Like so many of the myths created to tell the story of the creation of our country, the tale of The Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving has been scrubbed and polished so many times over the years that when the more literal truth is told, the effect is shocking.
In his book “Mayflower”, Nathaniel Philbrick provides a no-holds-barred view of the trials and tribulations experienced by this determined group of religious dissidents who believed it was necessary to disassociate themselves from the Church of England. Persecuted at home, these “Separatists” first moved to Holland and then booked passage on a small, cramped, leaky hulk of a ship for an extremely uncomfortable and hazardous winter crossing of the Atlantic.
What happened to them during their long harrowing voyage and after they were put ashore in the New World without adequate shelter or provisions is a thrilling tale. But, be prepared … this is not the story of The Pilgrims that we grew up with.
This book benefits from the readability and brisk pacing of one of our more talented popular historians. I will not question nor debate the author’s scholarship. Philbrick’s historiography may not measure up to the expectations of some, but he has obviously done sufficient research to draw his conclusions and his dramatic account is a convincing one.
No matter what we were taught growing up, George Washington probably did tell a lie or two over his lifetime and Abe Lincoln probably did not compose his “Gettysburg Address” on the back of an envelope on the train to the ceremonies. Similarly, The Pilgrims and those who followed, did not blend harmoniously with the existing population. The friction with Native Americans that most of us associate more closely with the opening of the western frontier, almost certainly began the minute The Mayflower dropped anchor.
It’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad guys in this story. At any one time, each and every character appears to be capable of the most appalling acts of cruelty and violence.
My perception has always been that by the close of the 17th century, European mores were much closer to those of today than to those of the Dark Ages. In traditional history, most wanton acts of savagery have usually been assigned to the “savages” rather than the colonists.
If Philbrick’s more vivid descriptions are to be believed, then beheadings, drawing & quarterings and other barbaric medieval practices, along with condemning captives to the misery of slavery were commonplace activities for the English settlers, making you question who the real “savages” were.
There is much to admire about those English men and women who founded our country and those natives who were already here when they arrived. It is also apparent that all involved on both sides were savages when the occasion demanded it. All in all, the narrative provided by Philbrick tells an enthralling saga of desperate people in desperate times … unfortunately doing what desperate people often do.
The picture it provides is not always pretty, but sadly, neither is so much of the history of the human race.