Mayflower Summary and Study Guide

Nathaniel Philbrick


  • 61-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 16 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Mayflower Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 61-page guide for “Mayflower” by Nathaniel Philbrick includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 14 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Religious Freedom and The Relationship between Native Americans and Pilgrims.

Plot Summary

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War is a historic nonfiction narrative by New York Times bestseller, Nathaniel Philbrick. The narrative outlines the reasons for the Mayflower’s historic voyage, before giving a realistic account of the Pilgrims in the New World during their first fifty-five years. Perhaps most important in Philbrick’s assessment is the tenuous relationship between the Pilgrims and their Native American neighbors; with this cooperative relationship in mind, Philbrick investigates several other,  “superficial” assessments of the Pilgrims, including the view that the Pilgrims were “good” while their Native American neighbors were “bad”. Ultimately, Philbrick shows the reader that this particular episode in American history was not black and white; the history of beginnings never is.

Mayflower highlights how the Pilgrims and their neighbors, the Pokanokets, came to establish a relationship based on mutual need. The Pilgrims needed to survive in a harsh new environment. They also needed allies if they were to develop their settlement. At the same time, the Pokanokets, led by Massasoit, had lost their place as the most powerful people in the region, largely due to death and disease. The Pilgrims could be the key to restoring their status. Though initially distrustful of each other, the two sides came together to ensure their survival, political and otherwise.

Philbrick traces the Pilgrims’ origins to England and Leiden, in Holland, where they were known as Separatists. He explains the circumstances that led the secretive group to flee their homelands for somewhere new, where they might worship freely. Through faced with setbacks from the start, including dubious help from Thomas Weston, a Merchant Adventurer who promised to help the Pilgrims establish themselves in the New World, the Pilgrims eventually set sail in September 1620. Though they knew they were leaving one problem to face others, including Native American attacks and harsh, unfamiliar territory, the Pilgrims hoped and believed that their faith would sustain them.

Philbrick’s narrative highlights the uneasy meeting between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, and then shows how the two sides came to rely on one another to ensure their mutual safety. Both groups faced attack by several other groups of Native Americans, including the Massachusetts and the Narragansetts. Massasoit made a calculated—though unpopular—decision to ally his people with the Pilgrims. It was a move suggested by Squanto, a former slave who had been taken from the region years earlier by John Hunt, one of the captains who sailed on John Smith’s voyage. When Squanto returned to his homeland, he saw firsthand how disease had decimated the Pokanokets and others. Despite the devastation, Squanto also saw opportunity and decided that he could be a sachem (leader) if he played his cards right.

With Squanto’s acting as interpreter, the ties between the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets flourished. Yet these ties were also being systematically weakened by a power-hungry Squanto. Squanto plotted with the Narragansetts to destroy Plymouth and Massasoit so that he might realize his dream of becoming a leader. Though Squanto later died in mysterious circumstances after his plot was discovered, the bond between Massasoit and the Pilgrims was ultimately strengthened by Squanto’s actions.

When the second generation of Pilgrims came of age, the bond between the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets began to unravel. To William Bradford’s dismay, the younger generation was more concerned with land ownership, which led to Plymouth leaders leaving to begin other settlements where the land was better. Plymouth also began to take a backseat in the development of the region, as more Puritan settlements were established as a result of the exodus of Puritans from England. An elderly Bradford saw the deteriorating relationship between the English and Native Americans as a direct result of God’s wrath for this materialistic way of thinking.

With new leaders like Philip (Massasoit’s son) and Josiah Winslow, New England seemed headed for war, due to a lack of diplomacy and respect. Both sides refused to give in to the demands of the other, and both wanted to exist separate and independent from their former “friends.” Philip began plotting to attack the English, with extrajudicial events on the part of the English forcing Philip’s hand and leading to King Philip’s War. It was one of the bloodiest wars on American soil, and resulted in the systematic destruction of Native life in the region.

Mayflower addresses the devastating outcomes of King Philip’s War on New England. Philbrick traces the period from the Mayflower’s arrival to the departure of the Seaflower some fifty-five years later, with its cargo of Native American slaves. Philbrick shows how cooperation and coexistence between settlers and Native people dissolved into slavery and death, to the legacies of which are still evident in modern-day America. Themes of prejudice, Native-English relations and religious freedom highlight how the Pilgrims conducted themselves in their new world, and how the New World was forever changed by the actions, both good and bad, of the Pilgrims.

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