King Philip's War. Unfortunately, I enjoyed the first section much more than the second.
Philbrick's account of the Pilgrims is a fascinating tale, and I'm not sure how much is new to me and how much I've just forgotten. The author starts with the Pilgrims in England and chronicles their beliefs, their escape to Holland, their grueling voyage, the establishment of Plymouth Colony and their befriending of the Pokanoket Indians and especially, their leader Massasoit. The first year was especially perilous and over 50% of the settlers died within the first six months. Some of the original colonists were not religious men (Strangers as opposed to Saints). But they quickly realized that they all had to work together to survive. One of the most remarkable achievements by the Pilgrims was the drafting of the Mayflower Compact. Before they even landed in the New World, these men recognized the need to set up a civil government in which all must agree to obey laws set up by their elected officials. Today, the Mayflower Compact is a "document that ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as a seminal American text." The Pilgrims are also to be admired for their ability to adapt and they were willing to try almost anything to survive. In this way, they "proved to be more receptive to the new ways of the New World than nearly any English settlers before or since."
The second half the Mayflower focuses on King Philip's War and the circumstances that led to this fight 55 years after the Mayflower landing. The Indians quickly "regarded expensive Western goods as an essential part of their lives." At first, they traded beaver furs for these goods, until the beavers became almost extinct. Then the Indians started selling off their land. Eventually, tribes didn't have enough land to sustain their numbers. On the other hand, the English were land hungry. After a half century of "tenuous peace, both sides had begun to envision a future that did not include the other." One facet of the war that I found interesting was the reluctance of soldiers from Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to accept help from friendly Indians. It wasn't until they saw how successful Connecticut troops were (who engaged their friendly natives) that they finally began accepting assistance from them. This helped change the course of the war. The Indians taught them a different style of fighting (as opposed to the English method which was unsuited to New England's swamps and waterways).
One aspect of Mayflower that I found particularly confusing was the dozens of Indian tribes, sub-groups of tribes, and their leaders. Philbrick mentions dozens of groups including Narragansetts, Massachusetts, Pocassets, Mohegans, Wampanogs, Pokanokets, Nipmucks, Pequots, and Nantuckets (to name just a few). He does provide a map of the tribal territories, but only for the four or five major tribes. A list of all the tribes and their sachems would have been most helpful--especially in the section about King Philip's War.
Still, Mayflower has much good information and also gives lots of interesting trivia about the original colony and those people who settled there. They were a brave lot, indeed.
At 480 pages, Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is in many ways a complete history of the Plymouth Colony. What a read though, and the pages flew by.....Mayflower is well written. Philbrick does a masterful job at breathing life into characters who have, over time, almost become larger than life. As a child who was familiar with the Plymouth story, Chief Massasoit, William Bradford, and Miles Standish seemed hero like; characters who were super human. Philbrick does a great job of making them human, and believable.
Philbrick also manages to clearly tell the most often misunderstood part of the story, that of the Wampanoag tribes precarious situation when the settlers arrived. There was a first thanksgiving, and for over half a century the two cultures lived in peace. Then the world for both peoples exploded with a huge loss of life on both sides as the result. This sickening failure is held center stage in Mayflower. Philbricks wonderful descriptions of the early countryside is as realistic as anything else. I suspect that historians may find fault here and there throughout the novel, but for this reader, Mayflower is a terrific story about early America and the loss of so much promise.
I put down In the Heart of the Sea to quickly read Mayflower. As with other readers I am now a hooked fan of Mr. Philbrick and cannot wait for the next book. I predict Mayflower will be a run-a-way literary and commercial success.
Superbly crafted and even fast-paced much of the way, Philbrick has turned in a great nonfiction narrative, tying together pure history with delicate, artful commentary and engaging storytelling.
The first 150 or so pages bring you from Leiden to Plymouth and recount the first years of the Plymouth settlement. Philbrick's account of the story behind the pilgrimage - including a regretably brief examination of the Leiden expatriate community - are enlightening, crisp and for many I suspect, new.
He leans a little too heavily on indian fighter Benjamin Church and the events surrounding King Philip's War in the second half of the book, and the narrative lags. Not only because it seems that in the martial history Philbrick finds himself, certainly not over his head, but, out of his element; but also because the war years begin to feel like a story further separated from the Mayflower/Plymouth one than Philbrick supposes or intends to show.
Philbrick's research and recount are impeccable and are taken in large part from his work with the native oral history of the time. This approach informs a new understanding of the motivations and explanations for the events that transpired beginning in the early seventeenth century and continued into almost the early nineteenth.
The English conquest of the New World was not only a triumph of technology, but was indeed the ascendancy of an economic system, as global capitalism and its realities and rigors began to exert themselves in an onslaught that continues through this very day. Philbrick at times seems to ignore the fact himself (he never explicitly makes the connection to the indian slave trade that he returns to on a few occasions), but his story puts the organic and momentous nature of the capital economy - and its effect on starting and controlling the events of the story - on full display.
I think also that there is a glimpse of Philbrick's next work as he evinces a writer's proclivity to see elements of one motif in examining another. He repeatedly returns to the transmogrification of certain of the Pilgrim elite into a new type of uniquely American character: the frontiersman. Expect him to leave New England's briny coast for western climes soon.
Overall, this is a worthwhile read, or was, even for a New Englander steeped in pre-colonial history. It is made all the more so by the enjoyment - in parts - of some of the finest nonfiction writing of anyone at work in America today.
From an early age, I have been fascinated with American history. It has been exceedingly difficult for me, therefore, to understand why history seems to be the worst taught subject in primary-secondary schools. Social studies tend to have the poorest passing rates of the core subjects in standardized exams. Some scientific and lesser surveys find college students and many teachers unable to identify the most significant events in this nation's life. Little wonder, then that manipulative politicians so easily mislead the public into viewing current events using artificial facts and fallacious cause-effects.
Nathaniel Philbrick's new history on the colony established by the Mayflower survivors is an excellent example of how history should be presented. I believe the problems with the teaching of history are the phony legends and the mindless emphasis on dates/names that students are force fed. Less important are the why's, what-ifs and consequences for the choices made by people and governments. Those are the questions that this Mayflower book seeks to address.
While I may have read much about American history, I was totally unfamiliar with characters such as Benjamin Church and the Indian leader, Massasoit. Also new to me was the depth, cause and destruction of King Philip's war between the settlers and Native Americans.
Church's story was particularly fascinating since he sounds so much like a character from a John Ford-John Wayne western movie. Church was the original "Hondo" who sought to know the natives and enlist their aid instead of destroying them. But, he fought with a strategic and spirited manner that won him numerous victories and respect from the colonists and Indians. It is too bad that so often true life characters seem harder to believe existed than their fictional counterparts.
I wonder if we stopped teaching social studies as a means to pass a standardized test and more as a means to develop critical thinking skills, then students would have more of an appetite for the subject and hungry students would demand more on their plate than rote memorization. This would, though, mean losing our elementary need for legends of chopped cherry trees, sainted ancestors, and guiltless aboriginals. I think it is worth the effort.
on September 7, 2006
I picked up this book with great anticipation, as it tells not only of the initial years of the founding of Plymouth but also of the following decades and King Philip's War.
However, I feel a lot of detail was lost, given the scope of the book. Almost no mention of the daily life in Plymouth. Almost no discussion on how religion was involved in Plymouth's governance (and religion was the primary factor for the migration). Almost no discussion of the social structure of the Indian cultures. Also, no attempt is made to put the actions of the both sides in historical context. The author does not explain why both sides felt that their actions were justified, given the culture of the times.
Such discussions would have been helpful because every time (not just occasionally) the author delves into a good juicy slice of history, it is marred by the author's personal (and modern) interpretation of the events. Moreover, the author's disgressions into opinion are not offered to help the reader interpret the facts or understand the context of the events. They are simply offered as the modern-day "truth," of the morality of the Pilgrims. To make matters worse, the opinions are not balanced, they are almost exclusively anti-Pilgrim.
However, because the author leaves out discussions of the Pilgrims' daily life, governance and religion, Indian social structure, and the cultures and viewpoints of the time, the reader is given no context in which to try to understand why the author has concluded that the Pilgrims are the only ones worthy of criticism. Without such context, the reader is left to conclude that the author's comments reflect some embarassment or an attempt to apologize for reporting what actually happened.
If you can ignore the commentary, the books is otherwise a good read. It does a good job of linking two events (the founding of Plymouth and King Philip's War), which are normally treated as separate episodes in history, into one continous, evolving story. However, it would have been a better read if the author had simply stuck to the story insteading of telling the reader how to feel about it.
on February 10, 2007
This history of the Plymouth Colony is a fascinating work. It is clear from the narrative and his notes at the end of the book that Nathaniel Philbrick took the time to perform careful and thorough research of every available European and Native American source, and walked the ground to see for himself where many of the events he narrates occurred.
"Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War" is a refreshing re-examination of the well-trodden ground of the Separatists' history as a schismatic Calvanist sect in England and Holland, and the establishment of their colony in the New World. The author then carries the narrative into less familiar territory as he explores the complex and ever-evolving relationship between the colonists and their Indian neighbors up through the aftermath of King Philip's War in the 1670's - which, if you consider the percentages of native and colonial population impacted, was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil.
The story is told with a fresh set of eyes. These people had their own unique flaws and strengths, and - despite Victorian interpretations to the contrary - didn't walk on water: Sometimes with faith, inspiration, and courage; sometimes with (to modern eyes) stunningly bad judgement, incompetence, and bigotry; they made it to the shores of Plymouth Bay and established a colony that was able to survive and even thrive. In being willing to learn-from and co-exist-with their Indian neighbors, they formed the seed for a new country: a land no longer dominated by Native Americans, but also creating a culture that was not purely European either.
This book is ultimately a tragedy: what really makes it an outstanding piece of writing is that Philbrick brings to life how, for all the promise and success the colony had due to its willingness to accept the natives (in some ways) and learn from them, there were fundamental currents and societal conflicts that were never overcome. These eventually led to war, where the children of Massasoit's people and the Pilgrims clashed in an incredibly bloody, genocidal conflict that ultimately destroyed both groups' strength and pre-emininence in the region: almost entirely wiping-out the Wampanoag people, and reducing the Plymouth colony to a shadow of its former self, from which it never fully recovered.
In the end, this book uniquely illustrates and celebrates how very human the Mayflower colonists, their Indian neighbors, and their descendants, were. It is a well written and well researched text: very readable, very informative, doesn't shy away from unpleasant facts, and works hard at providing a balanced narrative encompassing both the English colonists' and Native inhabitants' points of view.
Anyone seeking to learn about the rich texture and complexities of life in Massachusetts in the 1600's, and the impact that these colonists and their neighbors still have on us today, is well advised to read this book.
on May 16, 2006
This book is fascinating. It deals with a subject most Americans know a little--but not much--about. We have a rather idealistic view of the Pilgrims. We know they came seeking religious freedom, founded Massachusetts, planted corn, met Squanto, had a nice Thanksgiving, and lived happily.
The reality is much different, to be sure, and very interesting.
They did indeed, come looking for religious freedom. And they suffered far more than most realize. So did the Indians. This book deal with both--and the eventual collapse of the initial tentative relations between the two groups.
The Pilgrim/Indian balancing act was never all that good. Both sides struggled and worked for advantage. Both groups manipulated each other, and , in the end, both sides were unable to hold things together. I came away with the impression that it was doomed to failure from the start. And it probably was.
Some of the characters in the story are different from the myths we learned. Squato was a manipulator. The Pilgrims themselves were not above creating a blood bath from time to time. Its amazing the good relations lasted as long as they did.
It is interesting to note that the Indians did not have an easy time of it. They were devestated by disease. They, too, suffered from hunger, and struggled to survive. They taught the Pilgrims to plant corn, but their own food supply was never guaranteed. Life was grim, and death was alwas tugging at their elbows.
This is quite a book. Its even-handed, fair, and objective. Its also eye-opening and fascinating. I enjoyed it greatly.
The author tells a remarkable story, and remembering it will not be difficult.
Nathaniel Philbrick's exhaustive history of the first 57 years of the Plymouth colony and its relationship with the Indians. (Happily, throughout the book, Philbrick makes life easier for the the reader by disdaining politically correct terms like "Native Americans.") In its turn, Philbrick's history can also be exhausting. It is so filled with detail, much of it just slightly - and thus irritatingly - extraneous, that at times reading it is something of a battle. But the journey is worth it.
Philbrick takes no sides. He does not lionize the Indians; he doesn't demonize the colonists. The result, hopefully, is something near the truth. A history of a half-century which saw the original colonists essentially being saved by the Indians, who had their own political reasons for doing so, to a headstreong, ambitious Indian chief starting an unnecessary war, but a war that was welcomed by the land hungry colonists.
As Philbrick puts it, " . . . by choosing to pursue economic prosperity at the expense of the Indians, the English put at risk everything their mothers and fathers had striven so heroically to create."
In all, it's an interesting story, one which is regretably not taught accurately in our schools. The Pilgrims are not necessarily the prim and proper prigs they are painted as and the Indians are far from the noble beings exploited by cruel colonists. A tad wordy, in my opinion, but overall an excellent addition to the American library.
on November 26, 2015
Caution! If you download the Kindle version of this book, it isn't the entire book but only part of it. This bait and switch is not typical of Amazon so I don't know why the whole book isn't available for Kindle. I did enjoy what little there was to read and Mr. Philbrick is a fantastic writer and makes it all come alive. But I'd advise buying a hard copy if you want the whole book.