A few years ago, not more than four, I decided it was time to enlarge my understanding of period of American history I had studied very little: the 17th century, give or take, from the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 through the aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-76).
I bought three recent books and began reading the first, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Award a few years ago. It’s a very readable book, and I immediately began to enjoy it. That it took me until I was on a recent flight to Seattle to finish it is no reflection on the book itself. It is simply a consequence of the fact that, though I read quite a bit, my reading time — with mental energy for history and in a situation where I can sit and mark up a book — is quite limited. So I read dozens of other books — mostly fiction — while I was reading this one off and on.
Some of the roots of our national founding are in that period, I knew — including some of our early challenges with respect to religious freedom. I also expected the ambivalence of Pilgrims, and later Puritans, toward the indigenous peoples. I expected fear, heroism, bloodshed, confusion, brutality.
I suppose I expected insights into the challenges of diverse peoples attempting to coexist. But as I began to read, there were some interesting surprises on that theme. And there were sad accounts of what I had mostly forgotten, the beginning of the slave trade in New England, involving native slaves.