| William Bradford
by Dorothy Honiss Kelso
September 18 , 2000
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
congregations 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.
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.
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 Robinsons encouragement, the congregation decided to make a
new home overseas. . The decision was made to locate north of the Virginia Colony "some place about Hudsons 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 Bradfords
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
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
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
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 Mayflowers 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 Ships 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.
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-battered Mayflower 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 ships
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 Mayflowers deck and drowned. But his pent-up
emotions are clearly revealed in this moving passage from his 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."
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. 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 colonys 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.
In 1621, another ship, the Fortune, arrived in Plymouth. The passengers
were a mixed lot and Bradford found it necessary to provide firm
leadership. By 1623 yet more ships, the Anne and Little James, found their way to Plymouth Harbor. They brought with them, in Bradfords 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 Bradfords
wife. Emmanual Altham, a ship captain who attended the wedding, wrote :
And now to say somewhat of the great cheer we had at the Governors
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
Bradfords 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 Bradfords son who had been left behind in Leiden,
and she and William had three children of their own, two sons and a
Meanwhile, the colony was growing, and so were the responsibilities of the
Governor and his Court of Assistants. As Governor, Bradford and his assistants were financial managers for the colony. 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 Bradfords journal. As the
settlers moved out for more land, the church was divided and the old
"comfortable fellowship" ended.
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. 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 Bradfords stamina,
versatility and vision.
Chronology of William Bradfords Life
1590 William Bradford is born and then baptized on March 19 in Austerfield,
1602 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.
1608 The Scrooby Separatists begin to leave England and settle in Holland.
1609 William Bradford joins the Scrooby Separatists in Amsterdam.
1613 William Bradford marries Dorothy May.
1620 The Mayflower Pilgrims voyage to Plymouth. Dorothy May dies.
1621 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.
1622 Mourt's Relation, based on writings by William Bradford and Edward
Winslow among others, is published in London.
1623 William Bradford marries the widow Alice Carpenter Southworth.
1630 William Bradford begins the writings that eventually become Of
1650 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.
1657 William Bradford dies.