Thursday, April 6, 2017

Non-Fiction Book Review
Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War
Nathaniel Philbrick
 
I highly recommend that any person interested in early American history read Nathaniel Philbrick’s "Mayflower, a Story of Courage, Community, and War." Philbrick is a skilled writer. He is both informative and expressive. His information is well researched. He is objective in his interpretation of the significance of major events and skillful in his portrayal of prominent historical figures.

His narrative of the people and events of the time alters the image that most Americans have about the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors. What I was left with at the end of the book was reaffirmation of the seemingly universal truth that while individual people are capable of acts of kindness, groups of man invariably act upon their selfish interests and punish if not destroy those who stand in their way.

What did I learn that I had not known?

The Pilgrims were exceedingly lucky settling both where they did and when they did. A virulent disease had wiped out the Pokanokets settlement at Plymouth and much of the tribe elsewhere. The disease had been brought to New England by European adventurers, some of whom had taken captives. Two, who had returned, had learned to speak English. One of them, Squanto, served the Pilgrims as a translator.

For nearly 50 years the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets lived adjacent to each other in relative harmony. This was mostly because each had a strong need for the other. The Pilgrims needed the Pokanokets as a protective barrier. The Pokanokets, because of their reduced population, threatened by more populous neighboring tribes, needed the Pilgrims’ military assistance. During those 50 years a certain intimacy developed. A certain amount of cross-cultural exchange occurred. Each adopted certain ways of the other.

This all began to change when second generation Pilgrim and Pokanokets leaders took positions of authority. Late in his life William Bradford lamented that the material rewards of this life rather than those of the afterlife had become the focus of the second and third generations. Scarcity of land became the inevitable consequence of growth of population. Indians were viewed increasingly as an impediment. Indians, in turn, resented their loss of land due both to its purchase by the English and confiscation.

Massasoit, sachem of the Pokanokets, friend of the Pilgrims, had died. His older son, Alexander, summoned by the magistrates of Plymouth Colony to appear before them to renew the covenant of peace that had existed between the two people, died suddenly of an unexpected illness. Tribal members suspected that he had been poisoned. Massasoit’s younger son, Philip, became the tribe’s sachem.

His tribe squeezed of territory, increasingly impoverished, forced to turn over its weapons, three of his tribal members executed for crimes they had not committed, Philip began to seek out the support of neighboring tribes to push back against the English. War eventually broke out. All Indians, even those who tried to stay neutral, were perceived as “children of the devil.” Many neutral Indians were given no choice but to go to war.

For awhile, the Indians seemed to be winning. Had Philip been able to forge an alliance with the French in the Hudson River Valley, the outcome of the war would have been quite different. Ultimately, lack of food diminished Philip’s forces. The alliance of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies outlasted them. Desertions resulted. Treated more humanely by some of the English leaders, certain tribes switched sides. The war ended when the sachems of the warring tribes, including Philip, were taken and killed.

King Philip’s War was costly for both sides. During the 14 months of the war Plymouth Colony lost close to 8 percent of its men. Due to death in battle, starvation, and being sold into slavery and exported to the West Indies, the Native American tribes of southern New England lost between 60 to 80 percent of their population.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s book offers the reader much to think about.