The best books on the Mayflower Pilgrims and their beliefs, practices, and habits

John G. Turner Author Of They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty
By John G. Turner

Who am I?

I write about the often contentious role of religion in U.S. history, from modern evangelicals to nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints to the Pilgrims of the Mayflower. In many history books these religious men and women function either as saints or sinners. Instead of resorting to caricatures, it’s worth taking the time to get to know people of the past in all the marvelous strangeness of their beliefs, practices, and habits. I am a professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.


I wrote...

They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty

By John G. Turner,

Book cover of They Knew They Were Pilgrims: Plymouth Colony and the Contest for American Liberty

What is my book about?

In 1620, separatists from the Church of England set sail across the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower. Understanding themselves as spiritual pilgrims, they left to preserve their liberty to worship God in accordance with their understanding of the Bible.

There exists, however, an alternative, more dispiriting version of their story. In it, the Pilgrims are religious zealots who persecuted dissenters and decimated Native peoples through warfare and by stealing their land. The Pilgrims' definition of liberty was, in practice, very narrow. Drawing on original research using underutilized sources, John G. Turner moves beyond these familiar narratives in his sweeping and authoritative new history of Plymouth Colony. Instead of depicting the Pilgrims as otherworldly saints or extraordinary sinners, he tells how a variety of English settlers and Native peoples engaged in a contest for the meaning of American liberty.

The books I picked & why

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Of Plimoth Plantation

By Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs, Kenneth P. Minkema, Francis J. Bremer

Book cover of Of Plimoth Plantation

Why this book?

If you want to learn about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony, the most essential source is Mayflower passenger and longtime governor William Bradford’s own history. Bradford explains the circumstances that led a portion of his congregation to transplant themselves to the New World, then goes year by year through the colony’s first three decades. His annals aren’t dry, though. Bradford also has a wicked sense of humor. If would-be colonists weren’t tough enough for what awaited them in New England, they should remain across the Atlantic “till at least they be mosquito proof.” You shouldn’t only read Bradford. He’s a partisan in this contentious history, after all. But you shouldn’t pass on one of the great works of seventeenth-century American non-fiction.


The Mayflower and Her Passengers

By Caleb H. Johnson,

Book cover of The Mayflower and Her Passengers

Why this book?

If you want to know the individual stories of the men, women, and children who traveled on the Mayflower, you won’t find a better short guide than Caleb Johnson. This book is concise and meticulously researched at the same time. Caleb Johnson is a indefatigable researcher whose efforts have brought forth new information about several Pilgrims. In The Mayflower and Her Pilgrims you can read about pious separatists, bastard children, and feisty servants, all in one well-organized and easy-to-digest book.


This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

By David Silverman,

Book cover of This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving

Why this book?

Histories of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony invariably focus on the English, because they wrote nearly all of the seventeenth-century records. Most historians today write with much more sensitivity about the Wampanoags and other Native peoples, but they rarely take center stage. David Silverman’s book is an essential corrective, not only to hagiographic accounts of the Pilgrims, but also to standard histories of New England that make little space for Native peoples after the time of initial colonization and conflict. Silverman, by contrast, chronicles a people that persisted and contended for their land and culture.


One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England

By Francis J. Bremer,

Book cover of One Small Candle: The Plymouth Puritans and the Beginning of English New England

Why this book?

Most people knows that the Pilgrims were religious, but most Americans today know very little about the beliefs and practices that animated the separatists who chose to leave England and the Dutch Republic and cross the ocean. Francis Bremer is the best possible guide to this essential part of the Pilgrim story. Bremer knows puritanism better than anyone, and he knows how to fit the Pilgrims into that larger framework. In One Small Candle (the title comes from William Bradford’s history), Bremer explains how the lay leadership of men and women was central to separatism and to the religious organization of the colony.


Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the foundations of Plymouth Plantation

By Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs,

Book cover of Strangers and Pilgrims, Travellers and Sojourners: Leiden and the foundations of Plymouth Plantation

Why this book?

Bangs is the dean of Pilgrim history. Strangers and Pilgrims is a hard-to-find book these days, but if you want to go far deeper than most portraits of the Pilgrims do, it’s worth the search. Bangs focuses on the experience of the separatist Pilgrims in the Dutch city of Leiden (many of the Pilgrims went there around 1608, before traveling on the Mayflower in 1620) and shows how those years in the Dutch Republic shaped what followed. This is a richly illustrated, carefully researched, and cogent analysis of English separatists who made new lives for themselves in a strange land not just once, but twice.


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