I’ve never been to interested in reading up on the Plymouth Colony mostly because the true history is all to often shrouded in myth. Stories of Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, religious freedom, and the start of American overshadow the truth. The latter is especially true since even before I lived near Jamestown for several years I was aware that it and several other Virginia settlements preceded Plymouth (not to mention St. Augustine, FL and the California missions). The other thing that bugs me about popular history of the colonial era – for both Plymouth and Jamestown – is that the story seems to cover the 1620’s and then jump 150 years ahead to the Revolution. If we’re lucky they might pick up the story in the 1690’s with the Salem Witch Trials. What happened to the colony during the time when the second and third generations of English settlers (and those born here) were making their mark on New England?
Despite it’s title, Mayflower (2006) by Nathaniel Philbrick tells the story of the Plymouth colony from its origins among the English Separatists living in Leiden, Holland to King Phillip’s War in the 1670’s. While not comprehensive, this is a thorough history of the Plymouth Colony’s first half-century. Along the way the truths of some of the myths are put in context, but the real story is much more interesting. Plymouth survived through complex and changing alliances among the Piligrims and various native tribes in New England. Old histories generally characterize the Indians as savages, newer histories shift the blame to imperialist Europeans, but Mayflower refreshingly characterizes both English and Indian as humans, flawed but making the best of things in uneasy times. Also interesting is the often overlooked story of the Plymouth Pilgrims relations with other colonies including the rowdy merrymakers of Merrymount, the larger and more prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony, and even the Dutch in New Netherland.
The real heart of the story comes in the chapters about King Phillip’s War. If there’s a major fault in this book it is that Philbrick really seems to have wanted to write just about the war and all the chapters preceding it, while good, feel almost like a long preamble. The war is a complex conflict with alliances forming that pit Indian versus Indian, English hostilities against non-combatant tribes inadvertently forcing those tribes into the war, and noble deeds and atrocities performed by each side. The war had a considerable cost both in lives (the death rate considerable higher than later American wars) and psychologically as the English and Indians never were able to live together again in New England. Central to the story of King Phillip’s War is Benjamin Church, whom Philbrick characterizes as the first frontiersman – someone who fought Indians, yes, but respected them and adopted their practices along the way. In Church, Philbrick sees the creation of an American identity for the next two centuries.
Mayflower is a good popular history and an easy read. I learned a lot and recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the time period.