Honoring Nathaniel Philbrick, Author of "Mayflower"

By John M. Hunt, Jr.

Nathaniel Philbrick's book 'Mayflower'

At our Annual Luncheon on January 12, 2007, our Society presented its "Katharine F. Little Award for Distinguished Mayflower Scholarship" for 2007 to acclaimed author and historian Nathaniel Philbrick. The framed certificate, handed to Philbrick personally by SMDPA Governor Winchell S. Carroll, cited him "for his comprehensive and masterful Mayflower, / in which he follows the "stunningly audacious proposition" / of that tiny band of Mayflower passengers, the Pilgrims, / emphasizing their apcacity to develop and improvise as they colonized, / and their ability to interlock fortunes with the natives, / until, after fifty-five years of (often exemplary) peace, war erupted; / and for his view of the Pilgrim experience as foundational / to the American experience, and therefore as "the story we need to know'." A check for $1,000 accompanied the calligraphically expressed testimonial.

When Governor Carroll welcomed Nat and his wife Melissa, who live on Nantucket Island, to Pennsylvania, he learned that Nat, known for his books about the sea, went to school in "that most nautical of places," Pittsburgh. Nat's mother, who grew up in Rosemont, provided him with a special link to the central area of our Society's activities, the Philadelphia Main Line. "It's really great to be here," he said. "I thank you all," he offered, "for this award, because, after three years of living with the Pilgrims receiving this award from the descendants of Pilgrims means a tremendous amount to me."

"In fact, this book goes back at least ten years in terms of thinking about it, and the amount of research the Society has sponsored in one way of another is truly daunting to anyone trying to acquaint himself with the scholarship. You have bought living history; you are the ones that keep the flame alive, and I think that in this Internet Age with the very short memories, it's very important that we take the time to look back and realize that the past did not exist as an artifact behind a metaphoric pane of glass: it is from where we came, and it is always influencing where we're going. I think this Society exemplifies that."

Nat Philbrick then spoke extemporaneously, energetically, empathetically about the Pilgrims, their "survival situation," their "global" connection, their "generational tale," and the similarity (and relevance) of 17th-century New England to today's world. He spoke directly to us. He engaged us. He told us what "surprised" him—what he suddenly "realized"—when he studied the Pilgrims in more depth.

"One of the great joys of this job," he began, "it the research, going to the archives." He then gave a plug for the 1896 facsimile volume of William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, gesturing toward the copy on display in the ballroom, and launched into lengthy praise of Bradford himself. (His appreciation of the great governor was such—he called him "the Rock" of Plymouth Colony—that we print it separately, under "Philbrick on Bradford.")

"The other aspect of research that I enjoy," he continued, "is going to the places." "This book was really a global research, because the second half, as Stacy Wood said [in his Introduction], is about King Philip's War, and that was New England based." When Nat and Melissa Philbrick flew to Europe on the "Pilgrim Tour," to see for themselves the topography, they found Leiden "a town where you have to squint a little bit and you're in 1620." "The architecture," Nat went on, breathlessly happy, "is fascinating, the steps upon which the Pilgrims descended as they got on the canal boat are still there, Robinson's house, all of this—it's just terrific; and Jeremy Bangs, the noted Pilgrim scholar, who curates the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, is a huge help, and has a museum that gives you a firsthand look at what a typical house was, and it's just terrific."

As for Scrooby in England, he quipped, "if you blink, you'll miss it." "The North Road from London to Edinburgh (it looks like a cart-path) goes right through it, and William Bradford's church is there." The Philbricks further saw Plymouth ("you know, where the Mayflower said good-bye"), Dartmouth ("where there was that stop on its way to Southampton"), and London ("full of very important Pilgrim sites").

"Whenever writing a book," Philbrick said, I think it's very important that I engage the past through documents, through what actually was committed to paper at that time. If you go places where the past is recreated, it's fascination" too. "It gives you a physical sense of what it is—but for me it's through our time, and so I'm always reluctant, when I am writing a book, to go to the places before I'm finished with a first draft. I like to write a first draft immersed in the documents, and then go to the places, and often that will provide flavor and details that I wouldn't have brought to this. But with [Mayflower] I realized that I needed to have some sense of the geography to understand it; and so for me this book was in may ways a culmination of archival material plus the physical place."

A sailing journalist, bent on writing a journalistic history of Nantucket, his home since 1986 ("we fell in love with the place"), Nat Philbrick "realized that if I was going to do that I had to put it in the contest of New England—I had to learn about the Pilgrims." Reading Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, he realized that the Pilgrim story—which he though he knew from school—does not end with the First Thanksgiving. It is rather "just the beginning of a story; instead of being a nostalgic irrelevancy to what America is about, it is absolutely vital to what we were and to what we are now."  "And I began to realize," he said, "that probably the most stunning accomplishment of the people we call the Pilgrims in Plymouth Colony was the fifty-five years of peace that was maintained—which is an extraordinary accomplishment, given the future history of America."

More realizations contributed to the genesis of Philbrick's Mayflower, and defined its scope. "I began to realize," he continued, that "in 1675 a war broke out, a war called King Philip's War." "I think that I, like a lot of Americans, was never quite clear who King Philip was. Was he a French monarch? No. He was the son of Massasoit [supreme chief of the Wampanoags], who had welcomed the Pilgrims in 1620/1; and he led his people in a war that convulsed Plymouth Colony, and all of New England, and on a per capita basis was one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil." "We begin with the Mayflower," he mused, "and then have King Philip. We begin to see those as the bookends of the story. We have a story that speaks to a mythic beginning of America, but takes it to a place that speaks to what would be the future of America." (The typical historical time line, in studying American history, shifts from the Mayflower and the Pilgrims to Lexington and Concord in the American Revolution, this omitting, unfortunately, 150 "very important" years.)

"And so with this book," he noted, "I began to plunge into a story that seemed entirely new to me in so many ways, and yet began to pull together so many elements of my historical writings, because, you know, I am known for writing about the sea. I'm also known for writing about survival situations; and I think there's a timelessness to survival stories; no matter where you are in history, if you find yourself in the worse situation, it is a kind of universal experience. And with this book I began to see it as a real culmination, because it begins at sea on the Mayflower, and it's a survival situation form the start.

"The book moves very quickly to land. One of the things I've had in all my books is that we think of the West as America's primal frontier, the frontier that defines us. But before that there was the sea. Up until the 19th century that was the wilderness that defined America." "It is with the story of the Mayflower and Plymouth Colony that you see how the wilderness of the sea segues almost seamlessly into the wilderness of coastal New England. And for me the story was that first generation—what they went through that first year. Can you imagine this? They should never have sailed to Plymouth in 1620. I mean, the organization [of the voyage] was pitiful from the beginning. They didn't know what they were getting themselves into; they were already beginning to run out of provisions even before they left. But they had faith. They truly had faith. And off they went.

"The Pilgrims were supposed to go not to New England, but to what we not call New York. They could have been our first neighbors! They were about 200 miles off course to the north. And they headed south for New York, ran smack dab into Pollack Rip (I've seen it!), which is very near Nantucket. To this day it's a terrifying piece of shoal water, and now have the benefits of channel buoys and dredging. Back then, I just cannot imagine blundering into this—there were no reliable charts, no reliable maps; the Mayflower drew 11 feet; [that stretch of water] was surrounded by roaring breakers, as Bradford says. This should have been the end of the ship. But then the wind turned 180 degrees from the north to the south.  And Master Christopher Jones of the Mayflower made that historic decision—"we're not going to the Hudson River, we're going back around the tip of Cape Cod' to what is called today Provincetown Harbor.

"Now one of the first things I found interesting about the story is that, when I first learned it, I thought everyone on the Mayflower was on the same page from the beginning; but that's not so. Only half of them were from Leiden, Holland. The others are what they called Strangers, Church of England people, recruited primarily from London, and they weren't all that excited about combining forces with this group of religious enthusiasts; and so, when they heard that they were not going to the Hudson River, half of those Strangers said, 'Wait a minute—we're going to go off on our own.' They realized that they were on the verge of becoming America's first 'illegal immigrants.' Thus was born the Mayflower Compact." "Go to that facsimile," he advised us, pointing to our display, "and look at that: it is not the U.S. Constitution in utero (there is a tendency to see the past retrospectively), but it is a precious document, because, with that, these two very different groups came to [an agreement]. Can you imagine? They had been at sea for two months; the Mayflower averaged 1.5 miles an hour as it made its way across the Atlantic, buffeted by gale after gale; two people had already died; they were about to land at a place they knew absolutely nothing about; they were in the midst of this controversy. And what did they do? They put pen to paper and drafted a document in which Saints and Strangers alike agreed to obey the laws enacted by their duly elected civil officials. And for this group of religious enthusiasts from Leiden, Holland, who were Puritan Separatists, who had defined themselves by drawing a line between themselves and everyone else, this was an important document. The Mayflower Compact was truly a seminal American text, and it speaks to everything good that would come from Plymouth Colony.

"With Mayflower I wanted to write about that first year, [in which] half of [the Pilgrims] died—truly a survival situation. But it is also a generational tale. With the second generation, things changed. And I think that is where the story of the Mayflower and Pilgrim Colony begins to speak to where we are as Americans today. When one generation has experiences that define them, they have values, they have ideals; it's transmitting those ideas beyond that group where the challenge lies.

"In may ways Plymouth Colony was a failure in this regard. William Bradford was not excited when he died [in 1657] about the future of Plymouth Colony. That was one of the surprises in writing this book. he died in actual despair about the future, because all he wanted to have happen in America was to transport the congregation from Leiden to America. And what wasn't happening. This was becoming a thriving colony. He saw that as a kind of failure, which is ironic, given what we look to as quintessentially American. And he saw the horizon troubled, and that trouble would erupt with King Philip's War [in 1675-76].

"And yet with this story I see those fifty years of peace as a lesson that speaks to us today, because in many ways I think the world has become similar to what New England was in the 17th century. It was not this monolithic 'English versus Native.' There were all different groups within those groups. It was very complex. Diplomacy was key. William Bradford and Edward Winslow were diplomats that we sorely need today in terms of their ability to make it up as they go along. To figure out whom they really need to talk to—it's hard, diplomacy is hard; it takes a lot of work. And they were up to the challenge in that first generation. In the second generation they weren't. And today we live in a global society filled with people of different nationalities, different religious beliefs, different ethnicities. And if we don't figure out how to make it work, the alternative is war, and a war that's good for no one. I think that the lessons learned in Plymouth Colony speak to us today vibrantly and with more relevance than ever before."