Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Review of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick (New York, Viking Press 2006)

The name Mayflower often evokes images of 'wide-brimmed hats', 'buckled shoes', and a shared harvest meal. Nathaniel Philbrick's story of the Mayflower, however,goes far beyond the myth of the first Thanksgiving, exploring the complicated politics that came to dominate a world created when the arrival of English dissidents challenged the balance of power among Native American peoples.

While the central focus of Philbrick's work is the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people, his narrative details how this partnership fundamentally altered the entire region. From the first, the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag people found themselves engaged in a mutually beneficial, if somewhat unstable, relationship. For the Pilgrims, the Wampanoag provided lessons in survival in the New England climate, while for the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims provided a means by which the Wampanoag reasserted themselves as a regional power. Few individuals benefited from this alliance as greatly as Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag alliance with the Pilgrims allowed Massasoit to emerge as a leading figure in the politics of the New England tribes.

As other English settlers followed the Pilgrims into the New England region, tensions continued to rise. These tensions emerged not simply between the developing European communities and the established Native American communities, but also within the Native American communities themselves. When managed properly, the tensions could be overcome; however, efforts to avert tensions were not always successful. The Pequot War of 1637 was a devastating example of the brutal consequences of a breakdown in the complex relationships among the peoples of New England. Driven by inter-tribal politics and an expanding English population in the region, the Pequot people bore the brunt of what Philbrick has labeled a "European-style genocide" (179). The overwhelming brutality of this conflict led all sides to seek accommodation rather than continued conflict as the peoples of New England came into ever increasing contact.

The need for land was at the heart of many of the tensions between the people of New England (English and Native American alike). As the English population grew, Massasoit again recognized the opportunity for personal gain in dealing with the English. In deal after deal, the Wampanoag sachem sold off tribal land to English settlers. Such sales were a means to alleviate tensions between the English and Native American communities and maintain peace, but so too, Philbrick argues, were they a means for Massasoit to enrich himself and expand his power. Massasoit's legacy, then, is a mixed one. Due to his ability to maintain peace with the Pilgrims, the story of Massasoit is one of a "benevolent and wise leader who maintained a half century of peace in New England." Yet for some members of his own tribe, he was seen as a "leader whose personal prosperity depended on the systematic dismantling of their homeland" (172).

Although the uneasy peace brokered by Massasoit and his contemporaries held for almost a half century, it was unable to endure a generational change. A growing focus on material goods and economic gain, held both by the descendants of the original Pilgrim settlers and the Indians of New England, led to a new wave of tension. Among the Pilgrim settlers, Governor William Bradford was convinced that the declining spiritual life of the colonists required that "God must one day show his displeasure" (198). For the Native Americans of this region a whole generation had been raised with the luxuries provided through trade with the English. This growing economic dependence left many tribes in a tenuous position. This economic imbalance came to a head in one of the bloodiest conflicts in American history, King Philip's War.

Philip, also known as Metacom, was Massasoit's son. Uneasy with the growing power of the English in the region, Philip carefully drew followers to himself and began to harass English settlements. Careful to avoid killing any English settlers in this initial phase of the conflict, Philip and his forces waited until the an English settler killed one of their own before launching an all out assault that would eventually consume all New England. The resulting war claimed eight percent of the Englishmen in Plymouth colony (by way of contrast, the casualty rate during the Civil War was between four and five percent) and "somewhere between 60 and 80 percent" of the Native American population of Southern New England (332).

Philbrick's story of the Mayflower draws on a growing body of historical studies which examine the place of "go-betweens" in colonial society. In his study of the period between the arrival of the Mayflower through King Philip's War Philbrick focus much of his attention on those who occupied the space between ever shifting centers of power. Overall, Philbrick's account of the Mayflower and its people is a well-written exploration of much of the history of Plymouth colony. This study, along with others, including works by Daniel Mandell, James H. Merrell, and Jill Lepore, serves to complicate our understanding of the dynamic world that was created as European settlers came into contact with the native peoples of North America. It allows us to see the individuals who inhabited the world of early New England and the complexities of their lives, rather than the stereotypical attendees of mythologized Thanksgiving supper.