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

If First Nations people had known what would follow the Pilgrims’ arrival, they might have let them starve or freeze to death.

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War, Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin, 2006). 463 pp. $20. ISBN 9780143111979. Reviewed by Terry Smith, minister and executive secretary.

Ever hear of “King Philip’s War”? Darryl Klassen’s question and suggested book title led me to this look at the Pilgrims’ first few decades (about 1620 to 1676) in what is now the U.S.

Canadians know that First Nations helped the first Pilgrims in the U.S. to survive and about the first Thanksgiving feast they celebrated together. As Darryl has said, Mayflower puts a different spin on traditional images. In my view, if they had known what was ahead, the First Nations people might have let the first Pilgrims starve or freeze to death.

The Pilgrims, who had left the Anglican Church in England, sought to establish a pure, separate lifestyle in the New World. Their ideals hit the reality of living in a mixed European community and the struggle for survival. The second generation of Pilgrims forgot how reliant their parents were on the First Nations. The European population grew; the fur trade and spirituality declined; and, as farming developed, more land was sought.

Some First Nations, observing their loss of lands and control, began a short-lived war (1675-76), partly under Philip, who had adopted a European name. In response, the Europeans distrusted even the “Praying Indians,” converts to Christianity; they were exiled to an island where harsh conditions killed many. As Praying Indians began to be trusted, they were used, with Mohawks, to turn the war.

The ugliness of war, not one-sided, is revealed here. Only rare voices on various sides can be found to object to the conflict, or to advocate for social justice for First Nations and show spiritual concern for them. Nor did the ugliness end with the war; when the war was over, many First Nations people were shipped as slaves to the West Indies.

Philbrick’s assessment tempers mythology with reality.

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