I first heard about Mayflower when my brother was still in high school. He claimed that it was just about the most boring nonfiction he’d ever read. Not exactly high praise! But I found the first two chapters riveting. Perhaps, it’s my background in academic nonfiction that made me enjoy Philbrick’s style. Academic writing is often dry and opaque. Philbrick’s journalistic style drew me into the lives of the Separatists and their new Indigenous neighbors.
Nevertheless, I didn’t finish Mayflower until now because U.S. History was my least favorite subject in high school. Consequently, I have an embarrassingly poor knowledge of my own country’s history. It’s not my teachers’ fault that I didn’t pay attention in class. I only learned the dates and the President names for the test. I much preferred European history. But with U.S. politics the way it is, it’s about time I learn. Having already enjoyed two other books by Philbrick (Away Off Shore and Into the Heart of the Sea), I figured that Mayflower would be a good place to begin.
Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story of the Separatists – religious fundamentalists and dissidents – who voyaged to the New World so that their children might remain English. Although they enjoyed religious tolerance in Holland, the Separatists nevertheless considered themselves English. In the New World, the Separatists could practice their faith on their own terms.
But as the Separatists discovered, the New World wasn’t new for the indigenous people of modern-day Massachusetts (the state is named after the Massachusetts tribe). At first, the Separatists were on friendly terms with the Pokanokets and their sachem Massasoit. The first generation of settlers embraced diplomacy. But subsequent generations did not have the same goals as their parents. They desired the land that belonged to the surrounding Native tribes. Furthermore, Massasoit’s son Philip had his own political ambitions. The Separatists discovered that the tribes had their allies and their enemies. Philip and the Separatists manipulated this landscape to further their own interests.
When six Indian elders were executed for the murder of a friend to the Separatists, the new Pokanoket sachem declared war on the English. Thus began what came to be known as King Philip’s War. I can understand why readers might find the chapters dedicated to this war boring. It’s just one battle scene after another. Yet, Philbrick argues that King Philip’s War was a turning point in English-Indian relations. I don’t know if there is a more engaging way to tell this story. War is monotonous in its ugliness. I also like how Philbrick highlighted the agency of the Native people. Squanto was friendly to the Separatists so that he might steal the sachemship from Massasoit and his family. Alliances are always political.
As a history of the Mayflower settlers and their relationship with the surrounding tribes, Mayflower is a solid popular history. It may not be as entertaining as Into the Heart of the Sea – which is about the shipwreck of the whale ship Essex – but I recommend Mayflower to anyone who, like me, needs to brush up on their early American history.
I will certainly be reading Philbrick’s American Revolution trilogy next. Popular nonfiction may not be as nuanced and up-to-date as academic nonfiction but it will always be more engaging.