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

Published: 2006-05-09
Hardcover : 480 pages
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From the bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea—winner of the National Book Award—the startling story of the Plymouth Colony

From the perilous ocean crossing to the shared bounty of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim settlement of New England has become enshrined as our ...
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(From the bestselling author of In the Heart of the Sea—winner of the National Book Award—the startling story of the Plymouth Colony

From the perilous ocean crossing to the shared bounty of the first Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim settlement of New England has become enshrined as our most sacred national myth. Yet, as bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick reveals in his spellbinding new book, the true story of the Pilgrims is much more than the well-known tale of piety and sacrifice; it is a fifty-five-year epic that is at once tragic, heroic, exhilarating, and profound.

The Mayflower's religious refugees arrived in Plymouth Harbor during a period of crisis for Native Americans as disease spread by European fishermen devastated their populations. Initially the two groups—the Wampanoags, under the charismatic and calculating chief Massasoit, and the Pilgrims, whose pugnacious military officer Miles Standish was barely five feet tall—maintained a fragile working relationship. But within decades, New England would erupt into King Philip's War, a savagely bloody conflict that nearly wiped out English colonists and natives alike and forever altered the face of the fledgling colonies and the country that would grow from them.

With towering figures like William Bradford and the distinctly American hero Benjamin Church at the center of his narrative, Philbrick has fashioned a fresh and compelling portrait of the dawn of American history—a history dominated right from the start by issues of race, violence, and religion.

Editorial Review

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Chapter One
They Knew They Were Pilgrims

For sixty-five days, the Mayflower had blundered her way through storms and headwinds, her bottom a shaggy pelt of seaweed and barnacles, her leaky decks spewing salt water onto her passengers' devoted heads. There were 102 of them-104 if you counted the two dogs: a spaniel and a giant, slobbery mastiff. Most of their provisions and equipment were beneath them in the hold, the primary storage area of the vessel. The passengers were in the between, or 'tween, decks-a dank, airless space about seventy-five feet long and not even five feet high that separated the hold from the upper deck. The 'tween decks was more of a crawlspace than a place to live, made even more claustrophobic by the passengers' attempts to provide themselves with some privacy. A series of thin-walled cabins had been built, creating a crowded warren of rooms that overflowed with people and their possessions: chests of clothing, casks of food, chairs, pillows, rugs, and omni-present chamber pots. There was even a boat-cut into pieces for later assembly-doing temporary duty as a bed. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

From the author's web site:

What beliefs and character traits that typified the Pilgrims enabled them to survive in the hostile environment that greeted them in the New World? Did some of the same traits that helped them survive limit them in other ways? How so?

In Of Plymouth Plantation, a work quoted in Mayflower, William Bradford attributes the death of a “proud and very profane” sailor aboard the Mayflower to “the just hand of God” (pp. 30–31). What does this almost jubilant response to another person’s suffering suggest about the nature of Bradford’s religious beliefs? How did this attitude continue to reveal itself in the other experiences of the Pilgrims and the Puritans?

Philbrick shows us that many of the classic images that shape our current view of the Pilgrims—from Plymouth Rock to the usual iconography of the first Thanksgiving—have been highly fictionalized. Why has America forsaken the truth about these times in exchange for a misleading and often somewhat hokey mythology?

The Pilgrims established a tradition of more or less peaceful coexistence with the Native Americans that lasted over fifty years. Why did that tradition collapse in the 1670s and what might have been done to preserve it?

Discuss the character of Squanto. How did the strengths and weaknesses of his personality end up influencing history, and why did this one man make such a difference?

The children of the Pilgrims were regarded in their own time as “the degenerate plant of a strange vine,” unworthy of the legacy and sacrifices of their mothers and fathers (p. 198). Why did they acquire (and largely accept) this reputation? Was it deserved? Were the denunciations of the second generation a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy?

The Pilgrims and Puritans thought that the greatest gifts they could give the Indians were spiritual. The Indians, to the contrary, tended to be most impressed by the things the Europeans brought with them. How did this lack of agreement help to undermine relations between the two peoples? What were some of the other key misunderstandings that drove a wedge between the natives and the Europeans?

Compare Philbrick’s portrayals of natives in Mayflower with the ways in which they have been represented in popular culture, for instance, in Hollywood movies. How does Mayflower encourage us to rethink those representations? On the other hand, are there some popular images of Native Americans that seem to be somewhat rooted in what actually happened in the seventeenth century?

In the chaotic, atrocity-filled conflict known as King Philip’s War, does anyone emerge as heroic? If so, what are the actions and qualities that identify him or her as a hero?
As Mayflower shows, the American Indian tribes of New England were not a monolith, either culturally or politically. However, the English were not consistently able to think of them as separate tribes with different loyalties and desires. How did misconceptions of racial identity complicate the politics of King Philip’s War?

During King Philip’s War, significant numbers of Native Americans sided with the English. How do you regard those who took up arms against their fellow natives? Do you see them as treacherous, opportunistic, or merely sensible? If you had been a native, which side would you have taken, and why?
Philbrick shows that the English, as well as the American Indians, engaged in barbaric practices like torturing and mutilating their captives, as well as taking body parts as souvenirs. Could either side in King Philip’s War make any legitimate claim to moral superiority? Why or why not?
Mary Rowlandson, who wrote a memoir of her abduction during the burning of Lancaster, Massachusetts, often used the word “strange” when trying to explain why God seemingly strengthened the “heathens” in their fight against the God-fearing English. Why was it so hard for Rowlandson to understand the political events going on around her? Why was it so important for her to see them in terms of divine justice?
Philbrick likens the story of King Philip to Greek tragedy. Is this a useful way of thinking about Philip and the war that bears his name? Why or why not?

One reviewer of Mayflower asserted that Nathaniel Philbrick “avoid[ed] the overarching moral issues [of his subject] and [took] no sides.” Do you find this to be true? Are there moral lessons Philbrick wants us to learn? If so, what are they?
History often reveals as much about the time in which it was written as it does about the time it narrates. What aspects of Mayflower mark it as a book written in the early twenty-first century?

Philbrick says that the conditions that led to the outbreak of King Philip’s War “remain a lesson for us today” (348). How do you think this may be true?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

The New York Times Book Review

Vivid and remarkably fresh ... Philbrick has recast the Pilgrims for our age.

The Boston Globe

Gripping ... a fascinating story, and one Philbrick tells very well.

The New York Times

Startling [and] fascinating.

Los Angeles Times

Philbrick triumphs in Mayflower.


A signal achievement. Philbrick enlightens and even astounds. (Salon.com)

The Baltimore Sun

A splendid account of a nearly forgotten era in America's Colonial past.

Janet Maslin

… [Philbrick] has written a judicious, fascinating work of revisionist history. Mayflower is a surprise-filled account of what are supposed to be some of the best-known events in this country's past but are instead an occasion for collective amnesia. As Mr. Philbrick points out, the national memory tends to skip from the first Thanksgiving to the Shot Heard 'Round the World without a clue about the 150 years in between.

— The New York Times

Jonathan Yardley

We like our history sanitized and theme-parked and self-congratulatory, not bloody and angry and unflattering. But if Mayflower achieves the wide readership it deserves, perhaps a few Americans will be moved to reconsider all that.

— The Washington Post

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "The realities of Puritan America"by quinby2 (see profile) 10/22/10

This is not the Puritan America we were taught in elementary school, with friendly Indians sharing their corn with the White Men at the first Thanksgiving. This book is a terrific amalgamation of extensive... (read more)

  "A helpful introduction to the birth of America"by DebraF (see profile) 03/05/10

An interesting read, but like much non-fiction not a great book for discussion. I would prefer to get my bookclub history via fiction/faction.

  "More than we expected"by wcrispe (see profile) 12/14/08

This book was pure history lesson. More than my group was wiling to get into. So detailed with dates and ture histrorical facts that we did not expect

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