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Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

 by Nathaniel Philbrick; Viking, 2006

The challenge to Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower is that it’s a story we think we already know. In the popular imagination, the Pilgrims are seen as God-fearing folk in buckled hats and white bonnets enjoying a Thanksgiving feast with their Indian friends.

Philbrick’s comprehensive and skillfully rendered narrative shows that this simplistic vision of harmony is far from the whole story. Philbrick, who lives a short distance from Plymouth, on Nantucket Island, is a fine historian possessing a storyteller’s gift for vivid detail and memorable characterization. His previous books have been nautical histories, including his 2000 bestseller In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, which earned him the National Book Award. And while Philbrick’s description of Mayflower’s 1620 voyage is a small masterpiece, most of his narrative is devoted to inland Plymouth Plantation.

The book covers the first two generations of Plymouth, taking readers from the 1620 landing to the 1676 conclusion of a bloody war between the English settlers and the Indians, a conflict known as King Philip’s War. Over the course of those fateful 56 years, the Pilgrims went from the brink of extinction to become a dominant power in New England. Needless to say, the arc of Indian power moved in a different direction.

When the Pilgrims anchored at Plymouth in December 1620, they were shocked to find the land unpopulated.They considered it a divine blessing. As Philbrick makes clear, it was anything but. Between 1616 and 1619, the local Indian population had been devastated by diseases introduced by European fishermen. Philbrick estimates that “as many as 90 percent of the region’s inhabitants” had been killed by the time the Pilgrims arrived.

The closest tribe to the Pilgrims’ new settlement was the Pokanokets, led by a sachem (tribal head) named Massasoit. With his tribe weakened by disease, Massasoit negotiated a peace treaty with the new settlers, and his adviser, Squanto, would become critical in helping the Pilgrims survive. Squanto showed the settlers how to grow corn and hunt wildlife. Yet, despite Indian aid, more than half the settlers had died by the spring of 1621.

Problems arose when the Pilgrims discovered that Squanto had ambitions of his own, and would use Machiavellian tactics to gain power. In 1622 Squanto informed the Pilgrims that Massasoit was planning to attack them, and that they should strike him first. Governor William Bradford, whose narrative Of Plymouth Plantation provides much of the source material for Philbrick’s account, investigated and found that Squanto was lying. Nonetheless, when an outraged Massasoit demanded that Bradford hand over the traitor, Bradford refused. It was only when Squanto died shortly afterward that a crisis between Bradford and Massasoit was averted.

What Philbrick reveals is that both Pilgrims and Indians became allies for their own strategic reasons. The Pilgrims needed outside help to adapt to the new land, while the Pokanokets needed allies to offset the power of rival tribes in the region. Philbrick cites an outstanding example of how this realpolitik played out. In 1623 Massasoit informed Bradford of a plot by rival Massachusetts Indians to attack the plantation. Miles Standish, Plymouth’s diminutive military commander, then invited a few leaders of the Massachusetts tribe to hold discussions over dinner. In the middle of dinner, Standish and his men slit the throats of the Indian leaders. This massacre so intimidated the local Indians that they moved away and began referring to the English as “wotawquenange” (“cutthroats”).

As the Pilgrims expanded beyond Plymouth, establishing towns all over New England, the menace of Indian attack continued. The settlers wanted land, and the Indians wanted to keep theirs—a conflict central to American history. Philbrick describes how the Narragansetts tried unsuccessfully to forge a pan-Indian alliance to stop the expansion of white settlers. He also describes how the colonists formed a New England confederation to deal with the Indians.

Standish died in 1656; Bradford died a year later. By acquiring land and trading in goods, the second generation of Pilgrims became wealthy. Philbrick tells us how the original Pilgrims came to see this second generation as worldly, corrupt and sinful. They were also more aggressive in dealing with the Indians. In 1662, for example, Massasoit’s son Alexander illegally sold land to Rhode Islanders. The Plymouth governor ordered Josiah Winslow to arrest the Indian. Alexander died in Winslow’s custody, and many Indians concluded he had been poisoned. One of these outraged Indians, notes Philbrick, was Alexander’s brother Philip.

Philip and Winslow would become lifelong enemies, and after Winslow became Plymouth’s governor in 1673, Philip went to war against the English settlers. The second half of Philbrick’s book is devoted to the brutal 14-month King Philip’s War. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the war took on racial overtones. Some settlers wanted to kill all the Indians, including those pro-English Indians who had converted to Christianity. Those “Praying Indians,” Philbrick notes, were eventually rounded up and confined to an island in Boston Harbor.

Philbrick estimates that King Philip’s War resulted in the “loss of somewhere between 60 and 80 percent” of the Indian population of southern New England, including those killed and others sold into slavery. Plymouth Colony lost 8 percent of all its men in the war. Philbrick’s narrative follows a soldier named Benjamin Church, who led pro-English Indians into battle against Philip, and later wrote a book about it. It was Church and his Indians who finally killed Philip, thus ending the war. Philbrick’s account also ends at this point.

For those seeking to understand the truth behind the myths shrouding the Mayflower Pilgrims and their children, Philbrick’s book will be a revelation. Mayflower will also provoke debate about the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians, a debate that goes beyond the idyllic Thanksgiving scenes of harmony. The reality of this Pilgrim–Indian relationship as described by Philbrick is far darker, and would reverberate for centuries of American history. Nathaniel Philbrick has crafted a taut page-turner of a narrative that deserves a wide readership.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here