Perhaps the only thing more encouraging than the fact that the literary sensation of the past summer was a book about the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock is that it was not a politically correct appeal to white guilt and historical revisionism.
In fact, popular historian Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War not only finds that much of the "myth" of the Pilgrims in many modern circles is correct but also that the familiar names behind them were far more interesting than in the pageants and children's books that were, until recently, part of our national curriculum.
It will be no surprise to anyone who read Philbrick's previous historical adventures — In the Heart of the Sea, the story of the ill-fated whaler Essex; and Sea of Glory, the tale of the U.S. exploration expeditions of the mid-19th century — that Mayflower is an enormously entertaining historical narrative. Best of all, Philbrick vividly brings to life a mostly forgotten American hero, Benjamin Church, an iconic prototype for the frontiersmen and Special Forces soldiers of future generations.
As long ago as Founding Father John Adams, the Pilgrims were held up as the first successful attempt at the American Experiment. Lincoln solidified that status with his proclamation of the Thanksgiving holiday in 1863. A parallel legend grew up in our time — that of the noble savages the people of Plymouth dealt with: brave Squanto, who saved the Pilgrims from starvation; wise Massasoit, the chief who made peace; and the fierce King Phillip, who rose up against the next generation of settlers who stole his land.
In his irresistible narrative, Philbrick takes a close look at the Pilgrims and the Indians of Massachusetts and finds not archetypes, but real people — and certainly not characters in a political fable:
My initial impression of the period was bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans. I soon learned that the real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave — in short, too human — to behave so predictably.
Since seafaring tales are his specialty, Philbrick gets things off to a fascinating start with perhaps the best recounting yet put into print of the Pilgrims' voyage and its challenges. Most stories of the Pilgrims focus on the physical depredations of the voyage, the sickness and hardships.
Philbrick tells the complete story of how the Pilgrims were driven from England for their Separatist beliefs, then conned by various "investors." Fortunately for them, the Pilgrims' financial misadventures in Holland forced them to take on travelers who were entrepreneurs, rather than religious refugees. In the resulting desperate circumstances in which they found themselves once they landed, the business-oriented people helped the Pilgrims become far more practical and pragmatic than they might have been had everything gone according to plan.
Here is one of Philbrick's most valuable points: Despite the priggish image perpetrated by the scoffers — including the first revisionist, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne — the Pilgrims were adaptable people willing to compromise in order to live in peace despite their strict code and religious outlook.
Perhaps the Pilgrims' most overlooked contribution to the American tradition is that while they firmly believed theirs was the purest way to worship God, they were not about conversion by force. Their first priority was to be left alone to follow their beliefs. They were evangelical, to be sure, and a large number of Indians (who became known as "Praying Indians") converted, but the European custom of coerced belief was something they were fleeing, not something they wished to replicate in the New World.
The book's major contribution is detailing the intricate and delicate relations between the Indians and the Pilgrims. It is a story of negotiations and politics that rests on individuals and their various strengths and self-interests, rather than the inevitable clash of civilizations that even benign accounts often paint it and challenges the revisionist version of oppression and genocide.
Philbrick vividly evokes the emptiness of the wilderness, where even hostile human contact could be considered the least of an unprepared visitor's problems.
Among the most dramatic moments of Mayflower's first part are the initial contacts between the Pilgrims, near starvation from their long voyage, and the Pokanoket tribe, whose numbers had been decimated by a plague making them vulnerable to their enemies. The Pilgrims got off to a bad start, stealing seed corn they found buried for storage — though grave as their situation were, they debated taking it and how to make restitution — which was not helpful, since the Pokanoket's previous contacts with Europeans had been with some really bad actors.
Readers will find that they already know the outline of the story; it is the accumulation of details that fascinate — including the First Thanksgiving, which lasted several days. Two towering figures, Massasoit and Bradford, emerge with their legends intact — even enhanced — by Philbrick's complex human portrayal.
Among those whose reputations are less well served by the facts is Squanto, who, indeed, saved the Plymouth settlement and was a true friend early on. However, Squanto was also a schemer who, like Massasoit both befriended the Pilgrims and used them with hopes of increasing his own power. His later treachery against Massasoit would have gotten him executed, but for the protection of Bradford who probably risked too much to save him.
Miles Standish, likewise, was hardly the dashing figure of romantic Longfellow poems. While it is true enough that his quick action saved the colony at one time or another, his hair-trigger impulse for killing without remorse shocked his fellow Pilgrims, who suspected there was something missing in his soul.
It didn't take long after the deaths of Bradford and Massasoit for things to fall apart. Bradford and Massasoit's treaty had set up rules for the selling of land, and the Plymouth colony was mostly careful to not exploit the Indians in their dealings. But the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not ethical in their real estate dealings with the Indians. While their actions were "legal" in a narrow sense, the Bostonians basically traded consumables to the Indians for land, gradually elbowing them out of prime territory. They were not alone in their aggression. Massasoit's son, known as King Philip, also saw a threat to the Pokanoket way of life — and his power -- as more of his tribe adopted English ways and religion. Philip accelerated the poverty of his people by trading guns for land, basically putting his tribe in the position of fight or die.
When Philip provoked a war by destroying property, the Puritans responded with medieval-style total war. The Plymouth colony was not a willing participant – and Roger Williams in Rhode Island stayed completely out of it — but there was hardly a family in New England that did not suffer.
The European casualty rate was proportionately nearly double that of the American Civil War, and the Indian population was cut by more than half — they were either driven off, killed, or shipped off to slavery in the Caribbean.
Philbrick's retelling of King Philip's War ranks with Alan Eckert's Pulitzer Prize -winning frontier epics for sheer storytelling ability. There are a vast collection of fools, villains, heroes and victims, and tales of frustratingly missed opportunities and audacious bravery.
After shipping the Praying Indians off to a desolate island for internment, the English foolishly started warring against tribes with which they had no quarrel simply because they couldn't tell the difference. Worse, they gave carte blanche to a bloodthirsty brigand, Capt. Samuel Moseley, who widened the war and whose atrocities enraged the population.
On the Indian side, King Philip had manipulated his people into war, but his basic battle plan consisted of letting others do the fighting while he ran off. Thus, he was never quite able to inspire the unity among the tribes to join him in a united front.
It was up to Plymouth-born frontiersman Benjamin Church, who for the first time organized other woodsmen into special forces-like groups and formed alliances with friendly tribes, to avert total disaster and run King Philip to ground.
Mayflower will become the standard text on the Plymouth settlement. That's a good thing for more reasons than merely because it's a major slapdown to politically correct historians — as great an accomplishment as that is. Mayflower shows that the mistakes made in governing, diplomacy and war have been with us since the beginning. They are the result of human foibles, and there are fools aplenty on both sides who miss opportunities for peace and who are too foolish to recognize the real enemy when he raises his ugly head.