Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick is not your father’s Thanksgiving. Mr. Philbrick’s ambitions are large and the scope of his book is wide. He begins with the Pilgrim’s roots, back in England, follows their story to America and through the lives of their children and grandchildren some 50 years after the founding of the Plymouth colony. His ambition is to tell the story of how this group went from a close, symbiotic relationship with the Native Americans to an all out war that devastated both populations.

Fans of Mr. Philbrick’s earlier book In the Heart of the Sea will find much to enjoy in the first section of Mayflower. We learn the inner workings of 17th century trans-Atlantic travel in detail. We all know this part of the story, how hard the journey to America was and how the pilgrims and the sailors formed the Mayflower Compact to guide their settlement. Mr. Philbrick tells this part of the story well, but the book really picks up speed once the Mayflower gets to America and leaves the Pilgrims there.

Mayflower has been called a revisionist history, which seems to now mean that it puts in what other history texts have left out. The details Mr. Philbrick includes are fascinating: Miles Standish was so short he was known as Captain Shrimp, behind his back. He actually had to cut the tips off of his rapier so it would not drag on the ground when he wore it on his belt. The first words an Indian spoke to the Pilgrims were “Welcome Englishmen!” Squanto, who spoke fluent English after living in Europe for many years, became the main interpreter for the local sachem, tribal leader, out of an ambition for power. The Pilgrims did have turkey at the first Thanksgiving, but they’d already had it back in England since once they had been imported to Europe domestic turkeys became widely popular there.

But Mr. Philbrick’s real interest is in the Plymouth colony’s second generation. King Philip’s War and the events that led up to it, illustrate the deteriorating relationship between the colonists and the native population that would have repercussions throughout the history of the United States.

Much of this part of Mayflower is focused on Benjamin Church, grandson of Richard Warren one of the passengers on the Mayflower. Benjamin Church became one of the central leaders of the English in the war against the Natives of New England which was started by King Phililp, the sachem or leader of the Pokanoket Indians who had been the saviours of the Pilgrims under the previous sachem Massasoit. For almost 50 years the English and the Native Americans has existed side by side in a difficult but peaceful relationship. However, the children of the first settlers did not think they needed the help of the Natives to survive and badly wanted to expand into their lands. A series of injustices, culminating in the execution of three innocent Indians who’d been charged with murder, led to the outbreak of war. Native Americans from throughout New England joined King Philip in his attacks on English settlements. Benjamin Church argued that the English should maintain as many friendly relationship with Indian tribes as they could. He argued that few Indians wanted to join with King Philip and that most could be convinced to fight alongside the English.

During the first half of King Philip’s war, few English would listen to Church; even peaceful Indians with longstanding ties to English settlers were attacked and driven from their homes if not killed or captured and sold into slavery. King Philip was not a good leader and, though he won a few significant battles, he was soon on the run from the English and from Benjamin Church. Eventually, the English agreed to let friendly Indians fight alongside them, which made it possible for them to finally defeat and kill King Philip. The English had won the war, but lost any hope of maintaining a peaceful coexistence with the Native Americans who’d lost some 60% of their population to battle or to slavery in the West Indies.

What struck me in reading this section of Mayflower was that the divisions among the Native American population is what made it possible for the English to succeed. Massasoit and Squanto both were engaged in a power struggle with other tribes that led them to see the English as potential allies. This was a strong motivating factor in the help they gave the early Pilgrims. These tribal conflicts continued into the time of King Philip and Benjamin Church. Had King Philip been able to unite the tribes in an alliance against the English, the Native Americans may have been able to drive them from New England or at least keep them confined to the settlements they already had. American history would have been dramatically different in any case.

That the English were cruel to the Indians during wartime, that they used their justice system against them, came as no surprise to me. During this time period, Europe was a violent place, there was little that the Pilgrims did to the Indians that was not done to every defeated population in Europe at the time. What did surprise me was that they sold captured Native Americans into slavery. This included women and young children and was done for the expressed purpose of removing the Indian population from New England.

It is compelling to speculate about what might had been. If a few incidents had gone a different way, if this person had risen to leadership instead of that person, who knows what might have happened. What is clear from reading Mayflower is that the path of Manifest Destiny that led to the removal of the great majority of Native American people from their homelands was not the only option available when the English first arrived in what became the United States.


I’ve been thinking about moving to 8th grade English/history next year.  Re-reading this review from my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., makes me think it would be a good idea. There are so many wonderful books about U.S. history out there these days.  The chance to explore them in the classroom is tempting.  

4 thoughts on “Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

  1. James,
    I read this book earlier this year, and it got me started reading many titles focused on 16th-century New England. I loved this book and others as well. Actually, there were so many Indian wars in New England (including in the lands that became the state of Maine)–it’s tragic and fascinating to read because didn’t all of our textbooks just leave out the whole thing. We know about the white settlers taken captive, but how many know of the hundreds upon hundreds of New England Native Americans kidnapped and put on “slave” ships to the Carribean?
    Go for that 8th grade class. Those eighth-graders are a handful, but keep them off-guard with fascinating events, and they’re okay.

    1. I’m enjoying California history at the present time. It’s just as fascinating, and just as dark, as New England’s. But Philbrick is one of the reasons why I read at least one history text a year.

  2. One of Philbrick’s relatives, Richard Philbrick, also has written some history (about Columbus, I know) and is quite an interesting character. We’ve read one another’s blogs for some time. He’s presently living in Panama, is retired, and has in the course of commenting on my blog and his provided a good bit of information about the Philbricks, as well as interesting commentary on life in Panama. I know he’s helped school kids with translation of texts, too.

    You can find him here, and explore his blog from there if you’re interested. And Richard’s quite chatty — no doubt would love to hear from you, or even your students.

    1. Thank for this information. I will check his blog out. While Columbus is not a nice character at all, information I do present to my students, his is a very interesting story.

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