Mayflower presents the Plymouth story as tragedy

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
By Nathaniel Philbrick
New York, Viking Press, 480 pages

Winter 2006

beneath the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House, tucked away safely in the State Library, lies one of the great treasures of America: the manuscript diary of William Bradford. In words simple and eloquent, Bradford, leader of a band of men and women we call Pilgrims, chronicled the history of Plymouth Plantation. After recounting their travail in England, the strangeness of life in Holland, and a stormy passage across the north Atlantic, Bradford set down how “they fell with that land which is called Cape Cod.” In this wild place, “they had now no friends to welcome them not inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour.”

“Succour” was not to be found on the windy wasteland of the Cape, and so Bradford’s Pilgrims went to look for a more congenial place. They found a “harbor fit for shipping” and nearby “divers cornfields and little running brooks.” They went ashore and called their new home Plymouth after the English port from which they had departed four months earlier. From the moment of settlement until his death 37 years later William Bradford was the most influential person in the colony, and for all but four years he was governor. His diary is the canonical text for the Pilgrim story.

Not surprisingly, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower hews to the Bradford diary. Much as he did with Sea of Glory and In the Heart of the Sea, Philbrick digs deeply into original texts to craft a narrative based on the words and writings of the actual participants. All the familiar aspects of the story are here, including the starving time during the winter of 1620-21 (during which half of the Pilgrims died), as well as relations with London backers, internal politics, and the gradual expansion of the colony. It is the oft-told tale of tribulation and triumph.

But in Mayflower, Philbrick acknowledges these storytelling traditions, then proceeds to demolish them. Mayflower’s theme is not triumph but tragedy.

November 21, 1620, marks the invasion. On that day the Pilgrims landed on a Provincetown beach and “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven.” A few days later they were digging up American Indian graves, stealing corn, and chasing down natives. The culture clash had begun.

Pilgrim-Indian relations took a turn for the better with the arrival at Plymouth, in March 1621, of two English-speaking natives, Samoset and Squanto. They announced that Massasoit, the Great Sachem of the Pokanokets (part of the Wampanoag nation), wished to visit. A few days later Massasoit arrived with 60 warriors.

Neither Massasoit nor Bradford appreciated the true nature of the other. The Pilgrims assumed that Massasoit was a powerful ruler who kept sway over the multitude of tribes in the region. In truth, he ruled only the Pokanokets and even among them his authority was not absolute. At the same time, Massasoit, seeing a half-starved band of strangers that could muster barely 20 men to arms, felt no great threat from the Pilgrims and viewed them as potential allies in his ongoing quarrels with his neighbors. This was not the first time Massasoit had engaged with Europeans. For as long as he could remember, fishermen and traders had visited the coast, but they had never stayed. The Pilgrims were different. They were the vanguard of a European invasion. They intended to remain.

Wary of each other, but in need of mutual support, on March 22, 1621, the Pilgrims and Massasoit signed a simple treaty. Bradford recorded the terms. Both agreed not to harm one another and agreed that if any of their people, natives or Pilgrims, should “hurt any of theirs, he should send the offender, that they might punish them.” They also agreed that, should either group be attacked unjustly by a third party, the other would come to its defense.

This was the high point of Pilgrim-Indian relations. After five months of anxiety Plymouth was, for the moment at least, safe from their greatest fear—Indian attack. And although we cannot be certain about what Massasoit believed, it seems reasonable that he viewed the Pilgrims as allies in his ongoing struggle to maintain power in the shifting politics of the native peoples in southeastern Massachusetts. Two weeks after the signing, the Mayflower left for home, sailing without passengers. All who had come to Plymouth and survived elected to stay.

Pilgrims and Indians were ‘enigmas to one another.’

Massasoit and Bradford were not friends. Neither understood the other’s culture. For racial and religious reasons the Pilgrims did all that they could to keep the natives at arms’ length. However, mere survival demanded that they adopt native methods of agriculture, and in trade they quickly saw the advantages of using wampum. As for religion, the Pilgrims were jealous of their God and unwilling to share him with others. Nor were the natives eager to know the English God, although a few inquired and became Christians. Massasoit, understanding fully that any of his people loyal to the Christian God were likely to be less loyal to him, did all that he could to discourage conversion. Fanciful images of Thanksgiving notwithstanding, Pilgrims and natives remained, as Philbrick suggests, “enigmas to one another.”

During the years of Bradford and Massasoit, the two peoples did all they could to settle their issues through negotiation and compromise. “As they all understood it was the only way to avoid a war,” writes Philbrick.


that understanding was soon forgotten, however. Bradford died in 1657 and Massasoit not long after. Before his death, Bradford recorded his forebodings. The “First Comers” were dying off; a new generation had grown up. They had no memory of the starving time and the difficult early years. His beloved community of saints, in Bradford’s eyes, had turned into a band of degenerate, land-hungry settlers who would be the “ruin of New England.”

It took a while for the European settlers and natives to come to loathe one another. But it did happen, and Bradford’s predicted apocalypse arrived in 1675. Metacomet, better known as King Philip, was Massasoit’s son and successor. In the years since the death of Bradford and his father, Metacomet had watched his people being nibbled to death. The Europeans claimed that they purchased Indian land on fair terms, and by their standards that may have been true. But the results for the Indians were disastrous. By the early 1670s, Metacomet’s people were eking out an existence on a fraction of the lands they once claimed. The murder of John Sassamon, a Christian Indian, set the kindling afire. Three Indians were arrested and charged with the murder. Ignoring law, justice, and good sense, the Plymouth authorities tried, convicted, and executed all three. Pressures that had been building for years erupted. King Philip’s War was underway.

For Philbrick, the war’s central character is Benjamin Church, a carpenter turned Indian fighter. Grandson of Richard Warren, one of the original Pilgrims, the impetuous Church loved war in a way that Bradford and Massasoit had dreaded it. When it came to Indian fighting, Church wrote, “I was spirited for that work.” Sadly, Church, as Philbrick suggests, was a man for his time.

The war spread quickly across southern New England. The English settlers suffered devastating defeats, but in the end Philip was not able to rally enough native support, and the English, with greater numbers and superior resources, defeated their enemy. Thousands of natives died, and at least another thousand were sold into slavery and shipped off to West Indian sugar plantations. To proclaim their victory, the Pilgrim descendants placed the head of Metacomet on a pike near the entrance to the fort where Massasoit and William Bradford had once met to talk about peace.


king philip’s war, Philbrick asserts, is the moment when “both sides had begun to envision a future that did not include the other.” How did this happen? Why did the sons and grandsons of those who had been sustained and saved by native peoples now seek to destroy them? Philbrick’s answer is provocative:

“In the end, both sides wanted what the Pilgrims had been looking for in 1620: a place unfettered by obligations to others. But from the moment Massasoit decided to become the Pilgrims’ ally, New England belonged to no single group. For peace and for survival, others must be accommodated. The moment any of them gave up on the difficult work of living with their neighbors—and all of the compromise, frustration, and delay that inevitably entailed—they risked losing everything. It was a lesson that Bradford and Massasoit had learned over the course of more than three long decades. That it could be so quickly forgotten by their children remains a lesson for us today.”

Meet the Author
Mayflower is no paean to our Pilgrim ancestors. The tale it tells is tragic and heartbreaking, and we wear the stain of it still. As such, Mayflower deserves our keenest attention.

William M. Fowler Jr. is distinguished professor of history at Northeastern University.