The Pilgrims' progress, from weary exiles to conquering explorers

Review History

May 28, 2006|By JOHN R. ALDEN | JOHN R. ALDEN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking / 461 pages / $29.95

The passengers on the Mayflower didn't discover New England, or even establish the first English colony in the United States. But they were the first group whose voyage to America wasn't motivated by conquest, cod or commerce. The Pilgrims earned their iconic status in American history by being the first English speakers who came to settle permanently in the New World.

The colonists were naive and woefully unprepared, notes Nathaniel Philbrick in Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War. They were duped by the captain they hired to sail the Speedwell, the expedition's original vessel. The "Merchant Adventurers" - the 17th-century venture capitalists who partially financed the expedition - forced the Pilgrims to include several non-Puritan families in the enterprise, creating a troublesome source of dissension. And they didn't reach Cape Cod until the middle of November 1620, just in time to face the miseries of a New England winter.

The immigrants immediately set about exploring. They found a cache of Indian corn and took it. They found some graves and dug them up. They found houses and took "some of the best things" for themselves. Then, near the crook of Cape Cod's elbow, they found Indians. When the natives tried to drive the marauders away with war cries and a hail of arrows, the Pilgrims decided to settle somewhere else. They headed for a shallow harbor up the coast, a place they named Plymouth.

"They were weavers, wool carders, tailors, shoemakers, and printers," writes Philbrick, and such poor hunters and fishermen that they couldn't keep themselves fed. By the end of that first winter, half of the people who had arrived in November were dead.

Despite the title of his book, Philbrick - the award-winning author of In the Heart of the Sea, an account of the sinking of the whaleship Essex - isn't particularly interested in the Pilgrims' vessel. His real subject is the relationship between Europeans and Indians, from the Pilgrims' arrival until the end of the brutal King Philip's War in 1676. Mayflower, Philbrick says, tells the story of how "one people's quest for freedom ... resulted in the conquest and enslavement of another."

After the incident the Pilgrims called "First Encounter," they barely saw an Indian for several months. Most of the natives in the area had died in an epidemic the year before, and the survivors carefully avoided the Europeans' little settlement. But on March 16, a tall man wearing nothing but "a fringed strap of leather around his waist" marched boldly into their village, saluted, and announced, "Welcome, Englishmen."

The man was Samoset, an Indian who had learned English from cod fishermen. The Pilgrims offered him food, and "he immediately requested beer." Samoset told them they had settled in the territory of Massasoit, leader of the Pokanokets, and that there was an Indian in Massasoit's village, Squanto, "who spoke even better English than he did."

Five days later, Samoset brought Massasoit, Squanto and some 60 warriors to the Pilgrims' village. The two sides negotiated a treaty, and two weeks later the Mayflower returned to England.

For decades, the Puritans and Indians maintained a complex accommodation blending conflict, alliance, friendship and cooperation. But eventually the relationship frayed beyond repair. When an Indian ally of the Pilgrims, a Christian convert named Sassamon, was found dead, three Pokanokets were hanged for his murder. The executions triggered a war.

The fighting, a bitter turbulence of raiding, arson, ambush and slaughter, lasted 14 months. Philip, a son of Massasoit, was a cowardly and indecisive leader, and the Puritans gradually separated other tribes from the Pokanokets' cause. When Philip's head was finally mounted on the Plymouth palisade, the colony had lost "close to eight percent of its men." The Indian population, perhaps 20,000 before the war, was reduced through fighting, disease, enslavement or flight by more than 40 percent.

Historians might argue with aspects of Philbrick's story. Although Philip's followers were effectively annihilated, it is clear that many of the converts the Puritans called "Praying Indians" were ultimately assimilated into Colonial society. It would also have been helpful if Philbrick had discussed the biases in the Colonial-era sources. Benjamin Church's memoir, a dramatic recounting of his exploits during King Philip's War, seems particularly suspect, if only because it was written 40 years after the war had ended.

Still, Mayflower is a splendid account of a nearly forgotten era in America's Colonial past. Thoroughly researched, carefully documented and engagingly written, this rewarding history describes a tragic collision of cultures with sensitivity, intelligence and considerable grace.

John R. Alden, an archaeological anthropologist with a long-standing interest in American social history, is a descendant of the ship's cooper on the Mayflower.

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