Nathaniel Philbrick was born on June 11, 1956, in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Marianne (Dennis) and Thomas Philbrick, an English professor. He currently lives in Nantucket, Massachusetts.
Philbrick is married to Melissa Douthart Philbrick, who is Executive Director of Remain Nantucket. They have two children, Jennie and Ethan. He moved to Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1986, and is a leading authority on the history of the island.
Philbrick graduated from Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, earned his bachelor's degree in English at Brown University, and his master's degree in American literature at Duke University.
Philbrick was Brown's first Intercollegiate All-American sailor in 1978; that year he won the Sunfish North Americans in Barrington, Rhode Island.
After grad school, Philbrick worked for four years at Sailing World magazine; was a freelancer for a number of years, during which time he wrote/edited several sailing books, including Yaahting: A Parody (1984), for which he was the editor-in-chief; during this time he was also the primary caregiver for his two children. After moving to Nantucket in 1986, he became interested in the history of the island and wrote Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People. He was offered the opportunity to start the Egan Maritime Institute in 1995.
In 2000, he published In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. This was followed by Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, in 2003. In 2006, Philbrick published a new history of the founding of the Plymouth colony in the United States, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn was published in May 2010. His book, Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution about Boston during the early years of the Revolution was published on April 30, 2013.
In the Heart of the Sea won the National Book Award for Nonfiction; Revenge of the Whale won a Boston Globe Horn Book Award; Sea of Glory won the Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt Naval History Prize and the Albion-Monroe Award from the National Maritime Historical Society. Mayflower was a finalist for both the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for History and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and it won the Massachusetts Book Award for nonfiction. The Last Stand was named a New York Times Notable book, a 2010 Montana Book Award Honor Book, and a 2011 ALA Notable Book. Why Read Moby-Dick? was a finalist for the New England Society Book Award and was named to the 2012 Listen List for Outstanding Audiobook Narration from the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the ALA. Bunker Hill was awarded both the 2013 New England Book Award for Non-Fiction and the 2014 New England Society Book Award as well as the 2014 Distinguished Book Award of the Society of Colonial Wars.
Philbrick has also received the Byrne Waterman Award from the Kendall Whaling Museum, the Samuel Eliot Morison Award for distinguished service from the USS Constitution Museum, the Nathaniel Bowditch Award from the American Merchant Marine Museum, the William Bradford Award from the Pilgrims Society, the Boston History Award from the Bostonian Society, and the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association.
In the Heart of the Sea is the basis of the Warner Bros. motion picture of the same name, directed by Ron Howard and starring Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Ben Wishaw, and Tom Holland, released in December 2015. The book also inspired a 2001 Dateline special on NBC as well as the 2010 two-hour PBS American Experience film "Into the Deep" by Ric Burns.
The Last Stand is currently being adapted for a ten-hour, multi-part television series.
Bunker Hill has been optioned by Warner Bros. for feature film adaptation with Ben Affleck attached to direct. In 2016, screenwriter Aaron Stockard (The Town, Gone Baby Gone) was signed to the project.