Monday, July 9, 2018

Review of "The Mayflower" by Rebecca Fraser

Browsing the new book section in my local library, I found The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America by Rebecca Fraser. My husband has Mayflower ancestors,* so I eagerly dove into this 2017 book.

The book begins with two excellent maps, one of 17th century North America and one of Southern New England circa 1675, before the major war with Native American tribes broke out. These maps remind the reader of when the major settlements were established and which countries were backing those settlements. (I admit, I didn't realize there was a "New Sweden" in 1638 in Delaware.)

One of the strengths of the book is its British perspective on the "Puritan experiment." By beginning with the Winslow family's background in 1590s Droitwich, England and following that family and its relatives/in-laws through to 1704 in England and the colonies, the author shows what the Puritans were leaving, and why--and what they sought to accomplish, and why. This is as much a personal story as a historical account, intensifying the human drama of flight from religious persecution and life-and-death wilderness survival.

Although most U.S. readers already know that the Puritans had commercial backers with financial requirements for the colonies ("plantations"), I was surprised to find out how long the payback was expected to continue. I was also unaware that Plymouth had no royal charter and was therefore often threatened by shifting political winds in the mother country.

My only basic grasp of English political twists and turns meant I didn't immediately understand the author's discussions of governmental turmoil and the effect of the "Civil War" on the colonies. Once I adjusted my thinking to not default to the "War Between the States," I was better able to follow events and implications as they played out on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another strength of the book is how many strong female characters play active roles. From Anne Hutchinson's story of religious belief (and excommunication and exile) to Susanna Winslow's life of balancing between new and old worlds, the book shows how several generations of Puritans fared in a constantly-changing colonial situation.

Finally, I enjoyed the author's insightful narratives of Native American tribes' interactions with the Puritans and other colonists during the decades following the Mayflower's arrival. In particular, I was interested in the "Praying Town" movement, part of the Puritans's efforts to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and in the fact that during the mid-1600s, wampum was demonitised (that's a quote).

You don't need Mayflower ancestors to enjoy Rebecca Fraser's unique take on the founding, growth, and evolution of Plymouth and the personalities who were part of this era.

* Mayflower ancestors are: Isaac Allerton, Mary Norris Allerton, Mary Allerton, and Degory Priest. And Francis Cooke!


  1. This book sounds really interesting, especially so since I discovered my one and only Mayflower ancester, George Soule, two summers ago.