Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick - Book Review

Our kids came home from school wearing construction paper black hats or feathers in their hair and we sat down to a sumptuous Thanksgiving dinner sometimes remembering a group of religious separatists who bravely crossed the ocean in a leaky bucket called The Mayflower to plant a perilous foot on one of the least hospitable coasts in North America. There were, according to myth, greeted by half naked savages who helped feed and clothe them sufficiently to get through their first couple of winters before they were able to create a community leading directly to the formation of our great nation and to the creation of our self image as being a self-reliant and hardy folk capable of fighting and talking our way to greatness. Nathaniel Philbrick, in his fine history Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (Penguin Books, $16.00 and available as a recorded book also) recasts these cardboard cutout religious protesters and naked savages into real people dealing with the challenges of establishing a new society in difficult social, physical, and political circumstances.

Philbrick relies not only on the contemporaneous accounts of the white settlers known variously as Puritans and Pilgrims, but upon oral histories handed down by the few remaining Indians descended from the groups who both worked with and fought against the Pilgrims during their first fifty years in New England. The Mayflower Pilgrims might never have been able to gain their toe hold in Plymouth had a disastrous plague not killed off nearly ninety percent of the indigenous population just a couple of years before their arrival. The Pilgrims stepped ashore (probably not onto anything like a particular rock at Plymouth) to find the desiccated bodies of thousands of Indians as well as fields untended and few people in sight. They were able to steal caches of corn in order to provide themselves with food and establish a precarious settlement under the leadership of the Mayflower Compact signatories. Soon they were establishing some sort of contact with the Indians who were torn between their sense of being invaded and their fascination with western technology. There were dozens of Indian groups engaged in a political struggle for land and supremacy as well as at least three major white groups (English, Dutch, and French) involved in the search for land and treasure.

The first English settlers in Plymouth comprised an odd lot of religious protesters, military adventurers, indentured servants, and investors in the expedition. From the start, these various groups had differing goals, but were forced to learn to cooperate in order to survive. In many ways, the foundations of American Democracy find their sources in these efforts to work through differences while maintaining identity. Almost from the beginning, the settlers saw they needed to acquire land and to expand into the rich interior. They embarked on a series of agreements to regulate the acquisition of land from the Indians as well as began the American habit of breaking those agreements as soon as they became uncomfortable. It became more expedient to take the land, leading to armed struggles that would characterize our expansion for the next two hundred or more years. Despite these struggles, the English settlers managed to establish and maintain a tenuous peace with the Indians for a period of fifty years. There were many incidents in which too many Indian heads ended up on the top of poles around Puritan towns, but expansion continued and European strength developed. Meanwhile, each group was learning significant lessons from the other. Perhaps, in terms of American growth, the most important lesson the Pilgrims learned was how to fight like Indians and to give up their British ranks and files. These lessons led directly to the means of fighting characterized by the new Americans fighting from behind trees and stone walls as the American Revolution approached.

Two central characters emerge to dominate this book. Benjamin Church, a grandson of Mayflower passengers Richard and Elizabeth Warren, became an Indian fighter of great skill and bravery as well as the prototype for the great American frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone. Church learned to use Indian strategies in his battles and convinced the governors of Massachusetts to allow him to involved friendly Indians on his side in his battles. On the Indian side, early relations were dominated by Massasoit, a sachem of both wisdom and patience, who led his people toward some sort of accommodations, recognizing the futility of absolute resistance. Phillip, one of Massasoit’s sons, eventually became Grand Sachem of the Pokanokets, and eventually sought to unite the various New England tribes to drive the settlers away and create a federation to oppose them. The failure of these efforts resulted in King Phillip’s War (1675 – 1676), perhaps the bloodiest war in American history, in proportional terms. It is estimated that the English lost roughly 8 percent of their number (double the casualty rate of the Civil War) while the Indians lost somewhere between 60 and 80 percent. (Philbrick, 332). However, Indian power in New England was essentially broken.

I seem to have been reading backwards in American history for some time. Charles C. Mann’s excellent 1491 sets the stage for the development of the western hemisphere by showing what it looked like the day before Columbus arrived. Philbrick fills in the details on one corner of America. Neither book contradicts the other in its picture of the devastation wrought by the combination of disease, technology, and greed upon the human face of the new world. Philbrick re-creates the intense political and social struggle the coming of the Pilgrims to Plymouth in 1620 generated. The people, once the cardboard figures of myth and legend, take on the properties of people struggling in a harsh environment first to survive and then to thrive. Throughout the book he suggests alternative models that could have prevailed and led to the story’s taking quite different paths. That it did not is our loss, but the story is fascinating and essential reading for those interested both in where we come from and where we might be going.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick, was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize in history in 2007 and won other awards. It is carefully annotated and very readable. Published by Penguin Books, 463 pages, available at all good book outlets.