The best books to understand the true founding of America

Who am I?

During my childhood in Canada, I was fascinated by the “Wild West” and the fact that my maternal grandmother, who lived with us, was born in Wisconsin in 1876, when Jesse James was still robbing trains. I became an international multimedia producer, and I always took an entertainment-based approach to my work, grounded in research. After I retired, I began to search for my roots, uncovering interesting stories of my ancestors. Besides accessing websites and books, I traveled to where they lived to gain insights, meet historians, and distant cousins. I also engaged expert genealogists to prove my lineage back to the Mayflower and Puritan settlers of New England. That allowed me to join the Mayflower Society.

I wrote...

Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American search through four centuries of history, to the Mayflower

By Neill McKee,

Book cover of Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American search through four centuries of history, to the Mayflower

What is my book about?

Through vivid descriptions, dialog, poetic prose, analytical opinion, photos, and illustrations, McKee takes readers on an on-the-road adventure. He discovers stories of his Scots-Irish ancestors in Canada and then turns south, following the trail of his maternal grandfather, a Methodist preacher who married a woman in Wisconsin and ventured through the Wild West. McKee slowly uncovers his American grandmother’s lineage—ancestors who were involved in almost every major war on North American soil.

The trail finally leads him to Connecticut where he discovers ancestors who descend from a Pilgrim who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, as well as other Puritan forebearers—heroes, villains, rascals, and ordinary godly folk. In his search, he exposes myths and uncovers facts about the true founding of America. It is estimated that about 35 million of us descend from the original Plymouth Pilgrims and many more of us have Puritan blood in our veins.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Book cover of Mayflower: Voyage, Community, War

Why did I love this book?

Philbrick’s book provides a great overview of America’s New England beginning. The Pilgrims were a small group of 37 English religious separatists who had escaped to Holland after experiencing oppression by the Church of England. They had to mix with 65 other people they called “strangers,” who boarded the Mayflower at Plymouth, England on September 5, 1620—too late in the season to prepare for North American winters. After landing, about half of them, including my ancestor, Edward Fuller, died of disease, malnutrition, and exposure (his son, Dr. Mathew Fuller, came 20 years later, carrying on my genetic link). Philbrick documents how the original Mayflower Compact signed by these disparate people before landing, was eventually overtaken by growing religious fanaticism, war with Native Americans, and conflict with other settlements.

By Nathaniel Philbrick,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Mayflower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Nathaniel Philbrick, bestselling author of 'In the Heart of the Sea', reveals the darker side of the Pilgrim fathers' settlement in the New World, which ultimately erupted in bloody battle some fifty years after they first landed on American soil.

Behind the quaint and pious version of the Mayflower story usually taught in American primary schools is a tumultuous and largely untold tale of violence, subterfuge and epic drama.

For amidst the friendships and co-operation that sprang up between the settlers and indigenous people, whose timely assistance on more than one occasion rescued the Pilgrims from otherwise certain death, a…

Book cover of The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony

Why did I love this book?

I love this book because it exposes many myths. To reveal just a few, the Pilgrims were called “Old Comers” or “Old Planters” until the label “Pilgrims” was invented 200 years later. They never landed on a rock wearing those black and white “uniforms” we see in old paintings. The beach was likely sandy and they waded to shore wearing colorful English garb. The first Thanksgiving in late 1621 can be largely credited to about 90 Pokanoket natives, with whom they had made peace. The Indians marched into the settlers’ camp, bringing fresh venison, fish, Indian corn, and more. Much to the dismay of some strict Pilgrims, the celebration took the form of a traditional three-day English harvest festival: drunken dancing, singing, and games—including some new ones the Pokanokets taught them.

By James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Times of Their Lives as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This title sets out to debunk the longstanding ideas about the life of the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth Colony. The authors describe the arrival of the English settlers, the early years of the settlement, and the myths which have developed since.

Book cover of God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England

Why did I love this book?

Reverend Roger Williams learned the local Algonquin language and wrote a book about it to teach Puritan settlers to respect the natives and their culture. The authorities threatened to ship him back to England, but he escaped south to the land of the Narragansetts, where he set up the colony that became Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. There he allowed religious freedom—even the despised Quakers and Catholics. He attempted a complete separation of church and state and preached on respecting native land rights. He sided with the Narragansetts when King Philip’s War broke out in 1675, a long and bloody battle throughout New England, in which two of my ancestors were killed by Indians, while two others enriched themselves. Roger William’s dream was of an America that could have been.

By James A. Warren,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked God, War, and Providence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The tragic and fascinating history of the first epic struggle between white settlers and Native Americans in the early seventeenth century: "a riveting historical validation of emancipatory impulses frustrated in their own time" (Booklist, starred review) as determined Narragansett Indians refused to back down and accept English authority.

A devout Puritan minister in seventeenth-century New England, Roger Williams was also a social critic, diplomat, theologian, and politician who fervently believed in tolerance. Yet his orthodox brethren were convinced tolerance fostered anarchy and courted God's wrath. Banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635, Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and…

Book cover of Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery

Why did I love this book?

This title caught my attention because we usually associate slavery with the American south. But the Puritans brought many indentured laborers from England to help build their settlements and operate their farms and businesses. When these white men worked their way to freedom, the settlers turned to indenturing Native Americans, and enslaving captives of warfare, selling some of them for goods and African slaves from the Caribbean. (I found a reference in this book that my ancestor, Dr. Mathew Fuller, participated in this trade during King Philip’s War.) Newell’s book, full of primary sources, gives excellent background on, and understanding of, the founding of New England’s culture, economy, and legal framework. Those alien ideas didn’t go so well for the original inhabitants as white settlers pushed westward. 

By Margaret Ellen Newell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Brethren by Nature as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Brethren by Nature, Margaret Ellen Newell reveals a little-known aspect of American history: English colonists in New England enslaved thousands of Indians. Massachusetts became the first English colony to legalize slavery in 1641, and the colonists' desire for slaves shaped the major New England Indian wars, including the Pequot War of 1637, King Philip's War of 1675-76, and the northeastern Wabanaki conflicts of 1676-1749. When the wartime conquest of Indians ceased, New Englanders turned to the courts to get control of their labor, or imported Indians from Florida and the Carolinas, or simply claimed free Indians as slaves.


Book cover of A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials

Why did I love this book?

I read this book because Salem was founded by another ancestor of mine, Roger Conant. He first settled in Plymouth but could not abide the Pilgrims’ fanatical creed. He was a Puritan but not a religious separatist. Most Puritans had dreams of reforming the Church of England, starting in America. Fortunately, Conant died before the Salem Witch Trials began, for he would have been shocked at these developments. (Unfortunately for him, the town stuck his statue in front of the Witch Museum.) Frances Hill’s book is a blow-by-blow account of how the hysteria of some adolescent girls captured the minds of Massachusetts’ residents, including educated people, causing the death of 20 innocent people. It is also a study of Puritan culture, as it went more and more “off the rails.”

By Frances Hill,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Delusion of Satan as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This acclaimed history illuminates the horrifying episode of Salem with visceral clarity, from those who fanned the crisis to satisfy personal vendettas to the four-year-old "witch" chained to a dank prison wall in darkness till she went mad. Antonia Fraser called it "a grisly read and an engrossing one."

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Colonial America, war, and witch trials?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Colonial America, war, and witch trials.

Colonial America Explore 49 books about Colonial America
War Explore 1,746 books about war
Witch Trials Explore 15 books about witch trials