Review: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I wanted to read something relevant to the season; a friend gave me this book late last year and I’ve been saving it to read this November in honor of Thanksgiving.  What’s the real deal behind Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims and Indians of lore?  I think we know it wasn’t exactly like the cheesy, kitschy lessons passed along in early grade school where the Indians welcomed the Pilgrims, with their big buckled shoes and tall hats, with open arms and the two communities founded America peacefully together.  So what really happened?

What really happened was that a relatively small group of Separatists (so-called because of their extremist Christian views and desire to separate from England’s church) left England to escape religious persecution (at the time, the English monarchy ran the church and everyone was expected to worship as the Church dictated; to fail to do so was punishable by severe penalty).  Initially they emigrated to Holland, but after several years there, they felt that their children were losing touch with their English heritage, and so they decided to set off for the Americas, hoping to recreate their English homeland in virgin territory, where they could worship as they chose.  And so, on September 6, 1620, after numerous delays, the Mayflower set sail from Holland.  She carried a little over 100 passengers; contrary to wide assumption, only about 50 of those passengers were Pilgrims.  The rest were comprised of “Strangers” – that is, people who did not belong to the Pilgrims’ congregation but who wished to make a new home in America just the same.  The journey across the Atlantic was a long and arduous one; still, only two lives were lost along the way.

When the Mayflower finally reached America in November, what they came upon was a the sterile, desolate landscape of Cape Cod.  Winter was almost upon them, and they were desperately short on food and other provisions.  Over the first four months of their residency in America, half of the passengers of the Mayflower would die from starvation and/or illness.

Although at first it seemed that their new home was unoccupied, they soon encountered Indians, who were, naturally, wary and suspicious of these Europeans, having already had negative relations with European traders and merchants before them.  One of the first things the Pilgrims did was pillage Indian graves and steal corn from the Indians’ underground stores.  Not a good way to begin friendly relations.

Still, the Indians and the Pilgrims, after some initial minor skirmishes, managed to forge a tenuous alliance; in a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours atmosphere, the Indians taught the Pilgrims how and what to plant in the way of crops, showed them where the best fishing and hunting could be had, and the Pilgrims provided the Indians with modern conveniences such as tools, guns, and medicine.

If you are one of the many who believe that America was founded on Christian ideals, you would be wrong.  Although the Pilgrims were devoutly (fanatically?) Christian, they recognized the importance of creating a secular government, “a government based on civil consent rather than divine decree.”  They understood all too well the dark side of living under government-imposed religion and they intended to create a society in which every citizen was free to worship (or not) as they wished.  Even marriages, from the very beginning, were civil ceremonies, not religiously ordained ones.

What about Plymouth Rock?  Did you know that Plymouth Rock was never even mentioned until more than a hundred years after the Pilgrims landed in America?

“In 1741, the ninety-five year old Thomas Faunce asked to be carried in a litter to the Plymouth waterfront.  Faunce had heard that a pier was about to be built over an undistinguished rock at the tide line near Town Brook.  With tears in his eyes, Faunce proclaimed that he had been told by his father, who had arrived in Plymouth in 1623 [three years after the Mayflower landed], that the boulder was where the Pilgrims had first landed.  Thus was born the legend of Plymouth Rock.”

And what about the first Thanksgiving?  First of all, it most likely did not take place in November, but more likely in September or early October.  Further, it was not referred to as the Pilgrims themselves as “Thanksgiving”; that name was not applied until the nineteenth century.

“Countless Victorian-era engravings notwithstanding, the Pilgrims did not spend the day sitting around a long table draped with a white linen cloth, clasping each other’s hands in prayer as a few curious Indians looked on.  Instead of an English affair, the First Thanksgiving soon became an overwhelmingly Native celebration when Massasoit and a hundred Pokanokets (more than twice the entire English population of Plymouth) arrived at the settlement and soon provided five freshly killed deer.  Even if all the Pilgrims’ furniture was brought out into the sunshine, most of the celebrants stood, squatted, or sat on the ground as they clustered around outdoor fires, where the deer and birds turned on wooden spits and where pottages – stews into which varieties of meats and vegetables were thrown – simmered invitingly.”

Also served up was wild turkey, which was plentiful in the area, fish, and plenty of beer, a staple of the English.  There was certainly no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie.  “There were also no forks, which did not appear at Plymouth until the last decades of the seventeenth century.  The Pilgrims ate with their fingers and their knives.”

Okay, honestly?  I would love to try to recreate this and experience an authentic Thanksgiving – wouldn’t you?

So for about fifty years, the Pilgrims and Indians coexisted somewhat peacefully – not always agreeing with or understanding one another, and certainly with occasional skirmishes and acts of violence, but for the most part, they lived respecting the others’ way of life and contributions to each other’s way of life.

However, when the second generation of Pilgrims were all grown up, and more and more Europeans had emigrated to America, relations with the Indians began to deteriorate.  The white people became more and more greedy for land and all but froze the Indians out of what had originally been theirs.  It was inevitable that all our war would break out, and in 1675 what became known as King Phillip’s War began – a bloody war lasting fourteen months and resulting in massive loss of life.  In the end, the Pilgrims and Puritans prevailed, and most of the surviving Indians were taken into slavery:

“It has been estimated that at least a thousand Indians were sold into slavery during King Philip’s war, with over half the slaves coming from Plymouth Colony alone.  By the end of the war Mount Hope, once the crowded Native heart of the colony, was virtually empty of inhabitants.  Fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ children had not only defeated the Pokanokets in a devastating war, they had taken conscious, methodical measures to purge the land of its people.”

Kind of makes one stop and think about the pride we Americans take in being American, and the value we place on our liberty and freedom, when we were so willing to take that from the native people of America.

An excellent read if you’re interested in American History – I highly recommend this one.


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