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Nathaniel Philbrick Looks at Little Known Legacy of the Pilgrims in 'Mayflower'


Until now, American author Nathaniel Philbrick has been known for his books about ocean voyages, including an award-winning shipwreck saga called In the Heart of the Sea. His latest best-seller also begins with a sea journey, but it's mostly an epic account of life in a new land. In Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Viking Penguin), Philbrick describes how the Pilgrims came to be among America's earliest permanent English settlers, and how they established an alliance with the Indians that helped set the course for the country's future.

Nathaniel Philbrick has been fascinated by the history around New England's Nantucket Island since moving there 20 years ago. That fascination eventually led him back to the Pilgrims, whose history he thought he already knew. Like generations of American schoolchildren before him, he had grown up learning how the Pilgrims arrived in the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, and a year later celebrated a feast of Thanksgiving with the Indians. "The more I got into it," he says, "the more I realized - no, so much more happened. And instead of being this inspiring tableau of cooperation, there was a much more complex, interesting and important story when it came to relating to what America would become."

The author says he also came to realize how many myths have grown up around the Pilgrims. "For example, one of the things I had been taught was that the Pilgrims sailed to the New World in search of religious freedom, and what you quickly come to realize was that the Pilgrims did not believe in religious freedom. They believed their religion was the right religion, and did not mean to tolerate others who wanted a different religion. These were not prototypical patriots. These were separatist Puritans, and their beliefs were everything."

As part of his research for Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick traveled the path of the Pilgrims from England to Holland to the New World, where they sought to practice a faith stripped down to the bare essentials of early Christianity. He also studied first person accounts from the time--accounts that put a human face on the 102 passengers who reached what is now known as Provincetown Harbor in November of 1620. Already weakened by a horrific two-month voyage, they arrived just as winter was about to begin. They were greeted, in the words of their future governor, William Bradford, by a "hideous and desolate wilderness."

"Their first impressions were of sheer terror," Philbrick says. "There were very few trees, very low and sandy land. They saw no evidence of any people. In the three years when they were preparing to sail across the Atlantic, the Native Americans in southern New England were hit by a series of devastating plagues. And in some cases it killed 90 percent of the Native Americans. When the Pilgrims got there it was empty, with only the whitened bones of the dead along the shoreline, and it was here the Pilgrims planned to start a new life."

In addition to the terrible physical challenges that new life would present, the Pilgrims were beset by rivalries and tensions with those they called the Strangers, the secular settlers who accompanied them on the Mayflower.

There were also early conflicts with the surviving Indians in the region, until the Wampanoag chief Massasoit set out to forge an alliance with the newcomers. His people had been decimated by disease, and he wanted a line of defense against his powerful Indian rivals. "It would enable his people to maintain their independence," Philbrick explains, "and for the English, it was an essential ally. Without Massasoit's advice, they never would have lasted the first winter or very long into the decade. So for 55 years, there would be peace in Plymouth Colony, and that's unprecedented when you look at the subsequent history of not only New England, but America."

Even with the help of the Indians, half the English settlers died that first winter. The survivors observed their first anniversary in the New World with a feast of Thanksgiving, but not quite the feast of popular American myth. "It was not called a Thanksgiving by the Pilgrims," Philbrick explains, "and it was not so much an English celebration, although it may have been their idea, but a native celebration. The Pilgrims were outnumbered two to one by the Indians, who showed up in great numbers with five deer to add to the feast. And this is amazing when you think about the year all of them had been through."

But as the expanding English population sought more land, and the Indians who occupied it felt increasingly threatened, new sources of conflict began to arise. In 1675, Massasoit's son Philip launched a strike against the settlers that would come to be known as King Philip's War. "It quickly spread beyond Plymouth Colony," Philbrick says, "and soon all of New England was up in flames. Half the towns in the region would be burned or abandoned. This conflict was only fourteen months, but it had a devastating impact on the region. More than 5,000 people were killed when the population of New England was only 70,000, making it even bloodier than the Civil War, which most of us look to as the bloodiest conflict on American soil. The English were supposedly triumphant, but it wasn't a triumph at all. By pushing the Indians too hard, they had destroyed their forefathers' way of life."

But while that peaceful and cooperative way of life didn't survive, Nathaniel Philbrick says the early example set by the settlers and the Indians left a positive legacy. "They didn't necessarily understand each other or like each other that much, but to maintain peace they had to negotiate. The second generation became a little complacent, a little greedy, and lost sight of this lesson. And this is where the story of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims does have something to teach us. It is possible for two very different peoples to make it work. It just takes a lot of effort."

The Pilgrim legacy includes another lesson about survival as well. Armed with little more than religious zeal, they came to a new land ill-prepared for many of the physical challenges they would face. But Nathaniel Philbrick says it was their faith that enabled them to persevere. Strengthened by their beliefs and bonded by their strong sense of community, they turned a fragile settlement into a permanent home.

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