Mayflower

Mayflower_

Happy Thanksgiving. This seems a fitting day to recommend what I’ll now think of as the definitive account of the first English settlement in 17th century New England.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower is easily the most vividly rendered, thorough and balanced account of that important history that I’ve come across. Not just exhaustively researched from primary sources, but digested, clearly contemplated, and then presented to the reader in such a way that he feels transported to that time and place. It’s a portrait that somehow manages to hit the story of 1620 from every angle, to portray the interior and exterior lives of all the players and how they influenced events. The title of the book is a symbolic play; it’s actually about all that that first Pilgrim voyage in 1620 would portend. Thus, though it starts in 1620 (actually several years before, as he fills in the backstory), Philbrick concludes his narrative in 1675-1676, the time of King Philip’s War, which effectively finished the Indians of Southern New England as a force to be reckoned with. (The latter event was one of the lures of the book for me. A climactic, tragic event of that two year war was The Great Swamp Fight, which was fought on Narragansett territory in my home town). This horrible war ranks as the worst in American history by some measures (e.g.,casualty rate) , and certainly it’s extremely most important in terms of precedent, but gets such short shrift in both the teaching of history and in American popular culture that I doubt that most Americans even know about it (as I doubt if they can name any other important Indian war either apart from Custer’s Last Stand). The ignorance is telling and needs to be redressed.

There are so many things this book does so well it’s hard to know where to begin. Chief is probably the three dimensional portrait of the Native Americans, which I found illuminating to the point of earth-shaking. Philbrick gets down into the capillaries of the politics of the era, the complex diplomatic relationships amongst the numerous tribes, and of those tribes with the Europeans, none of which were monolithic or homogeneous. Tribal leaders like Massassoit, Squanto, Alexander, Philip and dozens of others are treated as they undoubtedly were: as calculating, strategizing, thinking political creatures, neither helpless, naive pawns, nor treacherous savages. Massassoit and Squanto, invariably painted as “the friends of the Pilgrims” in children’s books, might better be described as “allies”. The Indians no less than the Europeans are given credit for brains, agency and motive. They come across as recognizable human beings; I’m not sure that I’ve ever encountered this anywhere before, at least not as well done as this. The book strikes me as quite revolutionary in this way. And likewise, just as Philbrick helps us navigate the different Native tribes, he also helps us understand the differences between the Pilgrims (or separatists) and Puritans, the nonformists who founded Rhode Island, and the people who were there for strictly economic reasons.

Philbrick seems to know just what to include to take us there, which details are important to make the experience real to us, and when to feed us numbers. (At which point are there 100 whites in New England? 50 (since a bunch died off the first winter)? 1,000? 20,000? 60,000?) After a long period (about a decade) of isolation, the early colonies grew really fast, altering the balance of power to an extent that must have been terrifying to the natives. Their backs to the wall, they banded together (some against their will) in an all-out effort to push the English back into the sea. Though they ultimately lost (in what would prove a sort of catastrophic template) this would be the one occasion when it might be said that the Natives really got in their licks; for a while they seem to have almost pulled it off. (According to Philbrick, by some measures, economically the colonies didn’t recover for almost a century after King Philip’s War).

Best of all (the dramatist in me says)…he makes you see it. What they wore, what they owned, what they ate, how they lived, how they traveled, what they felt like. Both sides. And, as you’ll see, there was so much complex interaction between natives and whites, for so many there were no sides at all. They were caught in the middle. And that’s the tragedy of it. Why should there be sides?

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