National Book Festival: 'Mayflower'

Nathaniel Philbrick
Monday, September 18, 2006; 12:00 PM

Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of the best-selling " Mayflower," a history of the voyage of the Mayflower and the settlement of Plymouth Colony. He is also the author of "In the Heart of the Sea," winner of the 2000 National Book Foundation Award for Nonfiction, and a leading authority on the history of the island of Nantucket. He serves as the founding director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and as a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Society.

Read an excerpt of "Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrick .

Nathaniel Philbrick was online Monday, Sept. 18, at noon ET to field comments and questions about his books and participation in the National Book Festival.

The transcript follows:


Washington, D.C.: Hello Mr. Philbrick, I've read that the pilgrims didn't originally land at Plymouth but in Provincetown. Is this true? And if so, when did they get to Plymouth? Thanks!

Nathaniel Philbrick: Yes, it's true the Pilgrims did not originally land at Plymouth. Their planned destination was the Hudson River. (They could have been our first NYers.) But they arrived on the east coast more than 200 miles to the north at Provincetown and after more than a month of exploring the north coast of Cape Cod found Plymouth in December of 1620.


Raynham, Mass.: I got the impression that the Indians at that time were taken advantage of and my sympathy was toward them. I know it turned into a bloody war, but I suppose it eventually would happen when land and lack of communication existed between two races.

Nathaniel Philbrick: Land was a central issue to the growing tensions in 17th century New England, but the war was not inevitable. There had been flare ups of potential violence for more than 50 years but those of the 1st generation had found ways to avert catastrophe. By the 2nd generation, a different attitude prevailed--on both sides. In many ways I see King Philip's War as a crisis of leadership involving both Gov. Josiah Winslow and Philip.


St. Louis, Mo.: You've written about early America and the sea...what did you want to be when you were little? Always a writer?

Nathaniel Philbrick: As long as I can remember I've be writing--first poems, then stories and by my early teenage years I was also in love with sailing. (Not an easy passion when you live in Pittsburgh, Pa., believe me!) It took me a very long while, but by my mid-30s, after a long stint as a sailing journalist, I was living on Nantucket Island and discovered that the past and the sea were, for me, the great undiscovered topics. It also helped to have a father who was an English professor with a specialty in American maritime literature. In a very real sense I'm still sailing in his wake today.


Washington, D.C.: Alas I missed your last book signing, will you have another one besides the festival?

Nathaniel Philbrick: I'll be updating the schedule on my Web site soon. It looks like I'll be back in the D.C. area this winter.


Following up...: When you type "the war was not inevitable," how could you see the sides living amicably or dealing with their differences? Thanks...

Nathaniel Philbrick: Very good question. It would have taken the type of negotiation and compromise that those of the first generation realized was essential to avoiding war. The second generation of Pilgrims knew perfectly well that land was the issue. Even though they felt they had rightfully purchased the land, the reality of the situation was that they were painting the Indians into a corner. Bradford's regime had already established large reservation tracts for the Indians. If the Winslow regime had reinforced that commitment and perhaps even added to it somewhat, perhaps the fighting could have been avoided. But of course we'll never know.


Philadelphia, Pa.: The Pilgrims treatment of the Indians (shipping them off to different locales with awful conditions), would you consider them to be more close to "religious zealots" than the peace-loving, shoe-buckled journeymen/women of school teachings?

Nathaniel Philbrick: I found the Pilgrims to be somewhere in between the "religious zealot" and "peace-loving" labels. Their spiritual life was absolutely essential to their world view; they were, in many ways, extremists of their day when it came to their Puritan Separatist beliefs. But what made their existence in New England possible was their ability to make it work with the Native Americans of the real world, and for 50 years there was peace in Plymouth Colony, a remarkable feat given the future course of America.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Love those fellow Pittsburghers. You've got to be still a Steelers fan, right?

Nathaniel Philbrick: Yes, I follow the Patriots, but the Steelers were my first and true love. I still have a terrible towel.


Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Philbrick, When you have spare time, what authors do you enjoy reading?

Nathaniel Philbrick: I'm a big Stephen King fan. I'm just finishing the last in the Dark Tower series, the story of a gunslinger whose also a Pilgrim.


Bethesda, Md.: What place on Nantucket would you recommend for a visit (family of 4)? And what's your favorite time to visit?

Nathaniel Philbrick: When visiting Nantucket you've got to go to the newly renovated whaling museum; it's spectacular. Also the Nantucket Athenaeum--not just a library, it's also a kind of museum, the Egan Maritime Foundation at the Coffin School, and the Maria Mitchell Association, an organization that has the birth place of M.M., America's first woman astronomer. But also get out to the beaches. It's different out here. Fall is the time to come. Sept. and October are the best.


Alabama: Comment and a question. Jonathan Yardley's review of your book kept hammering at the "myths" of Plymouth, implying that we still hold them dear to our hearts, despite the complicated truths.

It's funny: As someone pushing 30, I can tell you I grew up more with the destruction of the myth than the myth itself. For instance, my teachers tended to emphasize the nation's horrible treatment of Native Americans than the journey of the pioneers. I clearly remember reading a children's book when I was six talking about the horrible conditions of the early Plymouth colony and having textbooks in elementary school and high school talking at length about King Phillip's War. And George Washington and the cherry tree? I was taught that it was a lie long before I was taught the actual story.

I'm not complaining, mind you: I'd rather have the complicated truth than the clear falsehood. But is it right to say that the "myth" of Plymouth still holds sway? I think people are far more sophisticated about history than Yardley may believe. At the very least, they're more skeptical when it comes to unblinking stories of heroism.

Nathaniel Philbrick: I think it's very much a generational thing. I'm 50 and grew up with the Pilgrim myth as fact while in elementary school. By the time I reached high school and especially college, I was being taught the opposite, but not when it applied to Pilgrims per se. I learned all about how the Europeans had decimated the Native Americans but it was more in the context of the American West. I felt it was time to revisit the myth that people of my generation had not had the chance to revisit since the time we were little kids.


Washington, D.C.: My wife has been studying her family's geneology, which appears to go back to the Mayflower. Can you suggest any tools for people researching possible family ties to the Mayflower?

Nathaniel Philbrick: Go to the Web site of the Mayflower Society. It's probably the best place to start


San Antonio, Texas: You include the Mary White Rowlandson Talcott captivity narrative in your book and cover it at some length. Why? Were you captivated by the story?

Nathaniel Philbrick: I used the Rowlandson narrative because as a captive she was in a unique position to report on what was happening to the Indians during the war. She also got to know Philip, and he of course is central to the story.


Laurel, Md.: Dorothy Bradford: accident or suicide?

Nathaniel Philbrick: we will never know, but I do find it interesting that Sears Nickerson, a Bradford descendant, reported in the early 20th century the family tradition that she did commit suicide. Whatever happened, it was a truly devastating blow for William,who somehow found the strength to continue on and lead the colony.


Rockville, Md.: Mr. Philbrick, I enjoyed your book immensely. Based on your historical knowledge, if the King Philip's war did not occur and peace ensued between the Indians and the Colonists, how do you think it would have shaped America for today.

Nathaniel Philbrick: That's a very intriguing question. If there had not been a war of annihilation with the Native Americans in New England (which forever changed attitudes among the English), there might have been a different mindset among the Founding Fathers of the region 100 years later.


Washington, D.C.: It's interesting that the earliest religious group to land in the New World has virtually disappeared from the American scene. (Are there any Pilgrims left in the U.S., by the way?) But it's also interesting to consider the impact the Pilgrims have had, or are attributed to have had, on the development of American values, culture and our self-perception as a society.

Nathaniel Philbrick: Puritanism later morphed into Congregationalism (and the Pilgrims were Puritan separatists), so traces of the Pilgrims beliefs are still very much alive today. On another note, it's been estimated that there are more than 35 million descendants of the surviving Mayflower passengers, roughly 10 percent of US population. Talk about a living legacy...


Arlington, Va.: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you've found to be held by regular citizens about the Mayflower's journey and events surrounding it? Thanks.

Nathaniel Philbrick: One of the misconceptions is that passengers of the Mayflower came over as a unified group. In fact, there was a deep divide from the very beginning. About half the passengers were Puritan Separatists who had been living as religious exiles in Leiden, Holland. They were the motivating force behind the voyage. But as the time for the departure arrived, more and more of them got cold feet, forcing the investors behind the venture to recruit potential settlers in London who did not share the radical beliefs of the Leideners, who referred to them as Strangers. The Mayflower Compact was written, in large part, to help bridge the gap between the two factions. From the start, the people we know as the Pilgrims were dealing with dissent and controversy.


Rohrersville, Md.: I "read" your book via CD in my vehicle. It was so engrossing that I had more than one "driveway moments," where I just had to hear the end of whatever vignette you were recounting.

One disadvantage, though, was keeping all of the people and particularly places straight. Does the print edition contain maps? If it does, I'll probably buy a copy just to put your marvelous tale in a geographic context.

Nathaniel Philbrick: There are seven maps in the book. I spent much time driving around New England (plus 3 weeks in England and Holland) scouting on the sites talked about in Mayflower. Places I'd taken for granted I now see in a whole different light. For example, there is the Braga Bridge across the headwaters of Mt. Hope Bay, which you drive from Fall River, Mass. toward Providence RI. To the south is ground zero of King Philip's War, to the north what becomes the Taunton River stretches off in the direction of Plymouth. I think maps are absolutely essential to following this story.


Arlington, Va.: As a native Rhode Islander who grew up on Aquidneck Island, your book brought my local history alive. Roger Williams, though, seemed like a passive figure as the war was raging through his colony. You had a moving scene where the Indians left him alone. Was Williams a passive observer of all that was going on around him or did he take a more active role?

Nathaniel Philbrick: Roger Williams and all of Rhode Island was put in a very difficult position by King Philip's War. It was the Puritans' fight, and as fellow Englishmen the non-Puritans of Rhode Island were expected to assist, at least in some way. The Riers took no active part in the fighting but did provide boats for troop and provision transport. When the Puritans attacked the Narragansetts at what became known as the Swamp Fight the colony was dragged into the conflict in a truly terrible way. Town after town was burned (including Providence). It's a scenario that is eerily familiar in many ways.


San Antonio, Texas: I am just beginning to read your book. My distant great-grandfather, Rev. John Wilson Jr., was pastor of Medfield, Mass., during King Philip's War. Which parts of Massachusetts were most impacted by the conflict: coastal, midsection or western?

Also, are there any lessons in this war of colonists against natives that can be applied to today's conflict in Iraq?

Nathaniel Philbrick: Somewhere between a third and half the towns in Massachusetts were burned and abandoned. It was particularly bad along the Connecticut River to the west, and Boston was inundated with refugees. But the towns surrounding Boston (the arc of settlement inside modern day 495) were also ravaged. There was even a proposal to build a huge wall from the Merrimack river to the Charles and once they had posted guards along the rivers, bring all the English inside the protected zone. It never happened but it shows you how terrified the English were by the winter of 1676.


Washington, D.C.: How valid is the Thanksgiving story?

Nathaniel Philbrick: There is a surprising amount of validity, but it wasn't that Currier and Ives portrait of a group of Pilgrims sitting around a long table as a few curious Indians looked on. Sachem Massasoit and about 100 of his people were part of the festivities so it was, at least demographically, an overwhelmingly Native celebration since there were only about 50 or so Pilgrims left alive. Instead of November, it took place in late September or early October and was more of a harvest festival than what the Puritans would have termed a Thanksgiving (a term the Pilgrims never applied to this particular get-together). They may have eaten turkeys, but we know for certain they ate ducks, geese and give deer provided by Massasoit.


Bethesda, Md.: I loved "In the Heart of the Sea" and can't wait to read "Mayflower." (I had distant/ancient relatives on board and look forward to reading more detail.) My question is: To what extent do you think your research findings will re-write or add to the limited information that is taught in public schools?

Nathaniel Philbrick: I don't know what, if any, impact Mayflower will have on how the topic is taught in school, but I do hope that there will be a growing tendency to return to 17th century New England after elementary school. American history doesn't begin with the Revolution--the Mayflower arrived 150 years earlier. We are fascinated by the Founding Fathers but I think we owe it to ourselves as a nation to look carefully at what is, for whatever reason, the founding myth of America.


Nathaniel Philbrick: I see the hour is complete. Many thanks for your questions. I only wish I had had the time to answer all of them. I look forward to seeing you at the Book Festival in D.C. Thanks again

Nat Philbrick


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