Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

I have been meaning to read this book for about a year now! I started reading it last year, but never finished it, then I picked it up again recently and started it from the beginning. My intent was to have it finished and reviewed by Thanksgiving, but, obviously, that didn’t happen. My reading tends to slow down at this time of the year, but I’m glad I finally found the time to finish this book.


Summary from Goodreads:


 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. 

Is this a good book to read before Thanksgiving? I’m not so sure as it was pretty depressing. Then again, maybe it is so that we can sort through all of the mythology of what we believe about Thanksgiving and learn the facts. The book deals with much more than just Thanksgiving though, it covers a good 55 years of history and much of it was new to me.  As I finished this book I realized that there was so much history I was completely unaware of and that the Pilgrims behaved in ways that I felt compromised their spiritual beliefs.

The first half of the book focused on the Pilgrims and their voyage to the new world, establishing relationships with the Indians and surviving long enough to start a community in New England. This section has a lot of  history that was interesting to read.  The second half of the book focused primarily on King Phillip’s War, which, to me, was not as interesting but illustrated how far the second generation of Pilgrims and Indians had come from the cooperative spirit their parents had.

As the summary states, the author wants to understand “…our most sacred national myth: the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of Plymouth colony.” He does this by delving into the history behind the myth and it’s a much more complicated story than I had realized.  There were numerous historical facts that I only learned about from reading this book. Somehow it never came up in any American Literature or American History class I took when studying the Pilgrims that their voyage to the New World was an investment and they were expected to generate profits once they landed to pay their debt. I also never knew that only half of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower were Pilgrims, the other half were “Strangers” or non-separatists.  So, this was not simply a group of religious non-conformists who made a long and dangerous journey to the New World in order to worship God as they chose. Knowing this also made the Mayflower Compact more significant. After all, it was a civil document and all who signed it agreed to abide by the rules and authority of the elected officials.

Prior to reading this book, I knew that the Indians had helped the Pilgrims to survive that first year- I just didn’t know a lot of the details or even how they established their colony.  After reading this book, I can safely say that there may not have been a Plymouth colony if it were not for Massasoit’s friendship. The English didn’t know how to fish, they were lacking in food and near starvation and many had died. The Indians provided the English with interpreters who helped them to trade and Squanto taught the English about Indian agriculture. Relationships and alliances were vital to their survival, however, they were often complicated and Philbrick explores the complexity of these relationships throughout the book.

Another thing that came across to me was the determination and perseverance of the Pilgrims. Despite the fact that they were weak with hunger and many of their people were dying, they persevered– their survival depended on it. They persevered, from the very beginning, despite numerous setbacks, in actually sailing aboard the Mayflower. Once they arrived in New England, they persevered through hunger, illness and death; then, against all odds, they established a colony. However, they also behaved poorly. I saw little evidence of the love and mercy of Christ in their life and even less in the second generation of Pilgrim settlers. The first generation of Pilgrim settlers attacked a tribe of Indians in response to hearing that they would attack the English. Yes, it was complicated, and Massasoit encouraged them to do so, but at that point, it was an unprovoked attack. Later, the second generation of Pilgrims would change a law allowing them to sell “powder and shot” to the Indians in order to make a profit.  During the war, they killed Indians who refused to fight against them and sold into slavery others who surrendered– after they were promised amnesty!  These are only a few examples of how I felt their actions were at odds with their Christian faith. I felt that they should have taken a more active role in being peacemakers and that they should have remembered and respected the Indians for the role they played in helping them to survive in the New World. Would this have prevented the war? I don’t know, but their actions would have been more in line with Christ’s teachings and who knows what kind of far reaching results that would have had.  

Overall, I enjoyed this book, despite having to almost push myself to get through the second half.  For me, there was a lot of new information and history to learn and I feel like I have a better understanding of this period and the people involved.  I learned a lot through this book and for that reason I think it’s a worthwhile read.


8 thoughts on “Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

  1. By their nature national myths have inherent strengths and weaknesses and the American foundation myth seems to me a good example of them. Its power comes from a sense of rightness, from what are seen as absolute truths, and they can well inspire unity, pride, comradeship and optimism. Equally they can be built on half-truths, misapprehensions and, occasionally, downright lies. Britain has many such myths — pioneering Anglo-Saxon immigrants invigorating (or, alternatively, ethnically cleansing) the dreamy (or lazy) Celtic stock; the bulldog spirit of Brits during the Second World War fighting “alone” against the Axis powers; the pious Christian nation bringing enlightenment and freedom to poor benighted native peoples in its Empire while simultaneously enslaving them and exploi

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  2. Thank you for reminding me of this one. I love books that teach us something along the way and it sounds like this one definitely does that. Every once in a while, I’ll walk around Plymouth while imagining the history there. I’ll have to read this now so that I can imagine it in the right way.

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  3. This book definitely teaches us something new about history. I learned so much, including the fact that there was a devastating war between the Pilgrims and Indians. And, I never knew anything about it until this book. I hope you enjoy reading it if you pick it up. And, enjoy those walks through Plymouth! 🙂

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  4. Yes, I can see that these myths serve a purpose in unifying and strengthening us as a country, but then, it’s difficult to learn the truth: that we behaved horribly– and much worse than I had realized! But we need to learn the facts and I’m glad to know more about the real history of that period than I did before.

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  5. I knew generally that the pilgrims had massacred native americans even though they’d probably not have survived without their help, but all the details were new to me! It really is a shame we’re taught such a sanitized version of this story in classes and by word of mouth. I didn’t always love reading this book, but I also thought it was a really worthwhile read 🙂

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