Biography of William Bradford

Name: William Bradford
Bith Date: 1590
Death Date: 1657
Place of Birth: Austerfield, Yorkshire, England
Nationality: American
Gender: Male
Occupations: pilgrim
William Bradford

William Bradford (1590-1657), one of the Pilgrim Fathers, was the leader of the Plymouth Colony in America. His extraordinary history, "Of Plymouth Plantation," was not published until 1856.

On March 19, 1590, William Bradford was baptized at Austerfield, Yorkshire, England. His father, a yeoman farmer, died when William was only a year old. The boy was trained by relatives to be a farmer. He was still young when he joined a group of Separatists (Protestant radicals who separated from the established Church of England) in nearby Scrooby. For most of the rest of his life, the best source is his Of Plymouth Plantation.

Becoming a Pilgrim

In 1607 Bradford and about 120 others were attacked as nonconformists to the Church of England. They withdrew to Holland, under the religious leadership of John Robinson and William Brewster, living for a year at Amsterdam and then in Leiden, where they stayed nearly 12 years. They were very poor; Bradford worked in the textile industry. In these hard years he seems to have managed to get something of an education because he lived with the Brewsters near a university. Bradford was attracted to the ideal of a close-knit community such as the Scrooby group had established. At the age of 23 he married 16-year-old Dorothy May, who belonged to a group of Separatists that had come earlier from England.

The threat of religious wars, the difficulty of earning a decent living, the loss from the community of children who assimilated Dutch ways, the zeal for missionary activity--these forces led the Scrooby group to consider becoming "Pilgrims" by leaving Holland for America. After many delays they chose New England as their goal, and with financial support from London merchants and from Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who claimed rights to the American area they sought, the Pilgrims readied to leave for America.

Signing the Mayflower Compact

But the terms arranged for the colonists by their deacon were treacherous; the backers and the settlers were to share ownership in the land the colonists improved and the dwellings they constructed. Many of the Pilgrims' coreligionists backed out of the enterprise, and a group of "strangers" was recruited to replace them. When one of their two ships, the Speedwell, proved unseaworthy, the expedition was delayed further. Finally, in September 1620 the Mayflower departed alone, its 102 passengers almost equally divided between "saints" and "strangers." The men on board signed a compact that established government by consent of the governed, the "Mayflower Compact." John Carver (with Brewster, the oldest of the saints) was elected governor.

On landing at Cape Cod in November, a group led by Myles Standish went ashore to explore; they chose Plymouth harbor for their settlement. Meanwhile Dorothy Bradford had drowned. (In 1623 Bradford married a widow from Leiden, with whom he had three children.)

The settlers soon began to construct dwellings. The winter was harsh; one of many who died of the illness that swept the colony was Governor Carver. Bradford became governor, and under him the colonists learned to survive. Squanto, a Native American who had lived in England, taught the settlers to grow corn; and they came to know Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag tribe. A vivid report on these early adventures written by Bradford and Edward Winslow was sent to England and published as Mourt's Relation (1622); with it went clapboard and other materials gathered by the settlers to begin paying off their debts. (Unfortunately the cargo was pirated by a French privateer--a typical piece of Pilgrim bad luck.)

Bradford was responsible for the financial burdens as well as the governing of the colony until his death, though for some five years he did not officially serve as governor. These years saw the debt continue to grow (with great effort it was paid off in 1648).

Developing Plymouth Colony

The population of the colony gradually increased, and by 1623 there were 32 houses and 180 residents. Yet during Bradford's lifetime the colony, which began for religious reasons mainly, never had a satisfactory minister. John Robinson, a great pastor in Holland who had been expected to guide the saints, never reached America. One clergyman who did come, John Lyford, was an especially sharp thorn in Bradford's side. Eventually he was exiled, with the result that the London backers regarded the colonists as contentious and incapable of self-rule.

Gradually as Plymouth Colony came to encompass a number of separate settlements, Bradford's particular idea of community was lost. After 1630 the colony was overshadowed by its neighbor, the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But in fact Plymouth never amounted to much as a political power. By 1644 the entire colony's population was still a mere 300. Plymouth did make other northern colonizing efforts attractive; it supplied important material aid to the Bay Colony, and it may have helped establish its Congregational church polity as the "New England way." Bradford was admired by Governor John Winthrop of Boston, with whom he frequently met to discuss common problems.

Bradford the Man

Bradford's private life was distinguished by self-culture. He taught himself Greek and came to know classical poetry and philosophy as well as contemporary religious writers. He worked on his great history, Of Plymouth Plantation, from 1630 until 1646, adding little afterward. Most of the events were described in retrospect. He wrote as a believer in God's providence, but the book usually has an objective tone. Though far from being an egotist, Bradford emerges as the attractive hero of his story. The last pages reflect his recognition that the colony was not a success, and the book has been called a tragic history. Though he stopped writing his history altogether in 1650, he remained vigorous and active until his death in 1657.

Further Reading

  • A convenient modern edition of Bradford's history was prepared by Samuel Eliot Morison, ed., Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 (1952). Another edition was published in 1962, edited and with an introduction by Harvey Wish. The best biography is Bradford Smith, Bradford of Plymouth (1951). G. F. Willison, Saints and Strangers (1945), an account of the Pilgrims, contains much material on Bradford. Background works include Harvey Wish, Society and Thought in Early America (1950); Ruth A. Mclntyre, Debts Hopeful and Desperate: Financing the Plymouth Colony (1963); and George D. Langdon, Jr., Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691 (1966).

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