Like many folks, or at least like the folks in my liberal echo chamber of the internet, I spent a fair amount of 2020 in lockdown unlearning everything I was taught in U.S. History class. Then I was, at some point, struck with the desire to take a somewhat-chronological deep dive into U.S. History and read nonfiction books from an array of perspectives. So, I started my journey with Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s a nonfiction novel that explores the national myth of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and the first Thanksgiving, the relationship between Native Americans and English colonists that degraded over time, and inevitably the deadly wars such as the Pequot War and King Philip’s War. In hindsight, I probably should have chosen a book about Jamestown, but I forgot that was the first English colony until several pages into Mayflower. Or better yet, I should have started with 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, which presents evidence that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas were more numerous and more culturally and technologically sophisticated than is taught in school. Yet, here we are, caught ‘tween decks with 102 Mayflower passengers, sailing for months across 3,000 miles of the ocean toward a land unknown to most Europeans of the time. My biggest takeaways from Mayflower are:
I Love to Hate the Puritans.
It is a love that stretches all the way back to 10th grade U.S. Literature thanks to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Crucible by Arthur Miller. The Puritans…are a real piece of work.
If you’re not familiar, or if your history is a little rusty, the Puritans were Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, who followed the teaching of John Calvin. They sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, and they believed salvation or damnation was predetermined by God, so there was nothing a person could do in life to change that outcome.
The Pilgrims (of Plymouth Rock fame) were a sect of Puritans who, instead of preoccupying themselves with purifying the Church of England, separated from the church and created their own congregation to meet their pious, spiritual standards. This was illegal in England, so Pilgrims were persecuted (like, properly persecuted– imprisoned or executed), and to escape persecution, the Pilgrims initially fled to Leiden, Holland. Despite being able to practice their religion in peace in their new home, the Pilgrims found themselves losing their English identity, so they sought a new land where they could carve out their own New England and plant their roots and church.
Don’t get me wrong, the Pilgrims were on stolen land and they brought deadly diseases, but I found myself fascinated by this group all the same. They mostly kept to themselves, and the strength of their community was admirable. The ways they held each other accountable– to ensure each member of the church worshipped God properly– was interesting, too. After church sermons, the Pilgrims would sit around and listen to inspired lectures about religious doctrine from nearly everyone in the congregation for HOURS. (When did they get any work done?) Also, despite their religiosity, the Pilgrims insisted on the separation of church and state. Even their marriages were secular because the Bible says nothing about a minister being involved in wedding ceremonies.
And so, while the Pilgrims may not have been the actual worst, their degenerate spawn (their words, not mine) as well as the non-separatist Puritans that emigrated afterward were. Like, literally, the worst. Ironically, the Puritans fled to America to escape religious persecution only to turn around and become the persecutors themselves. After settling in America, they forced all non-European Puritans living in their colony to assimilate into their religion. Or, they shunned neighboring colonies of Quakers. Or they actively persecuted folks like Thomas Morton, whose Anglican practices made him look like a heathen pagan to the Puritans.
Not to mention, they monopolized the purchase and sale of Native American land thereby cheating Native Americans out of free and fair trade.
Also, the genocide and enslavement of the Native Americans.
Like, it’s absolutely stunning how a group of godly people can be so inhumane and awful. And, it becomes even more horrifying when predestination is factored in because then all of their actions become “God’s will”, and I think that says a lot about the Puritans (and why I love to hate them), the founding of Colonial America, and eventually the founding of the United States.
Even though the birth of the United States was more than a century away, some of the nations defining qualities began to develop (for better or for worse).
For example, the Pilgrims shifted away from communal farming to farming their own, private plots of land, where they were permitted to keep their own produce. Crop yields grew exponentially, which paved the way for capitalism. We also see the beginnings of American individualism and frontiersmanship in people like Benjamin Church (Captain of the first Ranger force in America). American frontiersmen became invaluable during the United States’ westward expansion but also contributed to the continued genocide of the Native Americans. And, who could disregard the burgeoning intolerance of different cultures and especially religions, which began to bubble at Plymouth colony?
The Puritans were advocates for public education though, so there is that.
I have a hard time wrapping my head around how anyone survived back then. Especially before the invention of electric heat.
At the time of writing this, I’m wearing a sweatshirt, and I’m buried under two blankets. I also have a newly insulated attic. And even though the heater is running, I’m still cold. The Pilgrims arrived in North America at the start of winter during the Little Ice Age, and somehow they survived. (Also, one of the Pilgrims notes that the Native Americans they first meet are hardly wearing clothes. This can’t be true, can it?)
I also wonder how many calories did these people eat? Their only mode of transportation in America was walking the trails between settlements, which could take days to traverse. Not to mention, they always seem to be at war or farming or clearing forests or building houses. Seriously, how did they stay sufficiently fed? (Especially since the Pilgrims sucked at hunting and fishing, and they did not have livestock in the early years of the colony).
And don’t even get me started about sailing across the ocean at night before the invention of radar. It’s bananas.
Philbrick addresses biases and does a decent job of balancing perspectives about Native American and colonist relations.
Before beginning the story, Philbrick addresses that most of what we know of 17th century New England comes from the English. And even though in recent decades, anthropologists, archaeologists, and folklorists have increased the world’s understanding of Native American culture and history during this time, Philbrick’s reconstruction is predominantly pulled from the written histories and letters of the Puritans. He is more sympathetic to the Pilgrims than perhaps a Native American historian might be, but Philbrick doesn’t romanticize the colonization of Plymouth, either. He is critical of the Pilgrims and their descendants where it is undeniably due.
Mayflower attempts to bridge the gap between what is usually taught about the founding of the United States.
In school, we tend to learn about Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, but then we fast forward 100-150 years to the eve of the American Revolution. Considering the book is called Mayflower, Philbrick actually spends most of the book focusing on the events that occurred after the arrival at Plymouth Rock. He writes about the relative peacefulness that lasted for about 50 years between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors and allies, the Pokanoket (later the Wampanoag). But, readers also learn about the Pequot War, which ended after about 700 Pequots had been killed or sold into slavery in the Caribbean, and ultimately created a power vacuum among Native American Nations in the region (also, let’s file “creating power vacuums” under defining characteristics of the United States). Philbrick also writes about the “degenerate” children of the Pilgrims, who in adulthood, failed to maintain diplomacy with their Native American allies, exploited the purchase and sale of Native American land to serve their new and booming colonist population, and executed three members of the Wampanoags following a rigged trial. All of this eventually led to another war– King Philip’s War– which lasted 14 months, created conflict from Massachusetts all the way up to Maine, and ended after thousands of Native Americans and colonists died.
Overall, I thought Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War was a worthwhile read. Philbrick’s writing is approachable and engaging, even for folks who just have a passing interest in the topic of the Mayflower and the colony at Plymouth (like myself). His narrative is rich with description as he recreates life in 17th century Massachusetts, and he inserts anecdotes (pulled from the letters and journals) throughout to help readers connect with the colonists and Native Americans from the past on a more human level. I did slog through some of the chapters about King Philip’s War, but I suspect that had more to do with my interest in war strategy. (Although, looking back, my eyes glazed over when learning about King Philip’s War in AP U.S. History in the days of yore as well…).
Books & Tea
It feels kind of weird to pair a tea with a non-fiction book. And I imagine depending on the topic, this may border on inappropriate. But, what the heck, I’m committed. If you pick up Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, may I suggest pairing it with the following teas:
Seaworthy from Friday Afternoon Tea
Seaworthy is a blend of aloe vera flesh, white tea, blue cornflowers, and elderberries. It offers a thick and luscious mouthfeel but delicate vegetal, floral, and peppery aromas. I recommend cold steeping this one to draw out the sweetness of the white tea.
Cliff by the Sea from Friday Afternoon Tea
Cliff by the Sea is a blend of green tea, orange peel, apple, pear, wakame seaweed, and sea buckthorn berry. It tastes like the ocean breeze, but the fruit keeps it from wading too far into brine and seaweed territory.
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
How did America Begin?
This simple question launches acclaimed author Nathaniel Philbrick on an extraordinary journey to understand the truth behind our most sacred national myth: the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of Plymouth Colony. As Philbrick reveals in this electrifying new book, the story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving; instead, it is a fifty-five-year epic that is at once tragic and heroic, and still carries meaning for us today.