“I was enthralled with this popular history of the first 60 years of Plymouth Colony starting with the Mayflower landing in 1620. With a focus on the actions and decisions of a limited set of key individuals, Philbrick’s account brings to life the initial desperate events of the colony (half of the initial 102 died the first year) and the early years of dependence on the support of the Pokenoket tribe. I was enlightened to learn how decimation of Indian villages by disease and the competitive balance between tribes contributed to the ability of the Pilgrims to gain a foothold. In many ways, the sachem (chief) Massasoit was calling the shots in using the alliance with the Pilgrims to enhance his position with respect to rival tribes, and in turn Squanto’s support of the colony as mediator/translator was motivated by his own Machiavellian schemes. Due to past cases of treacherous attacks and kidnapping for slavery on the part of English and French visitors, other tribes to the north and south would not tolerate colonists. Thus, the Indians were not just passive dupes to exploitation and domination by European invades.
Though the Pilgrims goal of religious freedom was not very tolerant of other belief systems (as the Quakers learned and individuals executed for bestiality and other personal crimes), they were not empire builders and there was quite a lot of respect for the Indians at first. Philbrick does well to dwell on the factors that contributed to the surprisingly peaceful subsequent period of colonial growth and expansion for nearly 50 years and then to spend half the book on the causes and details of its breach in King Philip’s war of 1675, which decimated the Europeans and nearly extinguished several of the tribes in southern New England. Philbrick’s coverage of compassionate voices for peace and arrogant stupidity on both sides begs the question of whether the war was inevitable. He points out how a sense of a Greek tragedy pervades the progression from a local conflict to an expanded war between several tribes and colonies throughout New England.
As evident in two other books of his I enjoyed (his survival saga of the whaling ship Essex and his history of the Battle of the Little Bighorn), Philbrick is a master of balancing the use of primary sources and interpretive reflection in a compelling narrative that rivals that of skilled fiction writers. Philbrick clearly did a lot of research to write this book, but I have no way of telling how much of his synthesis is innovative vs. derivative. What I can say is that the book provided me a good foundation to negotiate the myths and divergent interpretations of European colonialism in the New World and to understand patterns that played out disastrously throughout the westward expansion over the subsequent 200 years.