When we think of the Pilgrims, it's Thanksgiving that comes to mind
--- placid people with big buckles on their shoes, dining once a
year with two or three Indians. Nathaniel Philbrick's new book
shows the Pilgrims to have been anything but placid. He tells us
what the Mayflower passengers experienced, and then shows how the
next generation coped with the world they had created. This easily
could have been two books; but taken together, the two generations
show how quickly our national character developed.
The Pilgrims were religious fanatics, fleeing the persecution of
the Anglicans, squashed into a boat with non-believers and forced
to get along. Their single-mindedness worked against them as they
made their preparations. For instance, they were so sure of God's
goodwill that they didn't even bother to bring a map. They had no
idea that winter in New England is much, much colder than in
Europe, and saw no danger in arriving in November with no food.
Cape Cod, where Plymouth Rock is located, is one of the most
fertile fishing grounds in the world, yet none of the Pilgrims knew
how to fish and starvation was a real concern. Half of the Pilgrims
died the first year and the rest depended on the local tribes, in
particular the Pokanokets under the sachem Massasoit, who showed
them how to live.
Unfortunately, the Pilgrims' gratitude was short-lived and the next
generation was unable to maintain cordial relations with the
tribes, who had problems of their own. They were far from a unified
group; the Pilgrims arrived in a land already in the throes of
dissent. Worse yet, small pox had decimated the tribes; it was not
unusual for the Pilgrims to stumble over settlements where everyone
The tribes had to find a way to live with drastically reduced
numbers, and the Pilgrims had to find a way to make money in order
to satisfy the impatient investors who had financed their voyage.
They resorted to any means necessary, including enslavement, to get
the tribes' land and their greed resulted in King Philip's War,
named for a son of Massasoit, the sachem who welcomed the
Mayflower's passengers. King Philip's War lasted only 14 months,
but by the end, a third of the Europeans' early towns had been
burned to the ground and 5,000 people had been killed. There were
only 70,000 people in all of New England, Europeans and Native
Americans combined, making King Philip's War twice as deadly as the
American Civil War.
A visit to Cape Cod today reveals very little hint of the gory
battles that transpired. MAYFLOWER reminds Americans of our rocky
early history and how easily the national development we take for
granted could have gone another way.
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn (CQuinn9368@yahoo.com) on January 6, 2011