Destination: New England
Book: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathanial Philbrick
We might call it Nathanial Philbrick: Myth Buster
The story of the pilgrims fascinated me because although my ancestors did not arrive on the Mayflower, they were not far behind.
Myth 1: “Pilgrims” were the first settlers.
Although many other Europeans landed on North America before the Mayflower, the Puritans and companions who stepped ashore in what is now New England, did found the first still-enduring community. That information is not new, but this book’s background on the prior expeditions sheds light on the settlement of Plymouth.
The pilgrims also drew up a remarkable compact of governance which set the stage for participatory democracy on this continent that we now take for granted, and it is interesting to get the background on that.
My own ancestors were on that ill-fated boat that turned around and went back to wait out the winter storms. They re-boarded and arrived on the 2nd boat. I’ve always been quite proud of that fact, but after reading Philbrick’s Mayflower, my pride mixed with a good deal of pondering.
His subtitle, Courage, Community and War sums up the main themes of this book. These people were indeed courageous.
Myth 2: They were all religious.
Not all 102 passengers were Puritans, driven by a sincere desire to start a church in a new land unhampered by state-imposed religious restrictions. Some were along for the adventure, or because they simply had run out of other options. This was a community that had moved together from Holland to England and intended to move as a body to the New World. Had they not had this sense of community, they would never have survived to the second winter.
Myth 3: They were surprised by the Indians and both parties were hostile from the beginning.
The War in the subtitle refers to King Philip’s War, rarely touched on in history books. When I was growing up, the Indians were relegated to the role of grateful guests at the Thanksgiving feast. Our awareness of the lives of Indians, and the relations with non-Indian settlers has made its way into our national story. It is politically correct for non-Indians to feel guilty. Philbrick paints a more complex picture than the 1950′s version OR the P.C. version of today.
But, and this was another revelation for me, the original Puritan fathers were quite fair and respectful in negotiating and the natives responded in kind. It was the second generation of Europeans that took a harsher view and provoked the bloody conflicts referred to in the subtitle as “war.” (This reminds me of what happened with the Hawaiian missionaries. See post about Hawaii here.)
I hope that you will have an opportunity to travel to the New England shores where the Pilgrims landed–not at the present location of Plymouth Rock, of course, and perhaps not on a rock at all.
Although the area around the alleged Plymouth Rock seemed tacky, I did enjoy a visit to Plimoth Village, a tasteful recreation of life inside the fort constructed by 1627.
Philbrook presents the deep background that helps us viscerally understand the world as seen by the Puritans and their fellow early world travellers as well as the complex and shifting alliances among Indian tribes along the coast.
Instead of one fateful moment–stepping onto a mythical rock–we have fifty years of struggle, painful decision making, letting go of assumptions, and building of new alliances. This book certainly provides food for thought for the traveler to New England.