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From the perilous ocean crossing to the shared bounty of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim settlement of New England has become enshrined as our most sacred national myth. Yet, as bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick reveals in his spellbinding new book, the true story of the Pilgrims is much more than the well-known tale of piety and sacrifice; it is a fifty-five-year epic that is at once tragic, heroic, exhilarating, and profound.
The Mayflower's religious refugees arrived in Plymouth Harbor during a period of crisis for Native Americans as disease spread by European fishermen devastated their populations. Initially the two groups—the Wampanoags, under the charismatic and calculating chief Massasoit, and the Pilgrims, whose pugnacious military officer Miles Standish was barely five feet tall—maintained a fragile working relationship. But within decades, New England would erupt into King Philip's War, a savagely bloody conflict that nearly wiped out English colonists and natives alike and forever altered the face of the fledgling colonies and the country that would grow from them.
With towering figures like William Bradford and the distinctly American hero Benjamin Church at the center of his narrative, Philbrick has fashioned a fresh and compelling portrait of the dawn of American history—a history dominated right from the start by issues of race, violence, and religion.
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But beginnings are rarely as clear-cut as we would like them to be. Take, for example, the event that most Americans associate with the start of the United States: the voyage of the Mayflower.
Wefve all heard at least some version of the story: how in 1620 the Pilgrims sailed to the New World in search of religious freedom; how after drawing up the Mayflower Compact, they landed at Plymouth Rock and befriended the local Wampanoags, who taught them how to plant corn and whose leader or sachem, Massasoit, helped them celebrate the First Thanksgiving. From this inspiring inception came the United States.
Like many Americans, I grew up taking this myth of national origins with a grain of salt. In their wide- brimmed hats and buckled shoes, the Pilgrims were the stuff of holiday parades and bad Victorian poetry. Nothing could be more removed from the ambiguities of modern- day America, I thought, than the Pilgrims and the Mayflower.
But, as I have since discovered, the story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex. Instead of the story we already know, it becomes the story we need to know.
In 1676, fifty-six years after the sailing of the Mayflower, a similarly named but far less famous ship, the Seaflower, departed from the shores of New England. Like the Mayflower, she carried a human cargo. But instead of 102 potential colonists, the Seaflower was bound for the Caribbean with 180 Native American slaves.
The governor of Plymouth Colony, Josiah Winslow=son of former Mayflower passengers Edward and Susanna Winslow=had provided the Seaflowerfs captain with the necessary documentation. In a certificate bearing his official seal, Winslow explained that these Native men, women, and children had joined in an uprising against the colony and were guilty of 8many notorious and execrable murders, killings, and outrages.e As a consequence, these 8heathen malefactorse had been condemned to perpetual slavery.
The Seaflower was one of several New England vessels bound for the West Indies with Native slaves. But by 1676, plantation owners in Barbados and Jamaica had little interest in slaves who had already shown a willingness to revolt. No evidence exists as to what happened to the Indians aboard the Seaflower, but we do know that the captain of one American slave ship was forced to venture all the way to Africa before he finally disposed of his cargo. And so, over a half century after the sailing of the Mayflower, a vessel from New England completed a transatlantic passage of a different sort.
The rebellion referred to by Winslow in the Seaflowerfs certificate is known today as King Philipfs War. Philip was the son of Massasoit, the Wampanoag leader who greeted the Pilgrims in 1621. Fifty-four years later, in 1675, Massasoitfs son went to war. The fragile bonds that had held the Indians and English together in the decades since the sailing of the Mayflower had been irreparably broken.
King Philipfs War lasted only fourteen months, but it changed the face of New England. After fifty-five years of peace, the lives of Native and English peoples had become so intimately intertwined that when fighting broke out, many of the regionfs Indians found themselves, in the words of a contemporary chronicler, 8in a kind of maze, not knowing what to do.e Some Indians chose to support Philip; others joined the colonial forces; still others attempted to stay out of the conflict altogether. Violence quickly spread until the entire region became a terrifying war zone. A third of the hundred or so towns in New England were burned and abandoned. There was even a proposal to build a barricade around the core settlements of Massachusetts and surrender the towns outside the perimeter to Philip and his allies.
The colonial forces ultimately triumphed, but at a horrifying cost. There were approximately seventy thousand people in New England at the outbreak of hostilities. By the end of the war, somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand were dead, with more than three-quarters of those losses suffered by the Native Americans. In terms of percentage of population killed, King Philipfs War was more than twice as bloody as the American Civil War and at least seven times more lethal than the American Revolution. Not counted in these statistics are the hundreds of Native Americans who, like the passengers aboard the Seaflower, ended the war as slaves. It had taken fifty-six years to unfold, but one peoplefs quest for freedom had resulted in the conquest and enslavement of another.
It was Philip who led me to the Pilgrims. I was researching the history of my adopted home, Nantucket Island, when I encountered a reference to the Wampanoag leader in the townfs records. In attempting to answer the question of why Philip, whose headquarters was in modern Bristol, Rhode Island, had traveled more than sixty-five miles across the water to Nantucket, I realized that I must begin with Philipfs father, Massasoit, and the Pilgrims.
My initial impression of the period was bounded by two conflicting preconceptions: the time-honored tradition of how the Pilgrims came to symbolize all that is good about America and the now equally familiar modern tale of how the evil Europeans annihilated the innocent Native Americans. I soon learned that the real-life Indians and English of the seventeenth century were too smart, too generous, too greedy, too brave=in short, too human= to behave so predictably.
Without Massasoitfs help, the Pilgrims would never have survived the first year, and they remained steadfast supporters of the sachem to the very end. For his part, Massasoit realized almost from the start that his own fortunes were linked to those of the English. In this respect, there is a surprising amount of truth in the tired, threadbare story of the First Thanksgiving.
But the Indians and English of Plymouth Colony did not live in a static idyll of mutual support. Instead, it was fifty-five years of struggle and compromise=a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace. The next generation, however, came to see things differently.
When Philipfs warriors attacked in June of 1675, it was not because relentless and faceless forces had given the Indians no other choice. Those forces had existed from the very beginning. War came to New England because two leaders=Philip and his English counterpart, Josiah Winslow=allowed it to happen. For Indians and English alike, there was nothing inevitable about King Philipfs War, and the outbreak of fighting caught almost everyone by surprise.
When violence and fear grip a society, there is an almost overpowering temptation to demonize the enemy. Given the unprecedented level of suffering and death during King Philipfs War, the temptations were especially great, and it is not surprising that both Indians and English began to view their former neighbors as subhuman and evil. What is surprising is that even in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in American history, there were Englishmen who believed the Indians were not inherently malevolent and there were Indians who believed the same about the English. They were the ones whose rambunctious and intrinsically rebellious faith in humanity finally brought the war to an end, and they are the heroes of this story.
* * *
It would be left to subsequent generations of New Englanders to concoct the nostalgic and reassuring legends that have become the staple of annual Thanksgiving Day celebrations. As we shall see, the Pilgrims had more important things to worry about than who was the first to set foot on Plymouth Rock.
It is true that most of what we know about seventeenth-century New England comes from the English. In recent decades, however, archaeologists, anthropologists, and folklorists have significantly increased our understanding of the Native American culture of the time. This does not alter the fact that any account of the period must depend, for the most part, on contemporary narratives, histories, letters, documents, and poems written by English men and women.
I have focused on two people, one familiar, the other less so: Plymouth governor William Bradford and Benjamin Church, a carpenter turned Indian fighter whose maternal grandfather had sailed on the Mayflower. Bradford and Church could not have been more different=one was pious and stalwart, the other was audacious and proud=but both wrote revealingly about their lives in the New World. Together, they tell a fifty-six-year intergenerational saga of discovery, accommodation, community, and war=a pattern that was repeated time and time again as the United States worked its way west and, ultimately, out into the world.
It is a story that is at once fundamental and obscure, and it begins with a ship on a wide and blustery sea.
They Knew They Were Pilgrims
For sixty-five days, the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengersf devoted heads. There were 102 of them=104 if you counted the two dogs: a spaniel and a giant, slobbery mastiff. Most of their provisions and equipment were beneath them in the hold, the primary storage area of the vessel. The passengers were in the between, or ftween, decks=a dank, airless space about seventy-five feet long and not even five feet high that separated the hold from the upper deck. The ftween decks was more of a crawlspace than a place to live, made even more claustrophobic by the passengersf attempts to provide themselves with some privacy. A series of thin- walled cabins had been built, creating a crowded warren of rooms that overflowed with people and their possessions: chests of clothing, casks of food, chairs, pillows, rugs, and omni-present chamber pots. There was even a boat=cut into pieces for later assembly=doing temporary duty as a bed.
They were nearly ten weeks into a voyage that was supposed to have been completed during the balmy days of summer. But they had started late, and it was now November, and winter was coming on. They had long since run out of firewood, and they were reaching the slimy bottoms of their water casks. Of even greater concern, they were down to their last casks of beer. Due to the notoriously bad quality of the drinking water in seventeenth-century England, beer was considered essential to a healthy diet. And sure enough, with the rationing of their beer came the unmistakable signs of scurvy: bleeding gums, loosening teeth, and foul-smelling breath. So far only two had died=a sailor and a young servant=but if they didnft reach land soon many more would follow.
They had set sail with three pregnant mothers: Elizabeth Hopkins, Susanna White, and Mary Allerton. Elizabeth had given birth to a son, appropriately named Oceanus, and Susanna and Mary were both well along in their pregnancies.
It had been a miserable passage. In midocean, a fierce wave had exploded against the old shipfs topsides, straining a structural timber until it had cracked like a chicken bone. The Mayflowerfs master, Christopher Jones, had considered turning back to England. But Jones had to give his passengers their due. They knew next to nothing about the sea or the savage coast for which they were bound, but their resolve was unshakable. Despite all they had so far suffered=agonizing delays, seasickness, cold, and the scorn and ridicule of the sailors=they had done everything in their power to help the carpenter repair the fractured beam. They had brought a screw jack=a mechanical device used to lift heavy objects=to assist them in constructing houses in the New World. With the help of the screw jack, they lifted the beam into place, and once the carpenter had hammered in a post for support, the Mayflower was sound enough to continue on.
They were a most unusual group of colonists. Instead of noblemen, craftsmen, and servants=the types of people who had founded Jamestown in Virginia=these were, for the most part, families=men, women, and children who were willing to endure almost anything if it meant they could worship as they pleased. The motivating force behind the voyage had come from a congregation of approximately four hundred English Puritans living in Leiden, Holland. Like all Puritans, these English exiles believed that the Church of England must be purged of its many excesses and abuses. But these were Puritans with a vengeance. Instead of working for change within the established church, they had resolved to draw away from the Church of England=an illegal act in Jacobean England. Known as Separatists, they represented the radical fringe of the Puritan movement. In 1608, they had decided to do as several groups of English Separatists had done before them: emigrate to the more religiously tolerant country of Holland.
They had eventually settled in Leiden, a university town that could not have been more different from the rolling, sheep-dotted fields of their native England. Leiden was a redbrick labyrinth of building-packed streets and carefully engineered canals, a city overrun with refugees from all across Europe. Under the leadership of their charismatic minister, John Robinson, their congregation had more than tripled in size. But once again, it had become time for them to leave.
As foreigners in Holland, many of them had been forced to work menial, backbreaking jobs in the cloth industry, and their health had suffered. Despite the countryfs reputation for religious tolerance, a new and troubling era had come to Holland as a debate among the leading theologians of the day sparked civil unrest and, on occasion, violence. Just the year before, a member of their congregation had almost been killed by a rock-hurling crowd. Even worse, a Dutch treaty with Spain was about to expire, and it was feared Leiden might soon be subjected to the same kind of siege that had resulted in the deaths of half the cityfs residents during the previous century.
But their chief worry involved their children. Gradually and inevitably, they were becoming Dutch. The congregation had rejected the Church of England, but the vast majority of its members were still proudly, even defiantly, English. By sailing to the New World, they hoped to re-create the English village life they so dearly missed while remaining beyond the meddlesome reach of King James and his bishops.
It was a stunningly audacious proposition. With the exception of Jamestown, all other attempts to establish a permane...
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