The Pilgrims: A neglected corner of US history

American schools teach Plymouth Rock and the Revolutionary War. But what about the years in between?

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When the Pilgrims held what we now call the First Thanksgiving in 1621, they had more to be thankful for than a tasty meal. They'd managed to endure a deadly ocean voyage, promote good relations with the local Indians, and create a community of their own.

But plenty of challenges still lay ahead - including internal strife, hunger, and war. The survival of Plymouth Colony was hardly guaranteed, nor was the eventual decline and fall of the Native American population at the hands of future generations of Pilgrims.

Bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick ("In the Heart of the Sea") tells the tenacious colony's story in his ambitious but uneven new book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War.

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As Philbrick points out, the years between the Mayflower landing and the American Revolution are largely ignored in history classes. Many of us learn about Plymouth Rock - the landmark's wild and woolly past is chronicled here - and the Pilgrims, from whom an estimated 10 percent of Americans are descended. But we know little about the deep struggles of the settlers, who manage to both inspire and repel in Philbrick's telling.

He does a good job of placing the Pilgrims in the context of their time, as members of a radical Puritan sect who fled England for Holland but found themselves losing their identity in a foreign land. Taking an extraordinary risk, they made a deal with a "smooth-talking" English investor and set sail for America with an eye toward making profits for their benefactor.

After a rough ride, the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth and found themselves facing starvation. Their relations with the local Indians were dicey at first - it didn't help that the Pilgrims stole bushels of corn from the natives - but things soon improved thanks to a series of wise decisions on both sides.

While the Pilgrims were eternally wary of unfriendly tribes, their relations with the Indians were mostly peaceful and mutually beneficial for decades thanks to "a dynamic, often harrowing process of give and take."

But the second generation of Pilgrims viewed the Indians differently amid an atmosphere of "unbridled arrogance and fear." King Philip's War, which Philbrick calls an unnecessary disaster, began in 1675, pitting Pilgrim against Indian.

Philbrick's descriptions of individual battles are among the most gripping passages of his book. Armed with swords and clumsy firearms, the Pilgrims pulled off several miraculous victories and ultimately won, but not until after much suffering and death.

In terms of percentage of population killed, the war may rank as the bloodiest in American history. It was especially painful to the Indians, many of whom ended up being shipped off to the West Indies. "It had taken fifty-six years to unfold, but one people's quest for freedom had resulted in the conquest and enslavement of the other," Philbrick writes.

At times, "Mayflower" makes for engaging reading, especially when Philbrick brings various characters to life, including a diminutive and hot-headed Miles Standish, an upper-class Pilgrim matron who refuses to give in to despair after being kidnapped by Indians, and an authority-defying, naughty-poetry-reading frontiersman known as the "Lord of Misrule."

Rounding out his picture of the Pilgrims, Philbrick is careful to avoid venerating them as generations of Americans have done. He notes that they adopted the "intolerant attitude that had forced them to leave England" and vigorously cracked down on dissent and religious freedom.

Overall, however, Philbrick spends too little time on the big picture and too much on arcane detail, making for many dry passages. He also fails to devote enough space to exploring the world of Plymouth Colony.

What were their thoughts about family, love, and marriage? Were they really a bunch of dour sourpusses? And how did women fit into this society as it flirted with catastrophe? Readers never find out.

One thing is clear: Judging by the way they treated one another and outsiders, the Pilgrims were no strangers to cruelty, prejudice, and greed. Despite this, they produced leaders who bravely spoke up against religious intolerance, obsession with riches, and hatred for Indians.

Even the war brought out the best in some people. According to Philbrick, there were both Englishmen and Indians who refused to demonize their foes during the war and revealed a "rambunctious and intrinsically rebellious faith in humanity."

Philbrick writes that these troublemakers are the true heroes of his story. And they definitely deserve a thought or two on the next Turkey Day.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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