A conversation with Mayflower author Nathaniel Philbrick about why the Pilgrims still matter in today’s world.
Why We Should Care About the Pilgrims
The Pilgrims were America’s first illegal immigrants. Their patent did not apply that far north, and yet they said, “We’re going to go our way and the heck with you guys.” We think of them as always having been here, but it’s interesting to see them when everything was new and strange.
The fact that 10 percent of the American population [roughly 35 million people] are Mayflower descendants does mean it’s not an exclusive club. But it also means we’re living the legacy every day. There’s a very significant population that would not be here if the Mayflower hadn’t come over.
What the Pilgrims Can Teach Us About the World Today
Here are two very different groups of people — English and Indian — yet for 50 years they made it work. It wasn’t easy; they didn’t necessarily understand each other or like each other, but they worked at it because the alternative was a war that could des-troy everything. And, boy, the world is a lot like that now, with different nations and faiths and ethnic groups that are operating through a lot of shared ignorance. Yet if we give up on this really frustrating and difficult work of making it work, the alternatives are really horrendous.
I got this sense of sadness in doing this book and in seeing the kinds of things we’re dealing with now that have been going for a long time. But when you’re in the moment — for example, those in the middle of King Philip’s War — it’s terrifying and you’re not thinking clearly and it’s easy to let your fear and anger take over. It’s also easy in hindsight to say, “Why were they doing this?” Yet, when all of us are gripped with something approaching that kind of terror, we’re prone to the same emotions. It gives me sympathy for every time that’s been lived and a sense of caution when it comes to beating up people in the past for what they did. We’re all prone to it. None of us are any better. Hopefully we learn.
The War We’ve Forgotten
I had always thought of the Pilgrims as this boring story with these comical guys with buckles on their shoes. But so much of what will be a recurrent part of American history unfolds in this 56-year period, from when the Pilgrims arrive through King Philip’s War. Like slavery. I didn’t see that coming. And yet, it’s an important part of the story. There’s the African American history, but the process of enslaving natives and shipping them out is not something a lot of Americans think about.
What we learn in elementary school is just a wonderful story for kids. Then the next event in American history is the Revolution, 155 years later, which is a war for liberty. The darkness is saved for the 19th century, with the winning of the West. That’s the Indian story. So, if that’s your blueprint for American history, King Philip’s War doesn’t fit. It messes with your sense of that inspirational beginning by undercutting this idealistic view of the Revolution.
How we view this period was set by the greatest spin doctor on earth — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” It’s powerful — the beginning we all wish we had.
For me, King Philip’s War is the great what-if? What if there hadn’t been a war of annihilation with the native peoples of New England 100 years before the Revolution? Would there have been a different attitude, at least in New England, when it came to the Revolution?
On Writing Maritime History
The book changed how I view my home. You drive Route 128 or 495 [in Massachusetts] and there’s Medfield, site of one of the bloodiest battles. Or you have Taunton. I had been there but ne ver saw it as anything but a town that was not in its best years. But the whole Taunton River — that was a revelation, to see how the rivers provided a real highway through the country.
These kinds of books are not easy to write because you have to go into somebody else’s voice, figure out what happened, and then recast it for a modern audience. It’s easy to quote from something and just dump it in there and say that’s what happened. The harder thing is to try and internalize that and yet be truthful. Some of the language of that time is wonderfully evocative and needs to be part of the story, but it’s finding that line between keeping the voice of the book while keeping an authentic resonance with the voices of the past.
I relate to the past through the people. I don’t think anyone can truly begin to understand the past unless there’s an emotional connection to what happened and the people who lived through it. One reason we love survival tales is because we all say, “What would I have done?” I know I was asking, What would I have done that first winter? And I don’t know. I do know that when I’m hit with a cold, it really nails me, so I probably wouldn’t have made it past January.