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Book Summary: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

My Personal Summary

This book is about the voyage of the Mayflower made by the Pilgrims in 1620 along with the subsequent 50 years in which they settled throughout the New England region.

The book covers the time period from 1620 when the Pilgrims first crossed the Atlantic Ocean landed in modern day Cape Code, Massachusetts all the way to 1675 when King Philip’s War broke out, which turned out to be the bloodiest conflict in colonial history, pitting the English against various Indian tribes.

When the Pilgrims first landed in Plymouth, they became allies with the Indians in the region because they needed their knowledge of how to grow corn and crops along with their ability to trade English goods in exchange for land.

As the years passed, the descendants of the original Pilgrims were much less willing to be allies and work with the Indians and became hostile towards them. This all erupted in King Philip’s war, which forever damaged the relationship between the English and the Indians.

Book Notes

  • The group of pilgrims who would make the voyage on the Mayflower were actually a group of Puritans who had split from the Church of England and wanted to start a new life with religious freedom in America.
  • To finance the trip, the pilgrims relied on a group of wealthy merchants from London named the Merchant Adventurers, who agreed to provide a ship for the pilgrims in exchange for profits made in the new colonies that were expected mostly from fishing and fur trading.
  • The Mayflower was 100 feet long and carried a total of 102 pilgrims. The total voyage would be just over 3,000 miles.
  • Interesting: At the time, it was possible for sailors to estimate their latitude with reasonable accuracy but there was no good way to measure longitude so it was difficult to know just how far they were from their destination while at sea. (It wasn’t until the mid 1700’s when the chronometer was invented that ships could reliably measure longitude)
  • After 65 days at sea, the Mayflower reached land at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The ship anchored at Provincetown Harbor on the north side of Cape Cod.
  • The pilgrims went on three separate exploring expeditions in their first month around Cape Cod to explore the land for a suitable place to build a settlement.
  • Although Cape Cod is located further south than England, it is a colder climate because land loses heat much faster than water and England is located along the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, the Gulf Stream provides warm air to the British Isles, which makes the climate even warmer than New England. The pilgrims were not prepared for this cold.
  • Since the pilgrims did most of their initial explorations during the cold months of November and December, they encountered few Indians since the Indians lived a rather nomadic lifestyle by living near the water in the summer and further inland during the winter.
  • The pilgrims had a skirmish with a group of Indians on one of their initial outings and encountered how deadly the bow and arrows used by Indians could be. Their arrows were a yard long, a skilled shooter could have as many as five arrows in the air at the same time, and it’s said that in one battle an Indian shot an arrow through a dog and into a man.
  • On the third expedition around Cape Cod, the pilgrims discovered Plymouth and decided that it would be a suitable place for a settlement. Plymouth had a 165-foot hill that offered a great point to view the surrounding areas. “A stout, cannon-equipped fort on this hill would provide all the security they could ever hope for.” There were also several freshwater springs in the area, which provided sources of clean drinking water. Another advantage was that the land had already been cleared by the Indians but there were no signs of recent settlements.
  • It took 2 weeks for the pilgrims to finish building their first structure – a 20 square foot “common house” made of trees and twigs cemented together with clay.
  • When exploring the nearby woods, the pilgrims would sometimes hear the cries of mountain lions, which freely roamed the New England area during that time period.
  • Within six months of landing in America, half of the original group of pilgrims would be dead from various diseases and illnesses.
  • In previous visits during the early 1600’s from fisherman and other explorers, Europeans brought disease to New England which wiped out huge swaths of Indian populations because they had no immunity to European diseases.
  • Squanto was an Indian who had previously been taken hostage to Europe by another group of travelers in the early 1600’s and had learned English.
  • Squanto visited the Pilgrims in March of 1621 with his sachem (leader of his tribe) named Massasoit and he convinced him that the pilgrims held diseases in their gun powder barrels that they could unleash whenever they wanted on the Indians, which made Massasoit fear the pilgrims since he had seen first-hand how devastating a plague could be to Indian communities. Massasoit made a peace treaty with the Pilgrims and agreed to be allies.
  • Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn by using fish as fertilizer and by planting beans and squash in the same mound as the corn. The creepers from the beans attached to the growing cornstalks, creating a blanket of shade that protected the plants’ roots against the summer sun while also discouraging weeds.
  • The Pilgrims had the first Thanksgiving in September or October of 1621 that involved a huge feast with deer, ducks, turkeys, fish and other wild animals.
  • In November of 1621 a new ship from England named The Fortune arrived with 30+ new individuals. The ship was loaded with various goods to be sent back to England to help pay off the Pilgrims debt to the Adventurers.
  • By forming an alliance with Squanto, Massasoit, and the Pokanokets, the Pilgrims unintentionally made enemies with the rival Narragansett tribe. Out of fear of this tribe potentially attacking them, they spent a month building an 8-foot wooden wall around their entire settlement. This was especially impressive considering they used primitive axes to cut down all of the trees and had no oxen to help them pull the logs out of the forest once they were felled.
  • Observation: It’s incredible just how much of the pilgrims time and ultimately their lives revolved around obtaining food.
  • In 1623, the pilgrims learned that various groups of Indian tribes planned on secretly attacking them. In response, they traveled to the Indian village of Wessagussett and murdered several Indians without warning. The Indians soon gave the pilgrims the nickname wotawquenange, which translates to cutthroats.
  • In 1623, William Bradford, leader of Plymouth, decided that each household should be assigned their own plot to cultivate and each household would keep what they grew. This incentivized families to work much harder than they previously had and crop yields increased as a result.
  • In 1626, Holland purchased Manhattan from the Indians and established the colony of New Netherland. Since many of the Pilgrims in Plymouth knew Dutch, they became trading partners with the colony.
  • Up until 1630, Plymouth was the only significant English settlement in New England. But that year an armada of 17 ships arrived with over 1,000 new immigrants, more than three times the entire population of Plymouth.
  • White and purple shell beads called wampum became the currency of exchange in New England among the Europeans and the Indians.
  • By the early 1630’s, Plymouth had established a series of trading posts from the Connecticut River to Castine, Maine.
  • Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Pilgrims purchased various lots of land from the Indians by giving them a myriad of goods like axes, hoes, shoes, moose skins, cloth, cotton, iron pots, and other goods.
  • During the 1930’s, an estimated 21,000 Puritan immigrants moved from England to New England.
  • In 1643, the various European colonies in New England formed the United Colonies of New England (UCNE) to solidify their presence against the Native Americans. It’s said that over 100 years later, John Quincy Adams stated that the UCNE served as a template for what would eventually become the North American Confederacy of 1774, which would form the basis of the future United States.
  • By the 1950’s, the Pilgrims built houses that were much larger and more rigid. It took a whopping 12 tons of wood to v CDr build one of these houses and a town of 200 homes depended on the deforestation of 75 acres per year to meet the heating requirements of the homes.
  • Interesting: Indians consumed 280-340 pounds of corn per person per year.
  • The high demand for fish, timber, grain and cattle from Europe and the West Indies meant that the New England colonies had lucrative trade opportunities. To take advantage of this trade, a colony needed a port. Boston emerged as the central economic hub since it had deep ports. By contrast, Plymouth had a shallow port and wasn’t suitable as a major trading post.
  • The Pilgrims’ cattle frequently made their way onto Indian lands and ate their corn and other crops. The Pilgrims also constantly tried to convert the Indians to Christianity uninvited. Over the years, tensions rose between the Pilgrims and the Indians.
  • Conflict finally erupted in 1675 and King Philip’s War took place. It was named after Philip, an Indian leader who used “Philip” as his English name and whose father, Massasoit, was one of the biggest allies of the English when they first arrived at Plymouth. This was the most bloody conflict in all of Colonial New England’s history. 1 out of 65 English and 1 out of 20 Indians were slain. King Philip was killed and beheaded. His head was displayed in Plymouth for 20 years.
  • “The Pilgrim’s descendants have proven to be, if nothing else, fruitful. In 2022 it was estimated that there were approximately 35 million descendants of the Mayflower passengers in the Uniter States, which represents roughly 10 percent of the total U.S. population.”

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