by Dorothy Honiss Kelso
William Bradford was born in 1590 in the Yorkshire farming community of Austerfield, England. In his early childhood, both parents died. The boy was shuttled among several relatives, never staying long anywhere.
He was about 12 when he happened into the neighboring town of Scrooby. A church service was in progress which astonished him by its fellowship and its lack of ritual. Time and again he returned, drawn to the congregation’s fervor for reform. By the age of 17 Bradford was a fully committed member, sharing the radical idea of separating from the official Church of England - a dangerous decision, for Separatist leaders were hunted and imprisoned. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. When the congregation learned that the king, James I, intended to "harry them from the land," they fled to the Netherlands.
Here, for 12 years, first in Amsterdam and then in Leiden, Bradford and the rest of the exiles lived and worshipped according to their beliefs. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. Life in the old university town of Leiden was difficult. Many of the refugees, including Bradford, eked out a bare living as textile workers. The church, now led by the charismatic John Robinson, faced other problems. The Netherlands teetered on the brink of war with Catholic Spain and the Dutch government, pressured by their English ally King James, harassed the refugees. Presses printing Separatist tracts were smashed and some of the English had rocks thrown at them.
With Pastor Robinson’s encouragement, the congregation decided to make a new home overseas. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. The decision was made to locate north of the Virginia Colony "some place about Hudson’s river." There they could be loyal subjects of King James, live by English law and with English customs, but be far enough from interference in their way of worship.
Bradford, now 30 years old and married with a young son, was in the thick of the planning. Government permissions, financing, ship hire and provisioning, and a potentially dangerous first stop in England had to be worked out. There were heartaches as well – not everybody could go. The majority of the congregation remained in Holland and with them remained their dearly-loved Pastor Robinson. And William and Dorothy Bradford’s four-year-old son would also be left behind. Yet, as Bradford wrote, "they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits."
William Bradford was now shouldering many administrative responsibilities: record-keeping, correspondence with financial backers and negotiation for a patent to give legal permission for a settlement, and a swarm of details connected with what he called "the weighty voyage." With an instinct for the beckoning future, he carefully preserved many notes and documents. From these he later crafted his journal, known today as Of Plymouth Plantation.
Clearly, lack of money was the most persistent problem. Eventually, the "Saints," as they now called themselves, were forced to join forces with "Strangers" – people unconnected with the church but willing to pay passage to the new land of opportunity. This alliance was uneasy, particularly when one of the two ships seemed unequal to the rough autumnal Atlantic. This meant that 102 passengers (including 35 children, along with young teens and several pregnant women) were crammed below decks on the Mayflower, a ship that was about 90 feet long and 26 feet broad amidships.
With the first of the bad weather some of the "Strangers" and crewmen began a buzz of "discontented and mutinous speeches." Through " many fierce storms," the Mayflower struggled westward. Nearly all the passengers were wretchedly seasick. One, John Howland, fell overboard but miraculously survived "though he was somewhat ill with it, yet he lived many years after," wrote Bradford.
The Mayflower’s upper decks leaked. She cracked a main beam. More and more mariners wanted to turn back. But Bradford notes that "being near half seas over," the Ship’s Master, Christopher Jones, advised continuing – particularly when the cracked beam was secured by a giant screw providentially brought by the Pilgrims for their building.
Yet even as they neared landfall certain of the "Strangers" threatened "when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them."
The Pilgrim leaders recognized the truth of this. They now knew they were not arriving at the legally designated destination of North Virginia but in New England – and winter was upon them. After 65 days at sea the exhausted company could go no further. Here must they stay – and stay together if they were to survive.
A meeting was called, attended by nearly all the adult male passengers. Both "Saints" and "Strangers" recognized that preservation was their paramount necessity. This was spelled out in a covenant outlining their decision for unity. This document binding them into a "civil body politic" is known as the Mayflower Compact. Click here for the text of the Mayflower Compact.
The original Compact has not survived. The reliable, careful Bradford, however, made a true copy. Terse and specific, this agreement had ramifications far beyond the Pilgrims’ immediate necessity. It provided the basics for self-government based on the general good, tenets which would reappear many times in the future.
In November 1620, the storm-batteredMayflower finally dropped anchor off Cape Cod. The passengers, exhausted, dirty and frightened, still numbered 102. One of the "saints," young William Button, was dead – but a baby had been born mid-ocean. Another baby arrived shortly after the ship’s arrival, Bradford noting that little Peregrine White was "the first of the English born in these parts."
Curiously, Bradford does not mention the tragic loss of his own wife, Dorothy, who fell from the Mayflower’s deck and drowned. But his pent-up emotions are clearly revealed in this moving passage from his journal. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal.
Almost immediately there was a frightening encounter with the Native People which convinced the Pilgrims they must find a better location as soon as possible. A handful of men, mariners and passengers, set forth in a small shallop. As they sailed north along the coast they came upon an ice storm which broke their mast. Rowing for their lives they washed ashore on a small island. By morning the weather had cleared and they saw a harbor "fitt for shipping." Behind it was cleared land – a deserted Indian settlement with "divers cornfeilds, & litle runing brooks, a place (as they supposed) fitt for situation; at least it was ye best they could find, and ye season, & their presente necessitie, made them glad to accepte of it." Click here for a passage from Bradford's journal.
And so the Mayflower reached Plymouth Harbor, their final destination. Several days later, Pilgrim men went ashore "to erect ye first house for comone use to receive them and their goods." But now began their worst ordeal, the "Starving Time." Nearly all became ill, including Bradford himself. Within five months half the company were dead including John Carver, whom they had elected their first governor, and all but four of the adult women. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. The man chosen to succeed Carver as Governor was William Bradford. Except for five brief year-long respites, he would remain governor almost until his death in 1657, a total of 36 years of public service.
In April 1621, the Mayflower sailed away back to England. Not one of the survivors, "Saints" or "Strangers," chose to leave with the ship. To Bradford this must have been the colony’s strongest expression of their bond. This, plus the aid of the Wampanoags under the leadership of Massasoit, signaled new hope. They had "recovered their health" and gladly planted native corn more suitable to the climate than their English seed. By autumn they had "fitted their houses against winter" and had "all things in good plenty." So the Governor called for a celebration of their harvest, a Thanksgiving shared with their Wampanoag friends. Click here for passages from two 17th century sources.
In 1621, another ship, the Fortune, arrived in Plymouth. The passengers were a mixed lot and Bradford found it necessary to provide firm leadership. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. By 1623 yet more ships, the Anne and Little James, found their way to Plymouth Harbor. They brought with them, in Bradford’s words, some "very useful persons … some were the wives and children of such as were here already. And some were so bad, as they were fain to be at charge to send them home again next year…" Among the new arrivals was Alice Carpenter Southworth, a young widow with two small sons. She shortly became William Bradford’s wife. Emmanual Altham, a ship captain who attended the wedding, wrote:
And now to say somewhat of the great cheer we had at the Governor’s marriage. We had about 12 pasty venison, besides others, pieces of roasted venison and other such good cheer in such quantity that I could wish you some of our share. For here we have the best grapes that ever you [saw] and the biggest, and divers sorts of plums and nuts
Bradford’s second marriage appears to have been happy. His last will & testament describes Alice as "my dear and loving wife." She provided a home in Plymouth for Bradford’s son who had been left behind in Leiden, and she and William had three children of their own, two sons and a daughter.
Meanwhile, the colony was growing, and so were the responsibilities of the Governor and his Court of Assistants. Click here for a passage from Bradford's journal. As Governor, Bradford and his assistants were financial managers for the colony. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. The Governor and Assistants were also judges in disputes and negotiators with the Dutch in New York and the new Massachusetts Bay Colony. They had to watchdog the ultimately unsuccessful trading posts in Maine and Connecticut and also to maintain friendly relations with the Native People.
What clearly distressed Bradford most was the breakup of the original colony. Click here for a passage from Bradford’s journal. As the settlers moved out for more land, the church was divided and the old "comfortable fellowship" ended. Click here for a passage from Bradford's journal.
In 1650, Bradford finished piecing together his journal, bringing the record up to 1646. He notes sorrowfully the death of Elder William Brewster and the departure of Edward Winslow for England. Nevertheless Bradford struggled on until 1656, leaving office just few short months before his death in 1657.
William Bradford's life and influence have been chronicled by many. As the author of a manuscript journal and the long-term governor of Plymouth Colony, his documented activities are vast in scope. Click here for information about Bradford's journal. His remarkable ability to manage men and affairs was a large factor in the success of the Plymouth Colony. The Pilgrims "desperate adventure" was marked by Bradford’s stamina, versatility and vision.
Chronology of William Bradford’s Life
William Bradford is born and then baptized on March 19 in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England.
William Bradford becomes a regular attender at Puritan and Separatist meetings, coming under the influence of William Brewster and John Robinson of the Scrooby Separatist Congregation.
The Scrooby Separatists begin to leave England and settle in Holland.
William Bradford joins the Scrooby Separatists in Amsterdam.
William Bradford marries Dorothy May.
The Mayflower Pilgrims voyage to Plymouth. Dorothy May dies.
The first governor of Plymouth, John Carver, dies. William Bradford is elected governor, holding the position (except for 5 years) for the remainder of his life.
Mourt's Relation, based on writings by William Bradford and Edward Winslow among others, is published in London.
William Bradford marries the widow Alice Carpenter Southworth.
William Bradford begins the writings that eventually become Of Plymouth Plantation.
William Bradford stops writing Of Plymouth Plantation, ending with the year 1646 and adding a current list of the Mayflower passengers and their status in the year 1650.
William Bradford dies.
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