Contrary to what grade-school legends would have us believe, the first Thanksgiving was not celebrated in late November; most likely it occurred at the end of September or in very early October. And, with the arrival of the Indian leader Massasoit and hundreds of his followers "bearing five freshly killed deer," the event "soon became an overwhelming Native celebration," rather than the pious English festival we commemorate today.
This is one of many choice tidbits in Nathaniel Philbrick's absorbing and exceedingly well researched history of the Plymouth Colony. In fact, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is so interesting in so many ways that readers will come away from it with a profoundly different understanding - and deeper appreciation - of the people (Native Americans and colonists, alike) and events that have been flattened over the course of almost three centuries into a lifeless national mythology.
"I think it's really important that we see the past as a lived past rather than something that was fated to be," Philbrick says during a call to Providence, Rhode Island. Philbrick is on his way home to Nantucket Island, where he and his wife, a third-generation Cape Codder, and their two children have lived for almost 20 years. "We look at this story as if the outcome had been determined from the very beginning, but that is not how they saw it. So with this book I was really trying to recreate the sense of how precarious it was."
Philbrick won the National Book Award in 2000 for In the Heart of the Sea, his harrowing account of the 1820 sinking of the whaling ship Essex and the struggle of its crew to survive. Ever since, he says, he has "been writing survival stories in one way another. What fascinated me about this story was that this was a survival story in three layers."
After many delays and a horrible sea journey, the Pilgrims arrived at the wrong time of year on a coast where three years before a thriving, populous Native community had been decimated by a plague brought to the Americas by European fisherman. The first year after the Mayflower landed was a physical and psychological struggle for survival for both Natives and Pilgrims alike, as Philbrick shows in riveting detail. The shrewd political calculations of Chief Massasoit and his remarkable relationship with Edward Winslow eventually laid the groundwork for a half-century of amazing - if hard-won - accommodation between settlers and Natives, the second layer of Philbrick's survival tale. But the succeeding generations of Pilgrims and Natives, grown greedy and comfortable on one side and resentful and hard-pressed on the other, moved inexorably toward the largely forgotten and incredibly brutal "King Philip's War," which, Philbrick argues convincingly, announced the tragic, archetypal pattern of conflict that continental expansion would follow for the next two centuries.
As guides through this lesser-known but fascinating era, Philbrick follows two dominant, articulate personalities: William Bradford, the leader of the first generation of Pilgrims, and William Church, a prescient and "gleefully impious" representative of the third generation of colonists. Philbrick is equally good at illuminating the character of the other major players in this history - Miles Standish, Edward and Josiah Winslow, Mary Rowlandson, Squanto, Chief Massasoit and his son, King Philip - none of whom is quite the paragon or villain portrayed in the standard national mythologies.
"My education as an elementary and high school student was that the Pilgrims were the example of everything that was good about America. Then I went to college and the story was that the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans," Philbrick says. "But as I delved into this on my own, I saw that this was a tragedy in terms of the overarching dynamic. They all were people who were struggling heroically (or in a cowardly fashion) and who had a lot to say about what was happening to them, rather than being powerless victims."
Philbrick developed his informative, eminently readable, person-centered approach to writing history in several earlier books about the history of Nantucket and of seafaring. An English major at Brown, Philbrick learned to write during a stint at the magazine Sailing World. He had been a competitive sailboat racer as a teenager and in college, a passion he says he developed on a manmade lake near "that most nautical of places, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," where his father was a university professor. Philbrick met his wife when both were teaching sailing on Cape Cod.
While it took him three years to compose Mayflower, Philbrick says he actually worked on the book for almost 13 years. "When I was writing my first history of Nantucket, I realized that if I was going to understand its origins as an English settlement I would have to go back to the Pilgrims and the Indians," he says. He found that the English side was well documented. But to understand the Native side he had to "look at oral traditions, archeology, folklore. I realized that exploring the Native American past requires a whole different side of the brain almost, a whole different discipline. I took a couple of years just coming up to speed in that way."
The result of this lengthy inquiry is a history that reads like tragedy, that is populated by fallible humans on all sides and that resounds with what-if moments. Philbrick does not see as inevitable this first major war between Indians and the English (in which the English lost eight percent of their male population and Native Americans of southern New England lost 60 to 80 percent of its people, including those sold into slavery by the Puritans). But once it did happen, King Philip's War set the pattern of conflict for centuries to come.
"If Josiah Winslow and Philip had only decided to just talk, as their fathers had, we would have had a profoundly different New England history. But it didn't happen," Philbrick says. "The Pilgrims didn't come here on the Mayflower to empire build or to remove a population, but in the wake of that war, that's exactly what they did."
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War is one of the best histories of unintended consequences you're ever likely to read.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.