Compass

Interview

Q. Your two previous books have been about the sea. Mayflower, although it begins with one of the most famous transatlantic voyages of all time, is set primarily on land. Is this book a departure for you?

A. Less than you might think. One of the themes in both In the Heart of the Sea and Sea of Glory is that before there was the wilderness of the West in America, there was the wilderness of the sea. Mayflower begins with a terrifying two-month passage across the ocean and then segues into an equally harrowing winter amid the wilds of coastal New England. For the Pilgrims, the deprivation, fear, and disorientation of the Atlantic crossing is remarkably similar to what they experienced while attempting to establish a toehold in the New World. Even later in the book, when war breaks out more than a half-century later in 1675, the two wildernesses continue to mesh and intersect. Some of the most effective soldiers for the English proved to be privateers who transferred their skills as warriors on the high seas to the swamps and forests of New England. In many ways Mayflower is, for me, a kind of culmination rather than a departure: by going to the origins of America, I’ve attempted to show that much of what we associate with the American West of the nineteenth century was there at the very beginning: a wilderness that included both the ocean and the shore.

Q. Every child in America learns about the Pilgrims in school. Was it daunting to write a book about a topic that is so well known?

A. To a certain degree, but I soon began to realize that there was another, virtually unknown story lurking beyond the myth of the Pilgrim Fathers. Most Americans learn about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, but they know nothing about what happened after the First Thanksgiving. As far as most history curriculums are concerned, the next event of any importance is the American Revolution, 150 years later. Left out of this version of events is the fate of the Indians. The answer is King Philip’s War, a conflict that began in 1675 when Massasoit’s son Philip decided to go to war. Fourteen months later, more than 5,000 people (in a total population of only 70,000) were dead, more than three-quarters of them Indians. Those of Philip’s followers who were not killed were shipped to the Caribbean as slaves. On a per capita basis, more died in King Philip’s War than in the American Civil War, and it is a conflict that most Americans know nothing about. I felt that the true legacy of the Mayflower must include this crucial and horrifying event. Instead of being an exception to the subsequent history of our country, the story of Pilgrim Colony foreshadows, to an amazing degree, America’s inexorable push west in the nineteenth century.

Q. So is there any truth at all to the myth of the Pilgrim Fathers?

A. Sure, but instead of simply being a matter of pious Pilgrims being helped by generous Indians, it is a much more complicated and interesting story. In many ways, it was Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanaogs, who was calling the shots in the beginning. He realized that this desperate group of English settlers might hold the key to rehabilitating his people’s fortunes in the wake of a debilitating three-year plague. Not surprisingly, the Pilgrims were slow to understand the intricacies of Native society in the region, especially when it came to the degree to which they were being manipulated by Massasoit. In 1623, Miles Standish—at the behest of Massasoit—led a kind of commando raid against the Massachusetts Indians to the north at Wessagussett. The raid, in which at least half a dozen Indians were killed, threw the Massachusetts, as well as their allies on Cape Cod into turmoil, and Massasoit emerged as a much more powerful leader in the region. In this instance, the Pilgrims had served him well.

Q. Did the Pilgrims and Indians eat turkeys, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pies at the First Thanksgiving?

A. Probably yes to turkeys, but no to cranberry sauce and pumpkin pies. Instead of being a largely English celebration with a few curious Indians looking on (as it’s usually depicted in elementary school), the First Thanksgiving was an overwhelmingly Native affair. According to contemporary accounts, the Pilgrims were outnumbered by more than two to one by the Indians; and in addition to turkeys, they ate ducks and venison.

Q. You focus on William Bradford in the first half of the book. Did anything about the Plymouth governor surprise you?

A. His ambitions for the colony were much more modest than I had expected. He and his fellow Pilgrims came to America not to start a new nation but to transplant their congregation of English exiles from Leiden, Holland. The Pilgrims were not empire builders; they were deeply religious people who simply wanted to worship God in what they believed was the correct way, and (as the Quakers would later discover) the Pilgrims had no patience with anyone whose beliefs differed from their own. The important thing from Bradford’s perspective, was not the issue of religious freedom but that theeir maintenance of the passionate spiritual bond that they had known in Holland and before that in England. When that passion waned with the second generation, Bradford slipped into an ever darkening despair. He died convinced that his colony had been, from a spiritual perspective, a failure.

Q. Was Plymouth Colony a failure?

A. No, not at all. In actuality, the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags achieved remarkable things—for the more than fifty years they maintained peace, an unprecedented accomplishment given the history of the United States. But instead of being characterized by a benign embrace between two cultures, relations between the English and Indians were full of intrigue and wrenching change on both sides. In many ways, New England in the first half century of the seventeenth century—especially after the Puritans arrived in Boston in 1630—was much like the world is today: a place where many competing groups struggled to coexist in a lively, sometimes terrifying process of give and take.

Q. How is it possible to write fairly about the Native American side of seventeenth-century New England when it was the English who recorded the history of the region?

A. While it is true that we must rely almost wholly on documents written by the English, it is wrong to assume that there was a monolithic English-Indian divide across New England throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, even during the bloody 14 months of King Philip’s War. There were Indians who sided with the colonies and there were English who openly criticized the colonies’ treatment of the Indians. Although we will obviously never know as much about the Native point of view as we do the English, it is possible to find testimony that reflects a remarkable diversity of perspectives.

Q. Given the history of the United States, wasn’t King Philip’s War inevitable?

A. It is certainly tempting to see it that way in hindsight, but that is not how most of the people of the time, English and Indian alike, saw it. For them, the war was a terrifying surprise that threw into disarray a bicultural society that had developed over the course of half a century. But once the violence started in Plymouth Colony, it spread with alarming speed across the region. Much as they did in the American Civil War, former neighbors and friends found themselves in brutal conflict.

Q. Who was at fault in King Philip’s War?

A. I see the outbreak of violence in June 1675 as a failure of leadership on both sides. Philip and Governor Josiah Winslow had an intense personal hatred for one another, and Winslow was loath to open up the lines of communication that might have made peace possible. He had also spearheaded the aggressive series of land purchases that had done much to increase tensions amid the Indians throughout the colony. For his part, Philip had spent the better part of a decade attempting to appease his increasingly belligerent warriors with promises of a war that he had no real intention of fighting. When events took on a momentum of their own after a controversial murder trial involving several of his people, Philip admitted to some of the English with whom he had long been friendly that he had “lost control” of his warriors. Instead of leading his people into battle, Philip was forced to follow the lead of his warriors, with disastrous results.

Q. You focus on the character of Benjamin Church in the second half of the book, why?

A. For one thing, he (with the help of his son Thomas) wrote a book about his experiences during King Philip’s War; for another, he had a significant impact on the course of the fighting. Even if he didn’t win the war singlehandedly (as he comes close to insisting in his narrative), Church had a huge impact on the conflict. Before the outbreak of violence, Church was the only Englishman living in modern Little Compton, Rhode Island, and he came to know the local Indians, led by the female sachem Awashonks, very well. When war erupted, he realized that many Native leaders, including Awashonks, were reluctant to join Philip, and he pled with Governor Winslow and the other colonial leaders to initiate peace negotiations. When this didn’t happen and Awashonks and many others were given no choice but to join Philip, he was one of the few Englishmen to insist that instead of viewing all Native Americans as subhuman barbarians, it was in the colonies’ best interests to learn as much as possible from the “friend Indians” and to employ them as soldiers. It took a year before the authorities were willing to listen to him, but once he was able to put together his own company of soldiers, made mostly of Awashonks’ people, he changed the course of the war. As the outsider who doubts and even mocks the authorities while demonstrating a genuine sympathy for the downtrodden, he anticipates an American type that includes Natty Bumpo, Dirty Harry, and even Rambo. Compared to Bradford and the other Pilgrim Fathers, Church has a strikingly modern sensibility.

Q. What if Governor Winslow and Philip had managed to avoid war; would American history have been significantly different?

A. It’s impossible to know of course, but it’s tempting to wonder whether attitudes toward Native Americans, at least in New England, might have been different at the end of the seventeenth century if there had never been a war of annihilation between the English and the Indians.