Boosters call Jamestown, Va., where England established its first permanent New World colony in 1607, "our nation's birthplace." Events marking next year's 400th anniversary have already begun. But England's second settlement at Plymouth, Mass., in 1620 dominates American mythology.
Hollywood promoted Jamestown in the recent film "The New World." Rival Plymouth answers with a book, Nathaniel Philbrick's popular history "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War" (Viking). This well-told tale mixes fortitude with hesitation, sagacity with stupidity, religious freedom with religious oppression.
Plymouth merged into the Puritans' Massachusetts colony in 1692 but persevered, while Jamestown declined after Virginia's capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699.
Plymouth myth-making originated in 1802 with John Quincy Adams' speech at the annual Forefathers Day that said American democracy originated with the Mayflower Compact between the devout Pilgrims (a slight majority of the first settlers) and the non-Pilgrim "Strangers."
In the compact, all settlers agreed the colony existed "for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith" and to submit to "just and equal laws" and offices established "for the general good." (The particulars were defined only later.) After signing, the meeting chose the colony's first governor, John Carver.
Five decades after Adams' speech, a bookstore browser in England discovered a copy of William Bradford's history "Of Plymouth Plantation," a publishing sensation by Carver's successor that remains a vital historical document. Years later, President Lincoln established the national Thanksgiving holiday, emulating Plymouth's first harvest celebration in 1621.
That first Thanksgiving featured wild turkeys and (Protestant teetotalers take note) beer, but no cranberries - or forks to eat with. No wonder there was celebration: Only 50 of the 102 settlers who landed in December of 1620 escaped death.
Before the Mayflower, Jamestown had established American capitalism, the first representative legislature and Christianity (specifically the Church of England that the Pilgrims resisted, which became America's Episcopal Church). Unfortunately, Jamestown had also received the first of African slaves, inaugurating that sordid, central aspect of Southern history.
Philbrick's weak spot is his depiction of the Pilgrims' Bible-based religion, which he thinks "had more in common with a cult than a democratic society." The Pilgrims opposed infant baptism and practiced congregational government, anticipating America's Baptists and countless independent churches.
Philbrick provides only the basics about their practices and dogged determination to escape the Church of England, which was criminal behavior in those times.
In that sense, the Pilgrims are heroes and symbols of religious liberty, one of America's founding principles. Yet they banished those who openly opposed their own form of Christianity.
On the other hand, the Pilgrims managed to work alongside "Strangers" who didn't share their faith - an aspect the book should have explained more thoroughly - and to cooperate with neighboring American Indians without whose aid they would have perished.
The Indian relationship is Philbrick's major interest.
Plymouth's military chieftain Miles Standish, no Pilgrim believer, led a bloody little raid on one Indian group at the behest of another. But then the Pilgrims created a remarkably peaceful, mutually beneficial relationship with Indians. It lasted a half-century until the tragic King Philip's War of 1675-76, one of the continent's bloodiest.
That war killed some Indians and scattered others westward while England enslaved at least 1,000. Indians made up nearly 30 percent of New England's population before the war and only 15 percent by 1680. Philbrick considers the war a disaster for New England's economy. Average per capita income didn't regain prewar levels for the next century, during which continual Indian wars ravaged the land.
Philbrick concludes wistfully, "The first 50 years of Plymouth Colony stand as a model of what America might have been."
On the Net:
Philbrick page: www.nathanielphilbrick.com
Jamestown page: www.americas400thanniversary.com
Plymouth page: http://pilgrims.net