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Culture Watch

In this issue:


Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, with its impeccable research and lively text, should be a mandatory read for anyone who loves history and a delightful surprise for those who do not

And Consider This

Benjamin Franklin — An American Life has found its way into a place of honor on my long shelf of Frankliniana. I hope it will find its way into the hands of any American interested in our country’s beginnings, or for that matter into the hands of anyone interested in good historical writing

Water for Elephants manages to be engaging, touching, scary, and just plain fun to read, all at once



by Nathaniel Philbrick, © 2006

Published by Viking Press; 361 pp

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of several books, most notably In the Heart of the Sea, which won the National Book Award in 2000. If Mayflower doesn’t win the award this year, it will certainly be one of the finalists.

Not only is this book a marvel of research and explication: it’s also written in a straightforward, accessible style that never fails to engage. There are many myths set straight, and even a few substantiated. But be prepared for some surprises along the way, including the dicey history of famous Plymouth Rock, and a decidedly deconstructed vision of Squanto.

What Philbrick does best, in this reviewer’s opinion, is to convey the enormity of the difficulties faced not only by the Pilgrims, but also by the Native Americans who were confronted by the invasion of Europeans. His treatment of both sides is factual and evenhanded, and eminently fair.

The story begins with the Dissenters who fled from England to Holland, and carries us through their ill-fated attempts to leave for the New World. Many people don’t know that after several tries, they actually sailed in two ships, the Mayflower and a leaky small boat called the Speedwell, which did not speed well at all, having sprung huge leaks. It returned to port, accompanied by the Mayflower, and repairs were made. They sailed again, but barely 200 miles out, the Speedwell leaked so badly that once again, they turned back. All passengers on Speedwell were given the choice of abandoning their journey, or transferring to the Mayflower. Some of the passengers decided not to make the trip, but several determined to persevere, and boarded the Mayflower, crowding into every available inch of the little ship.

Mayflower provides us with vivid images of the voyage and the first years of settlement. The spot chosen by the Pilgrims had long been settled by Indians, but in the years just before 1620, a mysterious disease — smallpox, perhaps, or the plague, brought to the area by European explorers and fishermen — had wiped out the population of the little native village. As most of us know, eventually the Pilgrims made contact with the Indians, and the chief of a nearby tribe, Massasoit.

The first years were hardscrabble, and the rate of mortality was incredibly high, but thanks to the help of the natives, Plymouth Colony took hold. Mayflower gives us a good glimpse of these times, but also moves along to the tragedy of Massasoit’s death, and the disaffection of his sons, Alexander and Phillip.

The last third of the book recounts in detail the conflagration known as King Phillip’s War (1675-1676), a tumultuous time that pitted settlers, and some Indian tribes aligned with them, against many of the Indian tribes of New England. Phillip was the younger son of Massasoit, but he lacked his father’s patience, courage, and willingness to compromise. Although he was the instigator and nominal leader of the eponymous war, Phillip does not come off as much of a leader in Philbrick’s account. But then, neither do many of the strategists among the English settlers.

King Phillip’s War was brutal. It decimated the tribes of New England. The actual numbers of deaths on both sides don’t sound overwhelming to the modern ear, but when one considers the percentages of population destroyed, they are unparalleled in our history. The percentage of population loss in America at that time was greater than the percentage lost during the Revolution or even Civil War.

Philbrick also brings up the shocking and little-known fact that the Puritans shipped many Indians captured during King Phillip’s war to the Caribbean, to be sold into slavery. These Indians included Phillip’s wife and son.

It is said that anyone who had even one ancestor in this country before the year 1700 is probably related to everyone else who had a pre-1700 American ancestor. By 2002, it was estimated that there were 35,000,000 (that’s roughly 10% of the US population) descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims. But whether or not you can count Mayflower DNA in your genetic code, we are all connected to the Pilgrims, politically and emotionally, as well as spiritually. With all their faults and their virtues, they helped to form the infant United States of America — and, via Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation a couple of hundred years later, they gave us Thanksgiving, although the actual celebration in Plymouth Colony was a harvest festival that probably took place in September or early October, and was never labeled “Thanksgiving.”

This book, with its impeccable research and lively text, should be a mandatory read for anyone who loves history and a delightful surprise for those who do not.


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© 2006 Julia Sneden for

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