****Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War


“Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor,” by William Halsall, 1882. Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Mass.

By Nathaniel Philbrick, narrated by George Guidall. Some 35 million Americans today are to some degree descendants of the Pilgrims who came to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620. Although the November sea voyage entailed hardships enough for the approximately 102 passengers and 30 crew members, these difficulties were nothing compared to what they encountered when they decided to go ashore in the relatively unpromising ground that became Plymouth Colony. This is their compelling story.

The Pilgrims’ greatest fear was the Natives, but their biggest foes turned out to be harsh climate and lack of food, which contributed to high rates of death from disease. Despite their early anxieties, the Mayflower Pilgrims developed a good and mutually beneficial relationship with the powerful Pokanoket chief Massasoit and some other tribes. Philbrick provides keen insight into what each leader was thinking when they made the choices they did.

Before long, other, less devout settlers arrived and mingled with the Pilgrims. In 1630, seventeen ships delivered approximately a thousand English men, women, and children to the vicinity of Boston, and soon the Massachusetts colony grew to include modern New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and the more religiously tolerant Rhode Island. Several of my ancestors arrived with prominent Puritans in 1634, settling in Boston, Salem, and New Haven. I wanted to read this book to find out more about what their lives were like.

This rapid influx created an almost unquenchable demand for Indian lands, and the settlers made the lives of Natives increasingly difficult. The children and grandchildren of the Pilgrims cared little for the aid their forefathers had received from the Natives. You can feel the rising tension and frustrations. In 1675, Massasoit’s grandson Philip had enough. He launched what became known as King Philip’s war—a bloody, three-year conflict, in which Colonial towns and Native camps were burned, and the area economy devastated.

In the sixty or so years covered by this book, a number of remarkable personalities emerge—among them Miles Standish, Josiah Winslow, Massasoit, William Bradford, Roger Williams, and America’s first Indian fighter, Benjamin Church. Philbrick’s descriptions of these men and their personalities makes them come alive on the page and lets you understand their motivations. The military leader Benjamin Church is a good example. Unlike some of his colleagues, Church’s first thought was not wholesale slaughter of the Native population, but rather he tried “to bring him around” to the Colonists’ way of thinking. This approach, Philbrick believes, became a precursor for the Founding Fathers a century later, as Church “shows us how the nightmare of wilderness warfare might one day give rise to a society that promises liberty and justice for all.”

If you are one of the 35 million noted above, you may find this book especially fascinating, as Philbrick recounts surprisingly detailed personal histories of a great many Mayflower passengers.

Guidall is a frequent narrator of thrillers and many other types of books. He does a fine, job here with a straight narration.