Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick (published by Penguin 2007) is about far more than the arrival of the “pious” pilgrims in the New World in a ship named Mayflower. Rather, Philbrick’s tome delves deep in the history of the Plymouth Colony. The facts shared seem to be essential in understanding both the first years of cooperation with the natives (natives with names familiar to many, such as Squanto, Massasoit, and so forth) as well as the more unfamiliar subsequent conflicts as a part of King Philip’s War, which left the land mostly stripped of it’s native population, due to war deaths, enslavement from the English settlers, and land purchase from the settlers. Philbrick writes an engaging story that brought the tragedy of dissolving friendship and cooperation alive for me, four hundred years after it happened.Mayflower begins with the motives of the Mayflower settlers to arrive in the new land and covers the traumatic voyage, the deadly first winter in the unknown wilderness of Massachusetts, and the “first” Thanksgiving. But all of those familiar events happen in the first decade of the time frame in Mayflower. By covering the next fifty years, Philbrick’s account then fully captures the difficulties the settlers and their children faced. How did the friendship between Massasoit’s tribe and the pilgrims go so sour in just 50 years? The remainder of Mayflower focuses on the the unfolding violence between natives and immigrants as positive feelings of friendship are replaced with jealousy, frustration, and ignorance (especially on the part of the children of the pilgrims).

It seems this is the course of history as it tends to be: children of those who struggle do not struggle as much and therefore may act spoiled and ungrateful. In this case, the first generation struggled with severe living conditions, poor land, and a lack of food. They therefore relied on the natives for assistance, giving lots of gratitude when the natives helped them. The children of these pilgrims, then, did not need to struggle quite as much. They took things for granted, everything from their growing crops to the land they have settled on. This second generation saw the natives as a threat.

As King Philip’s War drew to a close, the remaining rebellious natives were rounded up and sold into slavery. Such a result probably was incomprehensible to both the natives of 1620 and the pilgrims relying on them for help. In just 50 years, the tide turned from friendship to complete animosity. The natives were wiped out, and the European immigrants dominated.

This is our heritage. I think of the pilgrims, and I think of Thanksgiving. But the reality of colonization is that the Europeans took land that belonged to others, exterminated cultures of Native Americans, and did so in the name of religion and racism. Were the natives less “civilized” according to European standards? Sure, and they also were not Christians. But as I read of the violence that arose in the early years of America’s colonization, I wondered if the second generation pilgrims were Christian: their selfish acts seemed decidedly uncharitable to the people who had helped their parents.

Philbrick’s account is biased. Obviously, I left the book with strong feelings against the Puritan settlers. On the other hand, given the rosy picture we are given of Thanksgiving, Squanto, and cooperation, I believe it was necessary to paint a more accurate picture of what settling in America entailed.

As I teach my son about American history, we’ll talk about the rosy picture. But I think it’s important to remember just what immigrating to America really meant: it meant taking land that belonged to someone else for thousands of years. America today was built from these British settlers, and the European victories in violent conflicts such as King Philip’s War are the reasons the settlements could spread farther and farther West. In a natives versus immigrants conflict, the natives did not stand a chance. I believe Philbrick did a great job of bringing that world to life.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. This sounds like the perfect book to understand American history a little bit more. The early colonial years are extremely interesting and somehow set many rules and values that are still present in nowadays USA.

    I’m adding this one to my TBR list, thanks Rebecca!

    1. Elena » It’s so interesting how Americans tend to have a rosy picture of the “pilgrims” but the reality is so violent and horrifying. Even when the groups got along, it was so much on tenderhooks that it’s amazing the settlers succeeded!!

  2. I’ve always thought that those first settlers excusing their actions by using Christianity and insulting descriptions of the natives was just that, an excuse that would let them carry on. I like that the book focuses on the interaction and the way the different civilisations came to regard each other, we read about it from more distant perspectives, so to speak, that this book sounds fresh and more detailed.

    1. Charlie » It’s interesting because to me it seems the Pilgrims really THOUGHT they were being Christian. Because the natives did not worship the same God, the Pilgrims believed they were not “chosen.” Amazing to me. But this book really opened up the whole concept. I loved that it was far more than just the “Mayflower.” I think the title is very deceiving as to the contents of the book.

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