Books!: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

At this point, it was many moons and a few short posts ago that I saw Ric Burns’ new film on The Pilgrims, which was part of the Smithsonian’s History Film Forum. Write-up here. (If you haven’t seen The Pilgrims yet, go do it.) The summary of the film is that the founding of Plimoth Colony has but the most passing of relationships with the popular perceptions we celebrate every Thanksgiving holiday.

Shortly after the Film Forum, I was at the library when the colorful cover of Mayflower caught my eye. I saw the author was one Nathaniel Philbrick, who most recently is known for having written the book on which the recent Chris Hemsworth movie, In the Heart of the Sea, is based. I have neither seen the film nor read the book, but I had heard the book was positively reviewed by people who matter. That was enough for me, so Mayflower came home with me.



Conclusion: Two thumbs WAY up. His narrative tone is light and not bogged down in academe-ese. The first half reinforces the Pilgrim story as told by Ric Burns: the uneasy truce between the Pilgrims and the Strangers, basic survival, William Bradford’s almost fanatical religiosity, the complicated relationships with the native local Indian tribes. The second half took a completely different tone, and while the segue was a bit abrupt, the topic covered – King Philip’s War – was really interesting because I had never heard of it until this book.

The string of events leading up to King Philip’s War made a lot more sense when the book was fresh in my mind. The gist of it is that the Pilgrims had made peace with the Wampanoag Indian confederation (led by Massasoit), but the second generation of both of these groups distrusted each other and wanted to serve their own self interests first. Mostly, King Philip, Massasoit’s son, had a bone to pick with Plymouth Colony, Governor Winslow replied, and it got out of control. The Europeans wanted more land, the Indians were increasingly dependent on European goods, and everyone was out for their own gain. Unsurprisingly, both groups devolved into war and basically ruined the relationships between whites and Indians. For all of eternity.



Massasoit and his warriors peacefully with the Pilgrims


It’s a lot more complicated than that. But the thing that stuck out to me: In unifying against the warring Indian tribes, the Europeans (Pilgrims, Strangers, maybe the Puritans, etc.) formed the United Colonies of New England in 1643, to include Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and New Haven. Each sent delegates to a central location. According to this book (pg 180 to be exact), Philbrick says that it is difficult to find an English precedent for something like this. It was Holland* who had had similar confederations, and apparently John Adams says this was the inspiration for the North American Confederacy of 1774, which led to this thing called the United States.


John Adams is judging you.

(*Ironic, considering that one of the reasons the Pilgrims left Holland for the New World was because their children were becoming too Dutch.)

The immediate results of the war were pretty traumatic. Something like 60-80% of the Indian population of New England were killed, there were no longer any “friendly” Indians and so there were many wars with the Europeans. The colonies were forced to ask for military support from the English crown, which their forefathers had initially fled, which led to the incorporation of Plymouth into Massachusetts.

SO: I highly recommend this book. Even though the segue to King Philip’s war seemed like it came out of left field, I think Philbrick’s conclusion reinforces his original premise – that is, the original original founding of the United States.



Freedom* terms and conditions may apply


And because I really wanted to include these, but no place to put them, here’s a collection of pithy one-liners from the concluding chapter, which traces the Pilgrim story and the Native story, through various permutations and national ideologies, to the modern Thankgiving and archetypal American mindset:

(p. 345) “Within a decade of King Philip’s War, James II had appointed a royal governor to rule over New England, and in 1692 Plymouth became a part of Massachusetts. By doing their best to destroy the Native people who had welcomed and sustained their forefathers, New Englanders had destroyed their forefather’s way of life.”


(p. 347) “The Pilgrims’ religious beliefs played a dominant role in the decades [after landing], but it was their deepening relationship with the Indians that turned them into Americans …For a nation that has come to recognize that one of its greatest strengths is its diversity, the first fifty years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what America might have been from the very beginning.”


[ The Wampanoag left no written record, but there is the legend of Maushop, told around the Cape Cod area. Here is another account of the legend from a different book. There are loads of accounts on the Googles. Very interesting to read them in the context of the devastation caused by their neighbors and the Europeans. ]


(p. 352)  “An Indian from Rhode Island named Simeon Simon, who was reported to be a direct descendant of Massasoit, fought beside George Washington for all eight years of the Revolution.”



Links: (The Pilgrims) (In the Heart of the Sea)

Legend of Maushop

Second Legend of Maushop

School House Rock Youtube page



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