Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
by Nathaniel Philbrick

 

Philbrick has done nearly an impossible task for today’s popular history reader. He has written an excellent story that avoids the pitfalls of historical revisionism in the American academy and presents the story of the Plymouth colony in its context, while at least considering why this particular colony became the American family myth, in a sense, the Romulus and Remus story of the American republic, nearly 400 years later.

 

While the title is Mayflower, only a fraction of the book’s nearly 500 pages deal with the actual voyage by the Puritan Separatists, originally from the north of England and their new found, “Stranger” friends aboard the world’s most famous cargo ship. Philbrick has done some original research into the life and culture of the Pilgrim Separatists in their native villages near Scrooby, England. The book can be divided into two halves: the background, departure and settlement of the original Pilgrim Separatists and then he fast forwards a generation to the 1670’s in New England and the terrible native vs. English and native ‘friends’ struggle known as King Phillip’s War. Philbrick’s thesis is that while the Pilgrim Separatists are unique in American and even world history for their devotion and plan for resettlement of their break away Reformed sect into North America, it was the contact and intermingling with the native American tribes that kept the new settlers from breaking up further and insulating themselves into even more narrower Reformed, religious communities.

Philbrick does an excellent job of explaining just how difficult and nearly insurmountable the original settlement into Plymouth colony was and the immediate necessity of establishing alliances with one native tribe over another. The tension of creating that famous ‘city on the hill’, the safe Christian English community with a frontier, cross-cultural interaction with groups like the Massoait and coastal New England tribes is really what is best presented in this book. The first “Thanksgiving”, really a harvest festival, with the local tribe that the Pigrim Separatists had formed the most successful alliance, is presented without a hint of the mythology that later surrounded them in the mid-1800’s. And, great pains are taken to show Pilgrims as a people living constantly in coram deo, in the presence of God.

Rather than telling the chronological story of the growing Plymouth colony, the 1670’s 18 month King Phillip’s War with part of the local tribe that originally befriended the Pilgrim’s, is contrasted with the first contact in the 1620’s as a way to show how past small relational actions taken early on, later exploded in deadly enemies and some alliances. The hero that Phibrick chooses to highlight, Pilgrim grandchild, Benjamin Church, essentially a militia special forces officer, embodied how the small colony related to each other and the native tribes, in trust, war and part understanding.

Church’s development from Indian hunter, to reconciling agent, acts as a personfication of Philbrick’s thesis of his book.

The Epilogue and prologue are useful for entering and ushering out the reader into the drastically different world of the 17th century. The book has very useful maps, illustrations and does a great job of showing how the Pilgrim story has been reinterpreted over the centuries, and how the myths and realities of the Pilgrim story are often stronger than is realised today.

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