As a longtime member of a Puritan group that separated from the Church of England in 1606, William Bradford lived in the Netherlands for more than a decade before sailing to North America aboard the Mayflower in 1620. He served as governor of Plymouth Colony for more than 30 years, chronicling his experiences in a journal that became the authoritative account of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Colony.

Bradford's Early Life and Religious Beliefs

Bradford was born in 1590 in Austerfield, a farming community in Yorkshire, England. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by relatives. A long illness left him too weak to do much farm work, and instead he focused on reading the Bible and other religious texts. As a teenager, Bradford was drawn to a growing Puritan sect known as the Separatists, and a congregation led by William Brewster and John Robinson in the nearby village of Scrooby. The Separatists sought to recreate what they saw as the simpler, more pious life of the earliest Christians by freeing themselves from the rituals and hierarchies of the Church of England. 

Under threat of prosecution from King James I, the group fled to the Netherlands in 1608, living in Amsterdam briefly before settling in the smaller city of Leiden in 1609. Bradford and his fellow exiles lived there for more than a decade under the leadership of Brewster and Robinson. Bradford owned a workshop in the cloth trade, and in 1613 married Dorothy May, the daughter of a prosperous English family living in Amsterdam.

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Journey to the New World

By 1619, many of the Scrooby exiles had embraced the idea of emigrating to America, where they could form their own colony and raise their children according to English customs, rather than Dutch. After sending emissaries back to England, the group received permission to form a settlement in the northern parts of the Virginia Colony, which at the time extended all the way to the Hudson River.

In July 1620, William and Dorothy Bradford left their three-year-old son behind with her parents and sailed for England aboard the Speedwell. In need of money, Bradford’s Separatist group (who called themselves “Saints”) had been forced to join with so-called “Strangers,” people outside the church who were seeking economic opportunities in the New World. Eventually, the group numbered 102 people, including 35 children.

In England, the group was forced to leave behind the Speedwell, which had developed leaks, and cram aboard the Mayflower, the other commercial vessel chartered for the voyage. The Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620 and took 66 days to cross the Atlantic before sighting land on November 9. 

READ MORE: The Miserable Journey Aboard the Mayflower

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Despite attempts to sail further south to their planned destination in Virginia Colony, strong weather drove them back to what is now Provincetown Harbor, off Cape Cod. Shortly before the ship dropped anchor, Bradford became one of 41 of the ship’s male passengers to sign the Mayflower Compact, the first governing document of their new colony.

Forming of Plymouth Colony

Early that December, Bradford joined an expedition to explore the region and find the best place to settle. The group chose a spot on the southern shore of Massachusetts that had been home to a now-deserted Native American village called Patuxet. When Bradford returned to the Mayflower, he learned that his wife had fallen from the ship’s deck and drowned in the frigid waters.

The Mayflower sailed south from Provincetown and arrived at their settlement site in Plymouth Bay on December 20. They began building the colony’s first houses, but many of them were soon struck by an illness that had begun spreading aboard the ship. Half of the company died that first harsh winter, including John Carver, the colony’s first governor. Bradford, who fell ill but survived, was elected to succeed Carver in April 1621. He was reelected more than 30 times, and except for a five-year interval would serve as governor of Plymouth Colony until his death more than 35 years later.

Bradford’s Leadership and Writing of Pilgrim History

Under Bradford’s leadership, the colony survived its early years, thanks to largely friendly relations with the local Wampanoag people, led by Massasoit. More settlers arrived in the 1620s, and in 1623 Bradford married Alice Southworth, a newly arrived young widow with two sons who had been a member of the Separatist congregation in Leiden. Bradford’s son John eventually joined his father in Plymouth, and Bradford and Alice would have three more children together.

In 1630, Bradford began writing the account of the Mayflower voyage and the colony’s early years that would later become Of Plymouth Plantation. As more and more settlers arrived in Plymouth, fewer of them were members of the Separatist faith, and by the early 1630s Bradford noted that the original colony was beginning to disperse as settlers moved further afield. He remained governor of the colony until 1656, working to manage relations with Native Americans as well as with Dutch settlers in New York and fellow Puritans in the much larger and more prosperous Massachusetts Bay Colony. After a long illness, Bradford died in May 1657 at the age of 68.

Bradford had stopped writing his journals in 1650; he brought the record of Plymouth Colony up to 1646, including a list of Mayflower passengers and their status at the time. His family preserved the manuscript of his history of Plymouth Colony, and later Puritan historians borrowed and copied it. Stolen by the British during the Revolutionary War, the document was rediscovered by American historians in London in 1855, transcribed and finally published for the first time in 1856. It remains the authoritative account of the Pilgrims’ voyage and the founding and early years of Plymouth Colony.

Sources

Bernard Bailyn. The Barbarous Years - The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012)

Dorothy Honiss Kelso. Beyond the Pilgrim Story: William Bradford. Pilgrim Hall Museum.

Martyn Whittock. Mayflower Lives (Pegasus Books, 2019) 

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