Why the Pilgrims Still Matter
A conversation with Mayflower author Nathaniel Philbrick about why the Pilgrims still matter in today’s world.
Why We Should Care About the Pilgrims
The Pilgrims were America’s first illegal immigrants. Their patent did not apply that far north, and yet they said, “We’re going to go our way and the heck with you guys.” We think of them as always having been here, but it’s interesting to see them when everything was new and strange.
The fact that 10 percent of the American population [roughly 35 million people] are Mayflower descendants does mean it’s not an exclusive club. But it also means we’re living the legacy every day. There’s a very significant population that would not be here if the Mayflower hadn’t come over.
What the Pilgrims Can Teach Us About the World Today
Here are two very different groups of people — English and Indian — yet for 50 years they made it work. It wasn’t easy; they didn’t necessarily understand each other or like each other, but they worked at it because the alternative was a war that could des-troy everything. And, boy, the world is a lot like that now, with different nations and faiths and ethnic groups that are operating through a lot of shared ignorance. Yet if we give up on this really frustrating and difficult work of making it work, the alternatives are really horrendous.
I got this sense of sadness in doing this book and in seeing the kinds of things we’re dealing with now that have been going for a long time. But when you’re in the moment — for example, those in the middle of King Philip’s War — it’s terrifying and you’re not thinking clearly and it’s easy to let your fear and anger take over. It’s also easy in hindsight to say, “Why were they doing this?” Yet, when all of us are gripped with something approaching that kind of terror, we’re prone to the same emotions. It gives me sympathy for every time that’s been lived and a sense of caution when it comes to beating up people in the past for what they did. We’re all prone to it. None of us are any better. Hopefully we learn.
The War We’ve Forgotten
I had always thought of the Pilgrims as this boring story with these comical guys with buckles on their shoes. But so much of what will be a recurrent part of American history unfolds in this 56-year period, from when the Pilgrims arrive through King Philip’s War. Like slavery. I didn’t see that coming. And yet, it’s an important part of the story. There’s the African American history, but the process of enslaving natives and shipping them out is not something a lot of Americans think about.
What we learn in elementary school is just a wonderful story for kids. Then the next event in American history is the Revolution, 155 years later, which is a war for liberty. The darkness is saved for the 19th century, with the winning of the West. That’s the Indian story. So, if that’s your blueprint for American history, King Philip’s War doesn’t fit. It messes with your sense of that inspirational beginning by undercutting this idealistic view of the Revolution.