Birth of a colony

Nathaniel Philbrick's ambitious and riveting "Mayflower" tells the story of Plymouth Rock like we've never heard it before.


Ben Cosgrove
May 26, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

It's a commonplace that history is written by the victors -- a pretty phrase that, often enough, happens to be true.

Another bit of received wisdom has it that certain milestones -- say, the voyage of the Mayflower and the founding of Plymouth Colony -- are ingrained in the American unconscious. Of course we all know when the Mayflower sailed; how long the journey lasted; how many souls were aboard; where they first dropped anchor; what happened in the five, 10, 50 years after that first, fateful buckled shoe set foot ashore.

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Of course, as Americans, we all own and embrace that shared history -- except, that is, when we don't.

Go ahead -- ask yourself a few basic questions about the tale. When, exactly, did the Mayflower set sail? How many of those aboard were sailing, before all else, in search of religious freedom? How long after dropping anchor did the imigris first enjoy face-to-face contact with anyone from the region's native tribes? Ask yourself pretty much anything about what most of us blindly regard as one of the signal eras in American history and odds are that your answers will be largely, or entirely, wrong. (I scored dismally on this admittedly arbitrary test, by the way, when I self-administered it several weeks back. Full disclosure: I'm not a historian.)

Put those two realities together, then -- victors writing history and an appealing, hazy-at-the-edges mythology surrounding Plymouth Rock -- and you've got a storybook tale in serious need of being retold, as it were, for the first time.

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For much of its 400-plus pages (including 50 of surprisingly entertaining, tightly packed endnotes), "Mayflower" is up to the task. In fact, Nathaniel Philbrick's narrative, alternately riveting and galumphing, will likely be revelatory for all but the most zealous scholars of the misty, long-romanticized Pilgrim epoch. The man knows a good tale when he rediscovers one, and here he's found (or dusted off) a doozy.

Weaving the titular ship's journey and the passengers' colonization of a stark promised land with detailed discussions of the indigenous cultures already living and dying for generations in those woods and on those shores, Philbrick has stripped much of the cartoon-like veneer from the Pilgrims' saga. In doing so, he's managed to restore a sense of human scale -- of human weakness, bravery, venality, greatness -- to the men and women, legendary and marginal, European and Native, who've largely been lost, forgotten or misrepresented for almost four centuries.

Philbrick, the National Book Award-winning author of the horrifying and unputdownable "In the Heart of the Sea" (2000), opens the tale with an appropriately nautical salvo: "For sixty-five days," the book begins, "the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing saltwater onto her passengers' devoted heads. There were 102 of them -- 104 if you counted the two dogs: a spaniel and a giant, slobbery mastiff.

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"They were nearly ten weeks into a voyage that was supposed to have been completed during the balmy days of summer. But they had started late, and it was now November, and winter was coming on."

Never mind that "devoted heads" is an odd expression. Concentrate on the time: November 1620. The passengers, including three pregnant women, are heading, of course, to the New World. Only about half of the ship's complement, however, is made up of "Pilgrims," a tag bestowed in later years by William Bradford, the eventual governor of Plymouth Colony and a 30-year-old corduroy worker at the time of the voyage. The rest of the ship's company are rough, seasoned sailors and a good number of what the faithful called "Strangers" -- adventurers and business-minded folk who do not share the Pilgrims' passion to build a new, Puritan Jerusalem across the waves.

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Instead, like so many pioneers before and since, the Strangers yearned for more earthly rewards -- land, riches, perhaps glory -- and the conflicting aims and urges of the men and women crammed into the creaking, rolling 100-foot vessel hardly dissipated once they came ashore.

Of course, once they did, the brutal, over-long transatlantic journey must have felt like a passing annoyance compared to what they faced at its conclusion: a swampy, sandy, rocky, bitterly cold landscape where, from the dank depths of unfamiliar woods warriors marked their every move.

Or so they might have thought.

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Seen from another point of view, of course -- that is, from that of the Pokanokets, the Nipmucks, the Sakonnets or any of the tribes in the region -- the newcomers hardly distinguished themselves as a trustworthy bunch from the start. As Philbrick takes pains to point out, prominent among the immigrants' (or invaders') first recorded acts was an instance of plunder. When the short, red-haired, aggressive Capt. Miles Standish led a scouting party inland from the coast -- within days of landing in what they hoped would be their new home -- the would-be settlers ransacked Indian graves and storage pits, digging up and carting off buried corn and other goods:

"Looting houses, graves, and storage pits was hardly the way to win the trust of the local inhabitants," Philbrick wryly notes. "To help offset the damage they'd already done, they resolved to leave behind some beads and other tokens for the Indians 'in sign of peace.' But it was getting dark. They must be going. In their haste to depart, they neglected to leave the beads and other trade goods. It would have been a meager gesture to be sure, but it would have marked their only unmistakable act of friendship since their arrival in the New World."

Does the author sound a little harsh toward the hungry, far-from-home Pilgrims? Not to worry. "Mayflower" is hardly dedicated to incessant Euro-trashing; nor is it, thankfully, an unbridled litany of how sweet and uncorrupted the land and its inhabitants were before whitey arrived and set about mucking things up. On the contrary, as evidence that the "Europeans bad, Natives good" sensibility is nonsensical, Philbrick repeatedly points out that the initial contacts and early talks between Pilgrims and indigenous tribes were undertaken, by and large, by clever, skilled and eminently practical-minded negotiators on both sides. The Pilgrims did not land in Paradise; they landed in a world at once wholly alien, and weirdly familiar -- a sphere where human activities like warfare, betrayal and striving for power wreaked havoc just as surely as they did in places like England, Spain and Holland. (And a sphere, incidentally, where a fellow like Miles Standish -- a warrior who had been an English mercenary in Holland before sailing for the New World -- would prove indispensable as the most experienced soldier and sharpest military mind in the colony.)

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"[T]he Indians and English of Plymouth Colony," Philbrick writes, "did not live in a static idyll of mutual support. Instead, it was fifty-five years of struggle and compromise -- a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace. The next generation, however, came to see things differently."

After "Discovery," "Accommodation" and "Community," the fourth, last and longest section of the book, titled "War," focuses on one of the least known and, in relative terms, one of the most destructive conflicts in North American history, at the end of that 55-year struggle: King Philip's War of 1675-76. And it's here that Philbrick is at both his strongest and his most problematic. On the positive side of the ledger is the patient, intelligent way that the author makes the 14-month cataclysm appear, in retrospect, inevitable. The narrative here is, for the most part, a deliberate but far from plodding account of the machinations and avoidable, seemingly willful misunderstandings that led up to the war.

Briefly, Philip was the son of Massasoit, a sachem (or chief) of the Pokanokets and for years the most loyal native ally the English had in the New World. A friend to William Bradford and many of the original Plymouth settlers, Massasoit was also an astute leader forever on the lookout for means of furthering his own power.

Philip (originally Metacom; he and his brother Wamsutta, later Alexander, changed their names in 1660) was clearly his father's son, forever seeking alliances with any tribe, European or local, that might further his ambitions. When war finally came, after a series of idiotically callow maneuvers on the Pilgrims' part, Philip's name erroneously entered New England lore as the Indian who remarkably and single-handedly -- no one ever seems to recall how -- started the region's bloodiest-ever struggle.

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That he was no more or less responsible for the war than his father or his brother or Miles Standish or William Bradford (all of them long dead) had little effect on the legends that followed. For most of those who heard of it, in passing or otherwise, it was "King Philip's War." End of story. (That he never called himself "King" is another small but telling indication of the confusion surrounding the sachem formerly known as Metacom; the royal title was a European invention.)

The casualty numbers from the war, meanwhile, tell an almost incomprehensibly harsh tale.

"During the forty-five months of World War II," Philbrick writes, "the United States lost just under 1 percent of its adult male population; during the Civil War the casualty rate was somewhere between 4 and 5 percent; during the fourteen months of King Philip's War, Plymouth Colony lost close to 8 percent of its men.

"But the English losses appear almost inconsequential when compared to those of the Indians. Overall, the Native American population of southern New England had sustained a loss of somewhere between 60 and 80 percent."

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It's here, in the last 100 pages of the book when the war is raging, that arguably the story's most compelling and, in some ways, most puzzling character emerges. Benjamin Church was the grandson of one of the Mayflower passengers. A flamboyant, energetic and obviously self-satisfied carpenter and, later, avid Indian hunter, Church wrote a memoir late in life titled "Entertaining Passages Relating to Philip's War," from which Philbrick has taken many of his own book's most immediate, you-are-there scenes.

Here is Church capturing 18 Indians during King Philip's War. Here's Church pleading boldly and eloquently (and unsuccessfully) for the lives of two captured foes. Here's Church rallying his small band of brothers against seemingly impossible odds, fighting off scores, nay, hundreds of determined warriors. Here's Church telling someone who can't stand him that "you look wild and surly and mutter, but by the time you have been but one day with me, you will love me too."

This dependence on Benjamin Church vouching for Benjamin Church's trustworthiness, courage, perspicacity and all-around awesomeness would hardly be so bothersome if Philbrick did not hang so much of his book's rather grandiose theorizing on the man's increasingly round shoulders. ("By the outbreak of Queen Anne's War in 1702," Philbrick writes late in the tale, "Church had grown so fat that he required the help of two assistants as he waddled over trails he had once bounded across as a young man.")

For Philbrick, Church emerges from Plymouth Colony and its surrounding mythology as a kind of idealized proto-American, embodying the energy, optimism and near-gleeful belligerence that would, in large part, come to define an America not yet born when Church himself was alive. He was also, as most larger-than-life personalities so often are, a figure of enormous contradictions: a man who, on one hand, would own African slaves in the coming years, but who also reportedly found the enslavement -- the literal, forced enslavement -- of Indians during King Philip's War "an action so hateful that [I] opposed it to the loss of the good will and respect of some that were before [my] good friends."

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(Readers, meanwhile, who might be shocked to learn that English and other European settlers in New England were enslaving indigenous people and shipping them to places like Cadiz, Spain, as early as the mid-17th century will find much to be astonished, outraged and saddened by in these pages.)

Unfortunately, the book's heavy reliance on Church's "Entertaining Passages" calls enough of the narrative's credibility into question that -- even when Philbrick seeks to corroborate or shore up some of Church's own writings with others' personal accounts of the era -- it's hard to read the culminating chapters without feeling as if Church himself has taken control of the story. And finally, when Philbrick closes out the book with a treacly anecdote -- again involving Church, this time in concert with an Indian named "Conscience" -- the result is hardly the poetic wow finish that the author seems to have hoped for, but instead an uncharacteristically moralizing vignette with a Hallmark-card feel to it.

Yet, "Mayflower" remains a signal achievement. Philbrick enlightens and even astounds far more often than he falters, and when he's good -- deftly handling wildly disparate plotlines, crises and personalities with a storytellers' sense of drama and pace, all the while sowing eloquent, telling details that later flower in the reader's imagination -- he's very good, indeed.

There is the near-comical list of creatures ("a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves and a turkey") with which 17-year-old Thomas Granger, servant to "an honest man of Duxbury," was convicted of having sexual relations in 1642.

There are the strangely contemporary-sounding words uttered by a Sakonnet warrior before he draws and quarters King Philip's body with a hatchet, saying that while Philip had been a great man in life he, the hatchet-wielder, would now "'chop his ass for him.'"

There is the famous Puritan historian Cotton Mather stealing the jawbone from Philip's skull after the head was stuck as a trophy and a warning upon the palings of a fort in Plymouth. ("I took off the jaw from the exposed skull of that blasphemous leviathan," Mather wrote years later in his "Magnalia Christi Americana.") "Philip's head," notes Philbrick, "would remain a fixture in Plymouth for more than two decades, becoming the town's most famous attraction long before anyone took notice of the hunk of granite known as Plymouth Rock."

There is more, much more, in Philbrick's book, of course, and taken all together it amounts to something very much like a new, vital story that most of us never learned, but have always, somehow, thought we knew.


Ben Cosgrove

Ben Cosgrove is a freelance writer in New York and the editor of the baseball anthology "Covering the Bases."

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