Talking Turkey: A Conversation with the author of Mayflower

Nathaniel PhilbrickIn December 2006 the New York Times chose Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War as one of the ten best books of the year. This spring Penguin will publish both a paperback edition of Mayflower and The Mayflower Papers: Selected Writings of Colonial New England, edited by Nathaniel and his father Thomas Philbrick.  The Foundation’s Associate Director, Ellen K. Rothman, interviewed Philbrick from his home on Nantucket by e-mail. 

Ellen K. Rothman: The book has been very popular among general readers. Every other person on the beach last summer was reading it. You are a gifted storyteller, but there must be something more that accounts for this. There is no cannibalism here as there is in your previous book, In the Heart of the Sea. What do you think it is?

Nathaniel Philbrick: Over the last few years, there has been a tremendous interest in the Founding Fathers.  I think Mayflower may have appealed to many of those readers.  But I also think Mayflower is, in many ways, a kind of Trojan Horse—it takes the reader who might be looking for an inspirational book about the beginning of America to a very different place.  It’s hardly a feel-good book about the past, and I have been genuinely surprised by its popularity.

EKR: Was Mayflower always the title you had in mind? It probably accounts in part for the “Trojan Horse” effect but I wonder if you had any reluctance about using it? After all, the book, as the subtitle (“A Story of Courage, Community, and War”) makes clear, isn’t really about the Mayflower.

NP: Mayflower was the book’s working title from the start, although I must admit to having concerns about it.  In the end, I couldn’t come up with a better alternative so we went with Mayflower. 

EKR: The book has been widely praised, but it has also drawn fire from some quarters.  I’m thinking of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s review [published in the April 24, 2006 New Yorker]. Did you expect to come in for criticism? What is your response to it?

book coverNP: Jill Lepore’s chief criticism of Mayflower was that I based my account of King Philip’s War on the narrative of Benjamin Church, which she dismissed as unreliable since it was written with the assistance of his son well after the war.  Church is a major source in my book, but he is by no means the only source.  From the beginning of my research, I was careful to contextualize his account with other published and unpublished sources from the war, including histories by Hubbard and Mather; narratives by Mary Rowlandson, Thomas Wheeler, and others; and letters from a wide variety of correspondents, including William Bradford, Jr., who writes in detail about Church in a little-known July 1676 letter to John Cotton. What impressed me was how even those who clearly didn’t like Church very much (such as Bradford) corroborated his account. 

EKR: What about the fact that that Church’s narrative appeared 40 years after the conflict as filtered through his son?

NP: Church’s narrative is much more than the untrustworthy “as told to” ramblings of an old man.  As he explains in a foreword to his book, the narrative was composed with the help of his field notes from the war.  As a result, there is a specificity and level of detail that is unmatched in any other narrative from the conflict.  It’s also one of the few accounts we have from a participant in the actual fighting, and Church was no ordinary participant:  he was there at the beginning in Swansea, at the Great Swamp Fight, and at the death of Philip in Mount Hope.  Yes, Church’s narrative was written decades after the events it describes, but so was Thomas Nickerson’s account of the sinking of the Essex, the event at the center of my earlier book In the Heart of the Sea.  With that book I did not uncritically accept Nickerson as a source; I examined his narrative in the context of the existing evidence, just as I did with Church’s account of King Philip’s War.

EKR: Some native readers and scholars of Native American history have faulted you for not consulting modern-day native oral traditions to counter the racist biases contained in seventeenth-century English sources.  How did you approach what you knew would be a problem with the inevitable biases in the sources you were using?

NP: Prior to beginning work on Mayflower, I spent four years researching and writing Abram’s Eyes (1998), a book about the native legacy of my adopted home, Nantucket Island.  While working on that book, I consulted Wampanoags throughout southeastern Massachusetts, in particular the late Russell Gardner, who was then the Wampanoag tribal historian.  That experience gave me a deep appreciation for the one-sided nature of the documentary record.  I also came to realize that oral traditions inevitably evolve to reflect the times and needs of each generation, and in Mayflower I was writing about events that had occurred almost 20 generations (or four hundred years) ago.  From the start I decided to base my book on the written record, but I also resolved to pay special attention to contemporaneous written accounts that were more likely to reveal a native perspective.  For example, there was the narrative of Thomas Morton, who had an excellent relationship with the Massachusetts Indians and who was no fan of the Pilgrims, and the testimony of a Praying Indian who served as a spy during King Philip’s War, among many other sources.  I also looked to Wampanoag oral traditions that had been recorded in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as to archeological evidence. Mayflower is about the interaction of two very different peoples, and I have attempted to balance both perspectives.  Anyone who is a partisan of any single group is going to be critical of what I’ve written.  There are also plenty of Pilgrim descendants/exponents who have claimed that Mayflower favors the Native Americans at the expense of the English. 

EKR: The New York Times called the book “absorbing,” which it certainly is, and “a model of revisionism.” I wonder about that a bit. There is no doubt that you are revising the Pilgrim story those of us over 30 learned in school, but is there a sense in which you may have reinforced the notion, embedded in the old-fashioned telling, that the Wampanoags suffered defeat, and near extinction, because they failed to accept what the English were offering them?

NP: As I say in the preface to Mayflower, we’ve inherited two competing versions of the history of Plymouth Colony:  the old view of the Pilgrims as heroic saints, and the newer view of them as evil empire builders who did their best to annihilate the Native Americans.  I think both versions are oversimplifications that do not pay proper attention to the impact that individuals, English and especially native, had on the course of events in Plymouth Colony.  In this regard, I’d say that Mayflower is attempting a kind of dual revisionism.  

EKR: You say that “it is deeply ironic that the document many consider to make the beginning of what would one day be called the United States [i.e. the Mayflower Compact] came from a people who had more in common with a cult than a democratic society.”  Can you explain how a document written, as you so aptly say, “with a crystalline brevity” and as an “act of coolheaded and pragmatic resolve” under fairly dire circumstances became such a seminal text?

NP: I think it’s important for people to realize that the Mayflower Compact is not the U.S. Constitution in utero. In reality, it did nothing to change the form of government any of the Mayflower passengers had known back in England. What the compact did do was address an ever-widening divide among the passengers. About half of them were Puritan Separatists who had lived as religious exiles in Leiden, Holland; the other half were members of the Church of England who had been recruited in London and were referred to as “the Strangers” by the Leideners.

EKR: How did these two very different groups get along?

NP: The two factions don’t seem to have liked each other very much, and as the ship approached New England, the Strangers announced that once they reached land they would go off on their own.  To prevent this, to pull this already divided group together, they drafted and signed the Mayflower Compact, in which both Leideners and Strangers agreed to submit to the laws enacted by their duly elected civil officials. For the Puritan separatists, who had come to define themselves as a people apart, this was an important acknowledgment that others must be accommodated if they were to have any hope of survival.  The compact was a critical first step in making the future success of the settlement possible. Because of that, I do think it ranks as a “seminal American text,” even if it wasn’t the precursor to the American democratic system that some have since claimed it to be.

EKR: Did you know much about King Philip’s War before you started working on Mayflower? Had you ever heard of Benjamin Church?

NP: Before moving to Nantucket in 1986 I lived for two years in Wrentham, Massachusetts, a town where stories of King Philip’s War are still very much alive, and that’s when I first learned about Benjamin Church.  Once we moved to Nantucket, I began to research the history of the island and soon learned that Philip had visited Nantucket prior to the war.  It was with my work on Abram’s Eyes in the mid-1990s that I returned to Church’s narrative and discovered many of the other sources I ended up using in Mayflower.  The idea of Mayflower had been germinating for quite a while before I began work on the book, and from the beginning I knew I was going to focus on William Bradford and Benjamin Church.

EKR: You characterize the years from 1620 to 1675 as a period “of struggle and compromise—a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take.” You credit Massasoit and Bradford for this time of peace and argue that “war came to New England because two leaders —Philip and his English counterpart, Josiah Winslow—allowed it to happen.” Can you elaborate?

NP: Relations between any two groups have a lot to do with the personal relationship between the two groups’ leaders, and Philip and Winslow despised each other.  Even though Philip clearly had grave misgivings about going to war in the spring of 1675 (as is made clear by a letter from the Quaker John Easton and other testimony), Winslow’s actions during the trial for the murder of John Sassamon gave him no other choice if he was going to maintain control of his increasingly indignant warriors.  If Winslow and Philip had made efforts to communicate directly with one another instead of allowing ever-mounting anger and fear to dictate the course of events, I think war, at least in the short term, could have been avoided.  That’s what you see Bradford and Massasoit doing over and over again in the preceding decades, with the sensitive handling of the murder trial of Arthur Peach in 1638 being a prime example.

EKR: Even if Philip and Winslow had followed the example of the earlier generation of leaders, how long do you think the English and the native people could have avoided open conflict?

NP: We will never know, of course, but if (and this is a big if) the English leadership of Plymouth Colony had acknowledged that continued Indian land sales, although legal by their own standards, were placing Philip and his people in an untenable situation that endangered the safety of everyone in the colony, I think war might have been avoided.  Given the subsequent history of the United States we have a tendency to see all European-native conflicts as destined to happen, but that’s not how the English and native people in Plymouth Colony in 1675, who had known more than a half-century of peaceful coexistence, saw it.

EKR: The Foundation’s current initiative is “Liberty and justice for all.” We are interested in the fact that we are still debating what “liberty” and “justice” mean and “how we can best realize the fundamental human values they express.” Reading Mayflower, I found myself wondering if the English colonists and the Native Americans could ever have agreed on the meaning of “liberty” and “justice.” What do you think?

NP: The Enlightenment notions of the Founding Fathers were not part of the Puritans’ worldview.  They came to America not for religious freedom but to worship God as they pleased and did their best to persecute those, such as the Quakers, who had other ideas.  When it came to the Puritans’ interaction with the Native Americans, I think it’s safe to say that the two groups never came to understand each other terribly well.  The process that Richard White describes in his book about native-European relations in the Great Lakes, The Middle Ground, in which mutual but often very workable misunderstandings were the norm, also prevailed in Plymouth Colony.  That’s where diplomacy comes in:  Different peoples don’t have to necessarily agree on the meaning of the terminology, but they do need to agree to respect each other’s cultural integrity. Otherwise it comes down to war.

EKR: Many readers have been struck by the parallels between the atrocities committed by both the English and the Natives, who saw King Philip’s War as “a holy war,” and what is going on in the Middle East today. Jill Lepore would disagree. She concludes her review by saying “the ways of the Puritans are not our ways, their faith is not our faith. And their wars are not our wars.” How would you respond?

NP: It’s true that people’s cultural norms and religious beliefs change over time, but there are certain dynamics of human behavior that are universal—one of which is war.  That’s why military academies find value in studying the history of warfare even though the technologies have so radically changed.   I think it’s safe to say that we as Americans must claim ownership of some sort when it comes to the wars in Iraq, Viet Nam, Korea, World Wars I and II, the Indian Wars of the West, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.  They are “our wars” and helped determine the development of the United States.  To exclude King Philip’s War from this list because it was fought by Puritans who had different religious beliefs from us today is, I think, to miss the point.  That war had a deep and lasting impact on the region, especially when it came to the lives of New England’s native peoples.  I don’t think the past exists behind a metaphoric pane of glass; it is an ongoing part of the present, and we are living its legacy every day. I see nothing wrong with readers finding parallels between what happened in seventeenth-century New England and today.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s what the study of history is all about.

EKR: One cannot help but notice that Americans read very little history produced by academic historians. The Washington Post Book World suggested that readers welcome the "emphasis on narrative and lucid prose" they find in the kind of "popular history" you and other non-scholars write.  Certainly, there are academic historians who tell a good story in graceful prose. John Demos and David Hackett Fischer, both of whom I studied with in graduate school, come to mind. Who would be on your list?

NP: When it comes to academic historians (for whom I have nothing but immense respect), both Demos and Hackett Fischer would certainly be on that list, along with Joe Ellis, Patricia Limerick, Richard Slotkin, Gordon Wood, and Simon Schama.

EKR: You deserve a softball question or two: What ‘s your next project? Can you imagine NOT writing about the sea?

NP: Although I’m known for books about New England and the sea, I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Long before I began to even think about sailing ships, whales, and Pilgrims, I was fascinated by my hometown’s rivers and the history of the west.  My lifelong interest in riverboats has led me to my next topic, the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  But that’s another story. . .

EKR: I’m sure I’m only one of countless readers who can’t wait. Thanks, Nat.

For more information about Nathaniel Philbrick and his work, go to 

Suggested readings

King Philip`s War: The History and Legacy of America`s Forgotten Conflict, by Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias (The Countryman Press, 1999). [Includes a guide to sites associated with the conflict.]

King Philip`s War in New England, 1675-76, by James Drake (University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony, by John Demos (Oxford University Press 1999).

Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (Applewood Books, 1986).

The Name of War: King Philip`s War and the Origins of American Identity, by Jill Lepore (Knopf, 1998).

Of Plymouth Plantation: Along With the Full Text of the Pilgrims` Journals for Their First Year at Plymouth, by William Bradford (Xlibris, 2006).

“Plymouth Rocked: Of Pilgrims, Puritans, and professors,” review by Jill Lepore, New Yorker, April 24, 2006.

John Seeyle, Memory`s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).

©2007 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published in Mass Humanities, Spring 2007