There are a number of great books on the Mayflower pilgrims. This includes modern contemporary books as well as primary sources written by the pilgrims themselves.
These books cover everything from the pilgrim’s early days back in England to the Mayflower voyage to the settling of Plymouth colony and beyond. They help shed light on these fascinating and complex people as well as the world they lived in.
These books listed here are also some of the best-selling books on the Mayflower pilgrims and have received great reviews from literary critics and historians as well as from readers on sites like Amazon, Goodreads and etc.
I’ve also used many of these books for research for this website so I can personally say they are some of the best on the topic.
(Disclaimer: Purchases made through the links in this article help support the History of Massachusetts Blog)
1. The Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick
Published in 2006, this book by Nathaniel Philbrick explores the voyage of the Mayflower and the settling of Plymouth colony.
Unlike other retellings of the pilgrim’s story, which often end at the Thanksgiving celebration in 1621, Philbrick explains, in the book’s preface, that the story of Plymouth colony is actually a 56-year-long epic tale that begins with a dangerous voyage and ends in war:
“I have focused on two people, one familiar, the other less so: Plymouth governor William Bradford and Benjamin Church, a carpenter turned Indian fighter whose maternal grandfather had sailed on the Mayflower. Bradford and Church could not have been more different – one was pious and stalwart, the other was audacious and proud – but both wrote revealingly about their lives in the New World. Together, they tell a fifty-six-year intergenerational saga of discovery, accommodation, community, and war – a pattern that was repeated time and time again as the United States worked its way west and, ultimately, out into the world.”
The New York Times review of the book describes it as “Vivid and remarkably fresh…Philbrick has recast the Pilgrims for the ages” and The Guardian referred to it as “popular history at its best.”
Publishers Weekly described the book as “Impeccably researched and expertly rendered, Philbrick’s account brings the Plymouth Colony and its leaders, including William Bradford, Benjamin Church and the bellicose, dwarfish Miles Standish, vividly to life.”
The book was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and was one of the New York Times Book Review Top Ten books of the Year in 2006.
Nathaniel Philbrick is an award-winning author who has written numerous books on American history such as In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex; Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution; Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution; The Mayflower and the Pilgrim’s New World.
Philbrick has won many literary awards, such as the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction, 2003 Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize, 2003 Albion-Monroe Award, 2007 Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction, 2010 Montana Book Award Honor Book, 2011 ALA Notable Book, 2013 New England Book Award, 2014 New England Society Book Award, 2014 Distinguished Book Award of the Society of Colonial Wars, 2017 George Washington Book prize, 2017 James P. Hanlan Book Award and the 2017 Harry M. Ward Book Prize in addition to countless other awards from various historical societies, genealogical societies and history museums.
2. Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World by Nick Bunker
Published in 2010, this book by British author Nick Bunker explores the prehistory of the Mayflower pilgrims and their first decade at Plymouth to try and uncover who they really were and what motivated them to come to the New World.
Using previously unused British archives, documents and church records, Bunker argues that the pilgrims were not so much religious refugees as they were Christian missionaries on a quest to spread Christianity to the New World.
Bunker also argues that separatism “was never the creed of the penniless” and that these pilgrims were actually savvy businessmen and entrepreneurs who wanted to capitalize on economic opportunities in the New World.
The book received good reviews when it was first published, with many reviewers praising its impeccable research, but many also pointed out that Bunker is a better researcher than a storyteller.
The New York Times review of the book praises its great research but also points out the book is hard to follow at times:
“Bunker is better at digging in archives than in steering a narrative. He has many directions he wants to go in, and a great deal of information at his disposal, but he does not help the reader much.”
The Washington Post’s review argues that the book’s unique research, drawn from British sources, offers a fresh new take on this old topic:
“What’s newest here is a prodigious lot of painstaking research, performed in every conceivably relevant site. The evidence — all the details found, sorted, glued together — adds up to a picture so full and vivid as to constitute a virtual ground-level tour of an otherwise lost world.”
The Washington Time’s review also commends the book’s great research and fresh perspective:
“You won’t find any lists of the Mayflower passengers, and many familiar names and stories also are missing, but you will be rewarded with a broad English perspective on a very American story…If you’re looking for a modern, standard exposition of the Mayflower story, read the first half of Nathaniel Philbrick’s fine “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” (before it gets mired in King Philip’s War). For a totally new take on our Pilgrim ancestors in England, the Netherlands and New England, Mr. Bunker’s meandering, captivating history is an exceptionally enlightening read.”
Nick Bunker is a former newspaper reporter and investment banker and author of a number of books on American history, including An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America; and Young Benjamin Franklin: The Birth of Ingenuity.
Bunker was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2015, for his book An Empire on Edge, and won the 2015 George Washington Prize.
3. The Mayflower and Her Passengers by Caleb H. Johnson
Published in 2005, this book explores the personal histories of the Mayflower passengers as well as the history of the ship itself.
The book consists of short biographies on each of the Mayflower families and individuals, tracing them from their baptism to their travels to Holland and the New World to their deaths in Plymouth.
The book also includes a brief history of the Mayflower ship using Admiralty Court records and customs records.
Caleb H. Johnson is the author of two history books, The Mayflower and Her Passengers and Here Shall I Die Ashore: Stephen Hopkins, Bermuda Castaway, Jamestown Survivor and Mayflower Pilgrim, and is the creator of the website MayflowerHistory.com.
4. The Mayflower: The Families, the Voyage, and the Founding of America by Rebecca Fraser
Published in 2017, this book is a biography of Mayflower pilgrim Edward Winslow and his family.
The book traces two generations of the Winslow family, beginning in 1595 with Edward Winslow’s birth in Droitwich, England and ending with the final actions of Penelope Pelham Winslow in 1703.
In doing so, the book explores what Edward Winslow’s life was like in England and Holland, why he made the Mayflower voyage and what he and his family did in the New World.
The Economist reviewed the book and described it as “engagingly written and often compelling. There is an eye for memorable detail…The author is a careful researcher, fair and level-headed. She is also an excellent painter of characters; in judging them, she looks at their deeds with contemporary mores in mind…Even if the Mayflower shelf is a crowded one, this is a book that deserves its place on it.”
The Wall Street Journal’s review praised its compelling narrative: “There is nothing sleep-inducing about the chronicle crafted by Ms. Fraser . . . There is more to the Pilgrims’ story―more to American identity and character―than our Thanksgiving rituals and reveries.”
Fraser is a British historian and author of numerous books on British history and historic figures, such as The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present; A People’s History of Britain; Charlotte Bronte: A Writer’s Life; Bronte’s: Charlotte Bronte and her Family. Fraser is also the former President of the Bronte Society.
5. Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford
Published in 1856, this book by Mayflower pilgrim William Bradford is a chronology of the pilgrim’s lives in England, Holland and America.
Bradford wrote the manuscript between the years 1630 and 1651 and recorded everything from the pilgrim’s experiences living in the Netherlands, to their voyage on the Mayflower and their daily life in Plymouth colony.
Bradford never published the manuscript in his lifetime because it was intended to be a public journal that was to be passed down to future generations of puritans to show the sacrifice the pilgrims made for their religion.
The manuscript remained in the Bradford family until 1728 when it was deposited in the New England library, which was located in the steeple of the Old South Meeting House, in Boston, Mass.
The manuscript then went missing sometime in the late 1700s, possibly stolen by looters during the Revolutionary War, and remained missing for over half a century until it was discovered in the Bishop of London’s Library in Fulham, England in 1855.
The manuscript was published the following year and, due to its description of the First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, sparked a sudden interest in the Thanksgiving holiday.
The book is considered the most important narrative of the 17th century and is the first American history book ever written.
6. Good News from New England by Edward Winslow
First published in 1624, this book chronicles the colonist’s second and third year at Plymouth.
The book was written as a promotional material to inform investors and other separatists about the colony’s progress.
One of the main things Winslow aimed to do with the book was convince the colony’s investors that the colonists had friendly relations with the Native-Americans and, therefore, had gained access to trade goods.
He also hoped to explain that some of the colony’s struggles were not due to laziness, incompetence or divine judgement but were a result of harsher weather and fewer food supplies than expected.
Winslow also aimed to reassure the group’s religious leaders back in Holland that the group had retained their Christian and English identities in this new land and that the progress they had made was an indication of god’s approval of their colony.
Yet, Editor Kelley Wisecup states, in the intro to the University of Massachusetts Press edition of the book, that the reason this book is important is because it contradicts these very statements and offers a much more nuanced view of Plymouth colony’s first years than other primary sources:
“Unlike most colonial reports, however, Good News includes Winslow’s acknowledgement of the colonist’s reliance on Natives, for he drew on Native linguistic knowledge and his knowledge of Native peoples to represent New England. Good News offers a window into moments when neither colonists nor natives were fully in control of events and their interpretations, but when multiple parties vied for power and when everyone struggled to understand the significance and meaning of their contacts with unfamiliar peoples.”
Wisecup argues that this nuance is apparent when Winslow sometimes complicates his own narrative of providential signs and future prosperity with tales about how the colonists preemptively attacked the Massachusetts tribe, which undercut claims that the colonists were living in peace with the local natives and raised questions about why the colonists resorted to violence, and with Winslow’s acknowledgements of concerns regarding the Algonquin’s military and political strength and the fear that they might form an alliance and attack the colony.
Furthermore, although Winslow states that the group have not lost their English identities, he then describes adopting Native customs and practices in order to befriend the natives and also uses many Algonquin words in the text and adopts Algonquin linguistic practices, such as adding the suffix “uck” when describing local tribes as “Massacheuseucks” and “Namascheucks.”
In addition, Winslow also includes notes and observations on the native’s gods, even though he had stated in a previous report that the natives had no religion, and provides descriptions of the native’s cultural practices, which he obtained during conversations with them. In these descriptions, Winslow often repeats the phrase “they say” which acknowledges these sources as speakers rather than objects, thus humanizing them.
In including these native people’s perspectives, Winslow not only records English colonial experiences but also the native’s experiences and depicts how the two groups tried to interpret each other’s actions, according to Wisecup:
“As a consequence, Good News provides a fascinating glimpse into the strategies that Natives in New England employed to interpret the newcomer’s intentions, strategies the Wampanoag had been employing for several decades to engage with Europeans before the Plimoth colonists arrived. The book likewise illuminates the ways in which Winslow and other colonists attempted to interpret Natives’ actions.”
It is for these exact reasons that the book is considered a comprehensive, complex and fascinating firsthand account of the colony’s early history.
7. Three Visitors to Early Plymouth by Emmanuel Altham, John Pory, Issack De Rasieres
Published in 1963, this book is about a visitor’s observations of early Plymouth.
The book features a series of letters from an Englishman named Emmanuel Altham, a Dutchman named Isaack de Rasieres and a Virginian named John Pory.
The letters describe what the men saw during their visit to Plymouth, between the years 1622 and 1627, observing everything from the people, the landscape and important events.
The letters include descriptions of the settlement’s fort and clapboard houses, the number of livestock, the structure of the colony’s government, the customs of the local natives, as well as events like Miles Standish’s expedition against the Wessagusset and William Bradford’s wedding feast complete with notes on his notable wedding guests like Wampanoag leader Massassoit.
The letters are so detailed that the current Plimoth Plantation museum was actually built partly from the specs in these letters, which describe everything from the height of the gate posts to the number of goats in the colony.
The book is a considered a valuable outsider’s perspective of Plymouth colony, its colonists and its indigenous neighbors.
Published in 1622, this book was probably written by Edward Winslow, although parts have been attributed to William Bradford, and it chronicles the pilgrim’s first year at Plymouth. It was written as a promotional material to entice other colonists to come to Plymouth.
The book, which is better known by its short title, Mourt’s Relation, was written between November of 1620 and November of 1621 and describes events such as the signing of the Mayflower Compact, the first landing at Cape Cod, the settling of Plymouth, the First Thanksgiving and the arrival of the ship Fortune.
The book is important because it is the earliest firsthand account of the pilgrim’s experiences. It was written a decade before Bradford began writing Of Plymouth Plantation and was published 234 years before it.
9. Plymouth Colony: Its History & People, 1620-1691 by Eugene Aubrey Stratton
Published in 1986, this book is a comprehensive history of Plymouth colony from its very beginning until it was merged with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.
The book includes a chronological and topical history of the colony as well as more than 300 biographical sketches of the colonists. The book also includes maps, photographs and transcripts of important documents.
This book is considered an invaluable resource for historians, genealogists and anyone interested in learning more about Plymouth colony.
“About the Pilgrims – The Bibliography History of Plymouth Colony & the Pilgrims.” Pilgrim Hall Museum, www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/ap_bibliography_history.htm
Judson, Allen B., and Sydney V. James. “The New England Quarterly.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 2, 1964, pp. 279–281. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/364026.
“Good News from New England.” University of Massachusetts Press, www.umass.edu/umpress/title/good-news-new-england-edward-winslow
“Mourt’s Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, 1622, Part I.” The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/mourt1.html
Anderson, Douglas. “William Bradford’s Books.” John Hopkins University Press, jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/content/william-bradfords-books
“William Bradford (1590-1657).” Georgetown University, faculty.georgetown.edu/bassr/heath/syllabuild/iguide/bradford.html
Gaisford, Susan. “The Mayflower Generation by Rebecca Fraser.” Financial Times, 20 Oct. 2017, www.ft.com/content/0411921a-aaa5-11e7-ab66-21cc87a2edde
“The Mayflower Generation and the Burden it Bears.” The Economist, 23 Nov. 22017, www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2017/11/23/the-mayflower-generation-and-the-burden-it-bears
Taylor, Priscilla S. “Book Review: ‘Making Haste from Babylon.” Washington Times, 2 July. 2010, www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jul/2/review-making-haste-from-babylon/
Demos, John. “Book Review of Making Haste From Babylon by Nick Babylon.” Washington Post, 9 May. 2009, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/07/AR2010050702352.html?noredirect=on
Shorto, Russell. “Book Review: Making Haste from Babylon by Nick Bunker.” Sunday Book Review, New York Times, 21 May. 2010, www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/books/review/Shorto-t.html
“Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.” Publishers Weekly, www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-670-03760-5
Parini, Jay. “Reviews: Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.” The Guardian, 22 July. 2006, www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jul/22/featuresreviews.guardianreview7
Shorto, Russell. “Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick.” New York Times Book Review, New York Times, 4 June. 2006, www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/books/review/04shorto.html
“Primary Sources.” Caleb Johnson’s Mayflower History, mayflowerhistory.com/primary-sources-and-books/
“Differing Views of Pilgrims and Native Americans in Seventeenth-Century New England.” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, www.gilderlehrman.org/content/differing-views-pilgrims-and-native-americans-seventeenth-century-new-england
“Best Selling Pilgrims New Plymouth Colony Books.” Alibris, www.alibris.com/search/books/subject/Pilgrims-New-Plymouth-Colony
Whittemore, Katherine. “Seven Books About Pilgrims, Revisited.” Boston Globe, 22 Nov. 2014, www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2014/11/22/seven-books-pilgrims/YfWUq0g4dAvG3GgogY77jJ/story.html