books History

Blundering to America: Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower”

Current hagiography and mythology concerning America’s founding goes something like this: God preordained an industrious and liberty-loving people, the Pilgrims and Puritans, to found a new nation that would advance the causes of liberty, progress, and civilization for the whole world; European colonists and imperialists, moved by greed, landed in America and systematically wiped out the peaceful indigenous peoples then replaced them with slave labor to feed their greed and exploitation of the world. One story is old. The other fairly recent.

Mayflower was first published in 2006 and republished in 2020 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. Nathaniel Philbrick made his bones as one of the preeminent historians of local New England writing about Nantucket Island, the New England whaling industry, and a literary defense of Moby-Dick. It isn’t that surprising, then, that he inevitably took up a tale of New England’s most contested historical moment: the founding.

Philbrick certainly cuts down to size the conservative and whiggish receptions of New England’s founding moreover than the new sanctimonious social justice propaganda. In telling the story of the Pilgrims and the Puritans, it invariably focuses more on them than the Native Americans, though he does spend plenty of time with certain key figures like Massasoit and “King” Philip and their role in the founding of America. Opening the book, Philbrick makes clear that the Pilgrims were in a very dire situation even before landing in Massachusetts:

The passengers were in the between, or ‘tween, decks—a dank, airless space about seventy-five feet long and not even five feet high that separated the hold form the upper deck. The ‘tween decks was more of a crawlspace than a place to live, made even more claustrophobic by the passengers’ attempts to provide themselves with some privacy…So far only two had died—a sailor and a young servant—but if they didn’t reach land soon many more would follow.

Thus the Pilgrims turn back to Plymouth instead of sailing down to the Hudson or Virginia.

Philbrick’s narrative is graceful and lively; it is the penultimate example of easy-reading popular history filled with a flowing beauty that makes reading a pleasurable enterprise. He largely focuses on key individuals which give the book a personal touch and human face: William Bradford, the Indian sachems Massasoit and Philip, John Church and Mary Rowlandson to name a few key players from the seventeenth century. The narrative is also intertwined with humorous stories that demythologize the founding narratives: Like when Bradford stepped into a native deer trap; when Pilgrim settlers had to steal corn stock just to survive the winter or bleed their hands foraging for roots and nuts in the cold ground; when Native Americans quickly learned to be better marksmen with muskets than the English settlers themselves!

In detailing the fumbling and blundering of the Pilgrims, Philbrick’s work returns us to the gritty realistic world of the seventeenth century founding: America’s creation was by no means a foreordained conclusion. Half of the original settlers died after the first winter. They were constantly blundering into trouble and constantly betrayed by those whom they trusted must. It is truly the case that they were dependent upon Native American kindness in order to survive the first decade of their settling in Plymouth. These intentional pilgrims became accidental survivors.

While Philbrick’s history mostly cuts down to size the conservative and whiggish hagiographies, he doesn’t spare what has become ignorant commonplace sacred dogma from the SJW-Left. It is true many Natives died from first contact because of disease, but there was nothing intentional about medically related crises. Moreover, in concentrating on the Native sachem (chief) Massasoit and Philip, we learn how petty politics dominated the indigenous tribes who were far from peaceful victims of European colonialism.

When it became clear that the Pilgrims were not just traders and travelers like earlier Europeans who encountered the Natives, Massasoit endeavored to strengthen his position against his Native American rivals by allying with the Pilgrims. (We must never forget that Native Americans warred among themselves, often brutally, in a tribalistic warrior culture before the arrival of the Pilgrims and continued to do so after the arrival of the Pilgrims.) Power scheming and struggles ensued as various Native leaders tried to connive against each other to get the Pilgrims on their side to win tribal power back home. How Machiavellian of the Indians.

A united New England and a largely united Native American opposition did not come into existence until King Philip’s War. Until then, the New England colonies had often been isolated and stubbornly isolationist. Each community wanted to pursue its own course with disregard for others. Some communities sought very peaceful relations with their Native neighbors. Others disregarded Native American customs and concerns and endangered everyone else with their arrogance.

Metacomet, better known to us as “King” Philip, was the second son of Massasoit who strengthened his tribe by allying with the Pilgrims. It is ironic, then, that the son of the Indian chief who most strongly allied with the Pilgrims and ensured their survival would become their most fearsome enemy and also contribute to the survival and formation of America—not through friendship but through hostility. King Philip’s War was not the product of aggressive English colonialization or imperialism. It was the result of Matacomet’s political designs and ambitions. As Philbrick reminds us, “It is easy to mock past attempts to venerate and sanctify the Pilgrims, especially given what their sons and grandsons did to the Native Americans. And yet we must look with something more than cynicism at a people who maintained more than half a century of peace with their Native neighbors. The great mystery of this story is how America emerged from the terrible darkness of King Philip’s War to become the United States.”

The concluding section of Philbrick’s magisterial popular history reveals to us that it was a war instigated by a former friend of the Pilgrims that forged the pillars of what would become the United States—as if by accident! Before King Philip’s War, the various New England colonies and settlements were often disjointed, unorganized, and independent of each other. Only through a new terrifying enemy that did pose a serious threat to them did the New England colonies form a united confederation that laid the groundworks for a more united colonial apparatus and mindset. Likewise, Philbrick highlights the Machiavellian guile and cunning of King Philip and how we stealthily prepared for war against the English settlers under their noses: forging alliances with other disgruntled Native tribes and buying state of the art English weapons for land with the intention of winning the land back with the very weapons the English settlers sold him.

In the end, the success of New England wasn’t from preordained providence, the inevitable triumph of liberty, progress, and civilization, or even stout colonialism and greed. New England’s coming into its own was often the result of haphazard blunders turned into wild success: accidentally stumbling into Indian corn grain, fishing in the one spot to catch fish to survive the next week, and randomly running into King Philip one day in the middle of the wilderness.

Mayflower is a wonderfully written history that doesn’t tell the ardent historian or avid layperson anything new. But to the vast swath of Americans and even internationals who are mired in the hagiographic story of Pilgrim heroes or Native American victims, Philbrick’s lively story brings us back to the gritty realities of history. The Pilgrims were often on the razor’s edge of disaster for fifty years, even during the height of King Philip’s War when a decisive Native American victory could have broken the back of the New England colonies. Likewise, the Native Americans were far from peaceful indigenous peoples who became the hapless victims of European greed; far from it, the Native Americans led by King Philip launched a brutal and all-out war against the descendants of the Pilgrims and Puritans which forever changed the distant but relatively peaceful and friendly relations the two peoples shared from 1620-1675.

From Philbrick’s beautiful hand, it wasn’t the landing at Plymouth that gave rise to America but the intense struggle of King Philip’s War that paved the war for America’s founding. And between 1620 when the Pilgrims made landfall and August 1676 when a Christianized Native American warrior shot Metacomet, the Pilgrims often haphazardly stumbled their way to survival and eventual dominance. In this tour-de-force we encounter names familiar and unfamiliar, heroes and villains, men of compassion and men of bloodlust, vanity, stupidity, and ingenuity. In reading Mayflower we are reminded what history was actually like and actually is: something far grittier than the sanctimonious myths most of us are familiar with. Tragedy meets triumph, villainy meets heroism, and greed meets compassion in 358 pages bringing the first five decades of New England’s modern history to life.

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