Alwyn York, CCCC Historian
Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower is the most readable book on the Pilgrims that I have found. Philbrick is a masterful storyteller, with a knack for bringing history to life. The book is based on serious scholarship and his sources are thoroughly documented, but in a way that does not intrude upon the narrative.
The book gives a three-dimensional portrait of the Pilgrims, going beyond the rosy picture we may have of the First Thanksgiving from grade school. Philbrick is a secular historian, but I was impressed by the way he strives to be fair to both the Pilgrims and their Indian neighbors. He tries to present both sides as they understood themselves. Christian historians have had a tendency to idealize the Pilgrims, while many recent secular historians have tended to demonize them because of their treatment of the Native Americans. Philbrick tries to avoid doing either.
The title of the book is a bit misleading. Mayflower deals with a longer period of time than just the early days of the Pilgrims’ arrival and settlement. By extending the story of the Plymouth Colony into the second generation we learn of a less familiar and darker aspect of the Pilgrim story. About half of the book is about King Philip’s War, a bloody conflict that produced great loss of life both among the colonists and the Native Americans, and whose results were devastating for the tribes. In a sad irony of history, the leaders of the two sides in the war were the sons of two men of the previous generation who had been close friends. Josiah Winslow, governor of Plymouth, was the son of Edward Winslow, a Pilgrim who was a great friend of the Indians and had negotiated the terms of the peace that had prevailed in the early days of the colony. King Philip (or Metacom), leader of the hostile tribes, was the son of Massasoit, the chief who was a faithful ally of the Pilgrims all his life. The way that early friendship and cooperation between the two groups of people deteriorated into hostility and war is a truly tragic story.
Parts of this book will be painful reading for us as heirs of the Pilgrims. We would like to see them as always righteous and heroic. But much like the Old Testament historical books, Mayflower portrays the people of God realistically with both their virtues and their flaws. In their relationships with the Native Americans we see how Christian love of neighbor and evangelistic concern sometimes gave way to racial prejudice and greed. Philbrick points to the spiritual decline that was seen after the first generation as a major factor leading to the war that would occur: “Instead of the afterlife, it was the material rewards of this life that increasingly became the focus of the Pilgrim’s children and grandchildren.” (p. 198)
Philbrick describes the interesting way that the Plymouth colonists and their Indian neighbors mutually influenced each other in the early years. The traditional picture of cooperation and friendship that has come down to us is more than a myth. Philbrick observes, “For a nation that has come to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is diversity, the first fifty years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what America might have been from the very beginning.” (p. 347) Mayflower illustrates what a Christian community can be when its people truly act according to their faith but also the sad effects when such a community departs from its principles.