August 31, 2006

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Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2006, 461 pages)

In the beginning, things can go either way.

As Nathaniel Philbrick explains in Mayflower, the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower and the first Thanksgiving is such an attractive topic because, in many ways, it represents the beginnings of America. (Well, the beginnings of English America and not counting the Jamestown settlement, which ever since the Civil War has taken a historical back seat to the New England settlers despite coming first chronologically.)

What makes Mayflower such an interesting read is that the “either way” as presented here isn’t the sort of black and white Pilgrims vs. Indians that we usually encounter in European-discovery-of-America stories. The Indians are not back-to-the-land hippies who were pushed out by corporate greed, man, nor were the Pilgrims necessarily bloodthirsty conquerors. As it turns out, in the beginning, the political goals of both Pilgrims and Indians sometimes intertwined and, at least for a little while, the two cultures were a lot more accepting of each other than you might expect.

As Philbrick explains, the Pilgrims had utopian aspirations of creating a village of like-minded true believers (believers in the Puritan church supported by the Cromwell government as opposed to the high church Anglican religion associated with the monarchy). They weren’t looking to found a nation so much as they were to found a self-supporting community that wasn’t going to be jailed or stripped of its land every time the government changed.

Thick with faith, this group didn’t have a heck of a lot else — they were constantly getting cheated and betrayed and when they finally reached the American coast, they did so at the wrong place and missed the much better port of Boston for the shallow waters of Plymouth by what today would be a short ride in the car. They didn’t plan terribly well for the fast approaching winter either and made it through (with considerable loss of life) thanks in part to corn seed they stole from the Indians.

The Indians didn’t entirely know what to think of these English people. Previously visitors from Britain had massacred and enslaved Native people, though in the process they had created a few translators who could help with the diplomatic relations between these two peoples. And, the Pilgrims came at an odd time in Native history, where power between tribes was shifting and populations were still struggling after being decimated by disease, which had wiped out whole villages. Perhaps the most interesting segments of this book explain how different Indian chiefs and wannabe chiefs used the Pilgrims to attempt to solidify and increase their own power. Sometimes, trade with the Pilgrims (the Indians quickly adapted English goods for their own purposes) was useful. As the English settlement grew and the Pilgrims became stronger militarily, alliance or opposition to the settlers on the part of the local tribes usually had as much to do with Indians’ power struggles in the region as it did with Indians’ feelings toward the settlers.

As years went by and the Pilgrims and later Puritan settlers depended less on the Indians for survival, the English saw the Indians less as individuals and distinct tribes and more as one monolithic group (which they by no means were — some Indians had converted to Christianity and were fairly loyal to the English, some were completely neutral, others were actively involved in land disputes with the settlers). This mindset turned skirmishes over land or trade into a clash of cultures which resulted in occasional slaughter and eventually led to the bloody King Philip’s War. That conflict between the colonies of New England and Indians (including even heretofore neutral tribes) seemed to set the stage for the next 300 years of Native American vs. settler relations.

Philbrick’s book does an excellent job of getting to the complexity of this 70 or so years in early American history. There are so many instances where things could have gone another way, where diplomacy could have prevented war and where (as with all history) monumental events hinged on one person’s personality or health. Native Americans like Squanto (a translator who wanted to consolidate regional power), Massasoit (the Indian sachem or leader at the time of the Pilgrims’ arrival) and eventually King Philip (the Indian leader who was always on the line between all-out war and some kind of livable peace) loom bigger in history here than the Puritans, who never seem to be completely aware of all the factors affecting their fate. Philbrick catches these moments and records them without too much sermonizing to give us simply a rich, very human picture of the beginning. B

— Amy Diaz


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