Book Review: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower is an account of the 1620 Mayflower voyage and the subsequent ~56 years of English settlements in the New England area of the United States. It includes details about the devastating war between colonists and some of the area’s native tribes known as King Philip’s War. History buffs should like this one.

I read Mayflower as part of the 12 Months of Reading Goodness challenge. June’s challenge was to read a book about an historical event. When I introduced the challenge, I mentioned that a couple of historical events celebrate their 100 year anniversaries this month – the Treaty of Versailles was signed and the US Congress proposed the 19th amendment, which ultimately gave women the right to vote. As the month has unfolded, I’ve been reminded of several other noteworthy events that also reached milestone anniversaries this month, including:

– 75th anniversary of D-Day (how did I not mention D-Day in my original post?!?!)
– 30th anniversary of the protests in Tianenman Square
– 25th anniversary of OJ Simpson’s low speed car chase in the white Ford Bronco (yeah, this one’s a little kitschy, but I’ll bet you remember where you were when it was happening! I was watching it while on a summer internship in the Mojave Desert – long story.)

So, about the book…

I chose Mayflower in order to close a gap in my knowledge of American history. My knowledge kind of starts in 1776. Sure, I know Columbus landed in 1492 and then the Pilgrims came sometime in the 1600s, but 1776 is where it’s at, right? Wrong, Michelle! By the time the Revolutionary War started, English colonists had already been here for 150 years. For a nation with a pretty short history, that’s a long time!

The title of the book is a little misleading because only the first third of the book is about the Mayflower. The Pilgrims were in exile in Holland because

their Puritan faith wasn’t tolerated in England. They were seeking a kind of communal, faith-based utopia where they could worship as they pleased. They thought they could create that in New England. What struck me most about the journey, besides the courage it must have taken, was how poorly planned and executed it was. These weren’t adventurers or frontiersmen – these were tradesmen with their wives and kids moving to a wilderness. Their lack of experience had tragic results. The journey was severely delayed, which meant that they used a lot of provisions before they even set sail. It also meant that they were on a schedule that would have them arriving in the land of Snowmageddon in mid-December. Come on, Pilgrims! They actually landed in the wrong spot. Exhausted and freezing, they planted themselves in the first agreeable place and called it Plymouth Plantation. It wasn’t a great location and the earth wasn’t very fertile, but at least they weren’t on that darn boat anymore. Sadly, by the end of winter, half of the passengers had perished. Those that survived had help from the local Indians. For the next several decades, the settlers and Indians lived pretty peacefully together. (However, as a side note, some of these Pilgrims were quite bloodthirsty!)


This first section was interesting and well-written. I’m assuming it wasn’t longer due to a lack of source material. And, honestly, the length and level of detail were just right.

The rest of the book dealt with war between the Colonists and Indians. This was a little over 50 years after the Mayflower landed. The next generation was running things in the English settlements. They were different than their fathers – they didn’t have the same religious zeal, they lacked gratitude towards the Indians for helping their predecessors survive the first few years, and they were greedy and even more bloodthirsty than their fathers. A land grab and lack of diplomacy led to a falling out between Plymouth Plantation and a local tribe led by a sachem named King Philip. Quickly, other tribes and other settlements were pulled in and it escalated into a bloody, 14 month war, full of massacres, murders of women and children, scalpings, gruesome public executions and other atrocities. All sides acted despicably, but the native tribes were the most affected, experiencing a population decrease of 60-80%. It forever changed New England.

This part of the book was also very interesting to me. It was something I knew next to nothing about. Fortunately, the author makes history very accessible through his writing style and also by sprinkling in anecdotes of people who were there. I found myself thinking, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” several times as the relationship between Plymouth and the Pokanoket tribe fell apart. To me, it’s a sign of a good historian when he can elicit an emotional response from a reader. Erik Larson also has that talent. I also appreciated that this author didn’t appear to have an agenda, which is how I like history presented.

I began this post by talking about historic anniversaries. I also want to point out that the Mayflower journey will be having a significant anniversary next year. December, 2020, is the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing in Plymouth. If you’re interested in history, reading Mayflower would be a great way to commemorate that event!

How about you? Did you read about a historical event this month? Please share!

Reminder: July’s challenge is to read a novel by Hemingway.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

  1. I didn’t read a historical novel this month, but watched two documentaries about the Apollo 11 moon landing whose 50th anniversary is coming up next month. Now, more than ever, I am amazed at how our country pulled off such a complicated mission!

    I am interested in reading more about relations between native Americans and early settlers as we have been traveling through lots of reservation land in Arizona and Colorado this June. Mayflower sounds like the perfect book to start with before heading west with the history.

    And, by the way, we watched the helicopters fly by from our front yard in Orange County when the O.J. car chase drove by on the 91 fwy 25 years ago.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those documentaries sound interesting. I remember having that same sense of wonder when I watched the movie Apollo 13. The technology was, compared to today, so primitive. Those astronauts must have had nerves of steel!


  2. As a history fan, I was excited to read Mayflower as well. I had previously read Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea and thought it was a great book. It is a book that although I read it years ago, it still sticks with me. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite feel the same about Mayflower. I completely agree – the book was mistitled. It was much more a book about the English experience with the Native Americans they encountered. And for that matter, I thought it was a bit too detailed – lots of tribes, lots of settlers. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of the book about the journey on the Mayflower as well as the establishment in Plymouth. This part was well written and informative. I suspect that you are right Michelle and that this portion of the book wasn’t extended simply due to lack of credible sources. It’s a shame because that portion of the book was the best.

    One other challenge I had with the book is that is seemed to me that it was written for people who are familiar with present day geography of New England. Quite of few times, Philbrick mentions a place and then proceeds to say site of present day… Although there were plenty of maps, I found myself going to Google Maps to see specifically where he was writing about. On a positive note, I thought Philbrick did an excellent job in portraying the wars between the settlers and indians in a neutral manner. The book was not overly PC in that the settlers were all evil and the indians all innocent. Rather, there was plenty of deceit and exploitation to go around.

    Mayflower was enjoyable but if you want to read Philbrick as a great story teller, read In the Heart of the Sea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good point about the geography. I’m not that familiar with New England. The maps were kind of helpful but I can’t resize them on my tablet and my old eyes have limitations. I’m glad you recommended another book by this author because I’d like to read something else by him. Thanks for commenting, George!


  3. I should definitely read this given my current location! I see historical signs referencing King Philip and King Philip’s War often and recently spent a little time in Plymouth. There is a living museum we’d like to visit called Plimoth (old-fashioned spelling) Plantation this summer, too, Thanks for the suggestion!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For June, I read The Forgotten Highlander by Alistair Urquhart, which is the true story of a young member of the Gordon Highlanders who was held for years as a prisoner of war by the Japanese in WWII. I chose it because while my father served in Europe in WII, I knew less of events in the Pacific at the time. This is not a comfortable read, but it leaves you thankful and grateful.

    He survives such horrors as a prisoner treated like a slave–starvation, disease, torture, cruelty of all kinds. Yet he shows us that with strength, character, and determination (and some luck for sure, being in the right place in a wrong place at a bad time–I mean, he even barely missed being within range of the blast in Nagasaki) the human soul can pull through so much.

    Urquhart wrote this in the 90th year. I believe he mentions (I’ve returned the book to the library and can’t check) at the beginning of the book that he’d waited until after his wife passed away to share his experience. I do also recall him having to sign something after the war saying he wouldn’t speak of certain things and that he felt that they never properly honored or compensated the men held. War is an awful thing. Painful as this knowledge is, people need to know what we’ve done to one another so there’s less likelihood of such acts being repeated.

    Liked by 1 person

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