Book Review: Mayflower

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick is somewhat inaccurately titled as very little of this book has to do with the Mayflower itself. The Pilgrim’s time in Holland and aboard the Mayflower is merely prelude to the epic story of the 56-year period from the sighting of land off the coast of Cape Cod to the conclusion of King Phillip’s War.  

While their famous survival of the first harsh New England winter leading to the first Thanksgiving is all here, that part of the story only takes up about twenty percent of the book. In reality, Philbrick offers the reader a complete history of Plymouth Colony from 1620-1676. The majority of the narrative focuses on King Phillip’s War which happened right in my home town making this book really come to life for me.

Philbrick is a historian, as the fifty pages of notes and nearly 40 page long bibliography can attest to, but he is also natural storyteller who is able to make this story a compelling one. Most interesting to me were the human aspects of the tale. Neither the Pilgrims nor the Native Americans were saints, and both contributed to what was ultimately the tragic loss of almost the entire population of Natives throughout New England. These were real people with very human motivations, both noble and selfish. 

Another fascinating aspect of reading this book was learning that much of the sanitized history I remember learning in school was simply wrong. I remember learning that Squanto was the friendly Indian who helped the Pilgrims communicate with their new neighbors. In fact, while he certainly was one of the most prominent interpreters for the Pilgrims he was also openly scheming against both them and Massasoit (of the First Thanksgiving fame) to try and take over the New England tribes for himself. In the end he dies a traitor. Another false-history was what I had been told of King Phillip. I always imagined him as the noble warrior trying to win back his land from the encroaching English. In reality he was largely a coward who took every opportunity to run from a fight and after falling into the beginning of the war became largely irrelevant afterward. The entangled alliances that brought most of the Native population into conflict with the three English colonies reminds one of the start of WWI. As always, history repeats itself.

A solid read from start to finish I can highly recommend Mayflower to history buffs and general readers alike.

On a side note, the fact that my town was mentioned repeatedly in the book caused me to do a little digging of my own. Turns out my town was attacked and burned to the ground during the initial onslaught of King Phillip’s War, with the invading Natives coming right over the hill on which I now live to attack the main garrison which stood just down the street. History alive indeed!