- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006


By Nathaniel Philbrick

Viking, $29.95, 461 pages, illus.


Nathaniel Philbrick, a National Book Award-winning maritime historian, came to his latest subject, the founding of Plymouth Colony by the Pilgrims, in a roundabout fashion: He was researching the history of Nantucket Island, where he lives, when he found a reference in the town records to a visit to the island by the Wampanoag leader Philip. To learn why Philip came to Nantucket, the author says, “I realized that I must begin with Philip’s father, Massasoit, and the Pilgrims.”

The result is a detailed chronicle primarily of the 56 years between the Pilgrims’ arrival in Plymouth in November 1620 (and their welcome by Massasoit, who famously taught them to plant corn) and the end of King Philip’s War in 1676, in which Philip, thousands of his fellow Indians and many English soldiers died.

Drawing on an impressive array of scholarly and popular sources, Mr. Philbrick weaves a colorful account of the Plymouth colonists’ experience, from their exile in Leiden, Holland — where, as Separatists, they sought freedom of worship unconstrained by the Church of England — through their harrowing two-month voyage to America, and the challenge of adapting to the harsh New England wilderness. (One note explains how William Bradford’s first wife may indeed have committed suicide by jumping, not falling, overboard shortly after the ship arrived at Cape Cod, perhaps the result of acute melancholia induced by scurvy.)

That 52 of the original 102 travelers were still alive six months after their arrival is a tribute to their receptivity to “new ways,” says the author: “Going native — at least to a certain degree — was a necessary, if problematic, part of adapting to life in a strange and foreign land.”

To understand the Pilgrims, Mr. Philbrick concentrates on William Bradford, whose “self-deprecating and always lively voice” dominates the existing records of Plymouth Plantation. The author comments, “By all rights, none of the Pilgrims should have emerged from the first winter alive. Like the French sailors before them, they all might have been either killed or taken captive by the Indians.

“That it had worked out differently was a testament not only to the Pilgrims’ grit, resolve, and faith, but to their ability to take advantage of an extraordinary opportunity … Placing their faith in God, the Pilgrims might have insisted on a policy of arrogant isolationism. But by becoming an active part of the diplomatic process in southern New England … they had taken charge of their own destiny in the region.”

One of the most remarkable examples of the Pilgrims’ diplomacy concerns their leaders’ actions when they learned that Massasoit was gravely ill, probably with typhus. Gov. Bradford immediately sent Edward Winslow to him with medicines and food, and Winslow proceeded to scrape the almost comatose Indian leader’s “exceedingly furred” tongue, spoon-feed him fruit preserves, and brew an herb broth for him. When Massasoit quickly recovered, he asked Winslow to scrape the mouths of all the other typhus victims in the village.

In the spring of 1623, Bradford decided that the Pilgrims should abandon communal farming, the approach that had been used at Jamestown and other English settlements. Noted Bradford, “The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before.” Adds the author: “The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism” and they never starved again.

By the winter of 1623 Plymouth was “a place of exceptional discipline, a community where shared religious beliefs and family ties that had united the Leideners from the start and where two years of strong leadership on the part of William Bradford had convinced even the Strangers [the non-Separatists among the colonists] that it was in their best interests to work together.”

By 1633 the Pilgrims were following the practice of Roger Williams in Rhode Island of buying land from the Indians, instead of simply taking it.

Perhaps because Mr. Philbrick’s original interest was in Philip rather than the Pilgrims, the space devoted to King Philip’s War takes up a disproportionate share of the book. But Mr. Philbrick is such a splendid writer that he more or less gets away with it. His mechanism is to concentrate on Benjamin Church, a Mayflower passenger’s grandson, “who had moved well beyond his Pilgrim forebears” by settling in Indian country.

The author suggests that Church’s own account of his exploits in the war depicts him as “too brave, too cunning, and too good to be true,” but adds, “What makes his story so special, I believe, is that he shows us how the nightmare of wilderness warfare might one day give rise to a society that promises liberty and justice for all.” Church’s philosophy was summed up as “Instead of loathing the enemy, try to learn as much as possible from him; instead of killing him, try to bring him around to your way of thinking. First and foremost, treat him like a human being.”

Mr. Philbrick has written a fair-minded, thoughtful analysis of how the Plymouth colonists strongly influenced the future of America. All Americans — including the millions of descendants of the Mayflower passengers (those who survived, Mr. Philbrick points out, had an average of seven or eight children per family) — can read the story with appreciation for our forefathers’ courage and perseverance, as well as for their willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Priscilla S. Taylor, who lives in McLean, Va., is descended from five of the Pilgrims, including William Bradford.

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