The Surprisingly Exciting Story of the Mayflower
The 102 passengers of the Mayflower caught their first sight of the New World on
November 9, 1620. By one report, they were “not a little joyful.” Little wonder. After delays that had pushed their arrival into late autumn, they had spent the past nine weeks crowded into a dank, airless space 75 feet long and barely five feet high, with cold salt water dripping down their necks through the deck above. They were off course and low on provisions.
Nathaniel Philbrick tells their story with verve and sympathy in his new book, Mayflower:
A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Viking, $29.95). This important account of
the first permanent settlement in New England unfolds a rousing tale of adventure even as it prompts us to rethink America’s early history.
Philbrick marshals figures familiar from school pageants and forces us to look at them with new eyes. Here comes the short and violent-tempered warrior Miles Standish; there’s the 21-year-old cooper John Alden; there the noble and calculating Massasoit, his painted face glistening with bear grease. They have come together to share the famous feast.
That historic thanksgiving celebration, which followed a winter that left half the original contingent dead, was not the decorous affair of our cultural iconography. There were twice as many Pokanokets as Pilgrims in attendance, deer as well as wild turkey were roasted, and all the participants ate with their hands. But the tradition of friendship between Englishmen and Indians was accurate, a tribute to adept diplomacy on both sides. It was a hopeful time for all. To the Pilgrims, “these were human beings, much like themselves,” Philbrick writes. “Quick of apprehension, ripe witted, just,” was how the Pilgrim leader Edward Winslow described the natives.
The Indians had been through a rough time themselves. Only a few years earlier, Native Americans had densely populated the New England coast. A plague had broken out in 1616, decimating many of the tribes and turning villages into ghost towns. “Their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground,” wrote William Bradford, both leader and chronicler of the Plymouth Colony. “A very sad spectacle to
behold.” The devastation had shaken the balance of power among the various tribes. With his people hit hard, Massasoit was anxious to make an alliance with the newcomers. Thus began half a century of fragile peace during which each side learned to adapt to the ways of the other. The Indians enthusiastically embraced the marvelous technology that the English offered, particularly the musket. The Pilgrims learned lessons in agriculture and survival from the Indians, adopting corn as a staple food. The newcomers formed a semblance of the godly community they had envisioned, spiritually focused but religiously intolerant.
The situation began to unravel when, during the unrest that surrounded the English Civil War of the 1640s, thousands of Puritans followed the Pilgrims to American shores. The human ecology of the region began to feel the strain.
By the 1650s the Mayflower generation was dying off. Josiah Winslow, Edward’s son, became governor of Plymouth in 1673. Metacom, Massasoit’s son, inherited the role of
Pakanoket sachem. He had taken the name Philip, and colonists derisively referred to him as King Philip. Enmity grew on both sides. The English wanted to acquire land; the Indians wanted to end English encroachment.
The second half of Philbrick’s book describes the conflict, known as King Philip’s War, that began in 1675. From a minor scrimmage it grew to engulf most of New England. Winslow rejected the more benign views of his father’s generation and waged a campaign of genocide against all Indians, including those who had helped the English on their arrival in the harsh New World. “Praying” Indians, who had converted to Christianity, were rounded up and imprisoned. Winslow initiated the practice of selling captives into slavery, and more than a thousand Indians were shipped to Spain and the West Indies during the war. “The children of the Pilgrims,” Philbrick notes, “had very short memories.”
“By immediately assuming the conflict was a racial rather than a political struggle,” the author writes, “the English were, in effect, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.” The two
years of hostilities devastated the region. The average per capita income in New England would not return to its prewar level for a century. The war also established a tone of racial animosity that would dominate relations between whites and Indians for generations.
Philbrick relates both the noble and the tragic chapters of this tale with generosity toward both sides. He enriches the texture of his narrative with illuminating, often surprising details. The Mayflower, he tells us, made only one additional trip after returning to England; its captain soon died and the ship was sold for scrap. We learn that once the second-generation Pilgrims abandoned their wattle-and-daub cabins for large clapboard houses, 75 acres had to be deforested each year to supply a small village with firewood. He notes that one of the wonders that accompanied the first Thanksgiving was the sight of New England foliage in full color, an astounding sight to English eyes. Philbrick not only tells the Pilgrims’ story from a fresh perspective, he makes it resonate with the America of 2006:
—Early settlers had to choose between building a fort and augmenting dangerously inadequate food supplies. “The question of how much of a society’s resources should be dedicated to security,” he notes, “persists to this day.”
—The colonists found that abandoning communal agriculture and allowing families to farm for themselves significantly increased productivity. “The change in attitude was
stunning. . . . The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism.”
—In a single generation, the Pilgrims saw some of their traditional values fall to the wayside as the younger crowd became more enamored of real estate than religion. The book ends on a note of regret that the spirit of the first Thanksgiving vanished so quickly. “There are two possible responses to a world suddenly gripped by terror and contention,” Philbrick writes. One is to assume a posture of arrogance, fear, and violence;
the other to learn from your enemy and “try to bring him around to your way of thinking. First and foremost, treat him like a human being.”
Both responses were apparent during the seventeenth-century encounters between Indians and English. Today the choice still confronts the citizens of the New World, 35 million of whom are descended from those wretched, determined, joy-filled passengers who stepped off the Mayflower one day in 1620.