Nathaniel Philbrick: New look at Pilgrims

Historians in the News

The Pilgrims, persecuted religious dissidents who founded a colony on a shoestring in what they expected to be Virginia, are a well-studied subject. Though there has been no reexamination of the colony's history by a major historian in recent years, that is about to change.

Prize-winning author Nathaniel Philbrick, who struck bestseller gold with his account of a 19th-century whaling expedition, is working on an account of the early phase of the Plymouth Colony, from the voyage of the Mayflower in 1620 to the disastrous King Philip's War in 1675, due to be published in May.

As a result, Philbrick's scheduled talk before the Forefathers Day Dinner next week is causing a buzz in the community.

The tradition of a celebratory dinner on Forefathers Day -- Dec. 21, the date of the Pilgrims' landing in Plymouth -- goes back to 1769, according to Stephen O'Neill, associate director of the Pilgrim Hall Museum. And a young nation's veneration of the Pilgrims -- New England heroes whose stock rose even higher after the American Revolution gave birth to an independent nation -- led directly to the founding of the Pilgrim Society in 1820.

The Forefathers Day Dinner, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Radisson Hotel Plymouth Harbor, follows the annual meeting of the Pilgrim Society's 700 members, at 4:30 p.m., and a 5:30 p.m. reception ''with succotash & cash bar," according to the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

In recent years the event has drawn especially strong speakers. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer addressed last year's gathering, and prior years saw noted historian David McCullough and the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, a Harvard professor, minister of its Memorial Church, and a Plymouth native who has served as president of the Pilgrim Society.

Members this year are excited not only about the appearance of Philbrick, but also by the insights that his new book might provide, according to Pilgrim Society director Peggy Baker.

The historian's new book ''promises to be a fresh and very welcome look at Plymouth Colony," O'Neil said.

New trends in the study of Plymouth history, as exemplified by organizations like the Pilgrim Society and Plimoth Plantation (the living museum based on the early Pilgrim village), have emphasized Native American culture and the interactions between the two peoples.

Largely ignored by textbooks, King Philip's War rolled back English settlements almost to the walls of Boston before resulting in the destruction of many southern New England Indian groups and hastening the end of their independent way of life in the region.

Philbrick's research on the Pilgrims brought him to Plymouth, where Baker invited him to be this year's speaker. His Forefathers Day talk, titled ''Discovering the Pilgrims," will focus on how his previous books on Nantucket and New England's seagoing way of life led him to study the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony, and how his research for his book drove him in some unexpected directions, particularly when it came to the Pilgrims' children and grandchildren.

Philbrick, 49, a Midwest native drawn to Cape Cod, wrote books about sailing and Nantucket history before his book about a whaling expedition gone wrong. ''In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," spent 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction. It is an account of a ship sunk by a sperm whale that it had been hunting. Two parties of survivors suffered different fates -- one group depending on cannibalism to survive months in the ocean. A New York Times reviewer called it ''an eerie thriller from a centuries old tale [that] would have earned [Herman] Melville's admiration."

Philbrick's most recent book, ''Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery," won the 2003 Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize and was praised by reviewers for blending history and ''gut-gripping" storytelling. The book is an account of the young nation's underappreciated 1838 expedition to the South Polar Sea, which resulted in a major expansion of scientific knowledge about the Antarctic region. The four-year expedition's artifacts and reports constituted the initial collection of the Smithsonian Institution, but it also resulted in backbiting political shenanigans in Washington and a court martial for its leader.

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