by Nathaniel Philbrick
Reviewed by Mary Beth Conrad, July 12, 2006
Mayflower has a deceptive title. It leads us to think it deals exclusively with the voyage of the Mayflower in 1621. In fact, the book covers events leading up to the historic voyage of the Pilgrims, the actual voyage, and the following fifty years of the English colonies in New England. It also clears up the rather vague and genteel view most of us have of these early forefathers.
There was a difference between the Pilgrims and the Puritans. The Pilgrims were a small part of the religious group known as Puritans. The Pilgrims were those who arrived in the New World between the years 1620—1629, and the Puritans were those who arrived after 1630. The Pilgrims were Separatists, who believed that the Church of England could not be salvaged and they needed to separate from it. Before the Pilgrims came to America, they moved to Holland to obtain religious freedom. Once in Holland, they became so engulfed in Dutch culture that they were afraid they were loosing their English connection. The Pilgrims decided they needed to leave Holland and go somewhere they could remain "English", yet worship God as they saw fit. Not having much money, the Pilgrims were financed by a group called the merchant adventurers. These financiers expected to be repaid in full for the expenses of the voyage and first year in the New World. Money played a major role in the 1600's just as it does today.
I found it interesting that religious freedom was one of the main reasons the Pilgrims came to America. However, as the years went by, the Pilgrims themselves became intolerant of anyone outside their own beliefs, world view, and lifestyle. They became what they despised most in England: tyrannical leaders imposing their religion on others.
Fascinating facts on the ecological, cultural, and economic cost of settlement of the New World was sprinkled throughout the book. Interesting things came out like the fact that deforestation took 75 acres per year to provide fuel and housing for a town of 200 people. Think about what this did to the Indian lands when thousands of colonists kept coming year after year! Relations with the natives changed from a peaceful coexistence to total destruction of some Indian tribes. Miles Standish was not the kind leader we were led to believe in our elementary textbooks. Standish was a military man intent on proving the Pilgrims' dominance over the Indians. The Pilgrims' belief was that God was on their side in any situation and that war was justified and was the will of God.
The Pilgrims were not the pious pacifists as we picture them to be. There were many bloody conflicts. The worst conflict was King Phillip's War (King Phillip was Massasoit's son). This bloody war resulted in the deportation of thousands of Indians as slaves to the West Indies in 1676. The Indian population of New England was reduced by 70%—80% after just fifty years of colonization by Europeans. Today we think of cutting off the enemies' heads as cruel and barbaric treatment. However, it was the normal course of events for the Pilgrims in seventeenth century America. It was nothing to cut off an Indian's head and impale it on the gate. Nor was it unheard of to burn alive hundreds of Indian women and children. Likewise, the Indians did their share of torture.
I tired somewhat of the descriptions of the bloody conflicts. I was also appalled by much of it. But overall, I did think it was a good book. It is full in interesting and probably little known facts about the people and events of the 1600's.