Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation is generally felt by both U.S. and English historians to be one of the most important volumes of the colonial period in America. The work survived apparently only by the rarest of chances. It was begun in 1630 by Bradford, who was one of the hardy band who came to Plymouth on the Mayflower and who served as governor of that colony for thirty-three years; he completed chapter 10 that same year. Most of the remainder he wrote in pieces through 1646; later, he entered a few items up to 1650.
The manuscript remained in the family, passing first to the governor’s oldest son, Major William Bradford; subsequently to his son, Major John Bradford; and then to his son, Samuel. Meanwhile, it was being borrowed and mined for various other histories of colonial America. While borrowed by Increase Mather, it narrowly escaped being burned when Mather’s house was destroyed in 1676. After numerous uses by other historians, it eventually came to rest in the bishop of London’s library in Fulham Palace, probably taken there by a soldier during the Revolutionary War. There it was found, and the first complete edition of the manuscript was published in 1856.
Long before it was published, much of its contents had passed into American history and myth. Factually, Bradford’s account of the trials and misadventures of the settlers at Plymouth is the fullest and best available. It begins with the unfolding of the “occasion and inducements thereunto” of the Plymouth Plantation, the author professing that he will write “in a plain style, with singular regard unto the simple truth in all things,” as far as his “slender judgment” will allow. Chapter 1 begins with the background of the trip—the years 1550 to 1607 and the origin of the Pilgrim Church in England.
Bradford gives a telling account of how the Pilgrims were forced to flee to Holland in 1608, the immense suffering they underwent while there, their manner of living in that alien land, and their eventual determination to sail to the New World. Eventually, all preparations were made for this mighty undertaking. At first, they were to sail in two ships, but one, because of the fear and duplicity of the captain, was finally abandoned, and the trip made in only one, the Mayflower, of which Christopher Jones was master.
The Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. Their consternation upon arriving on the foreign shore is graphically described by Bradford. He stood “half amazed” at the people’s condition upon arrival. They could see nothing but “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” with “savage barbarians,” who were “readier to fill” the sides of the Pilgrims “full of arrows than otherwise.”
The first section, or book, ends with the account of the Pilgrims’ choice of Plymouth as their mainland home, after some days of searching. This particular spot was chosen for two reasons: The harbor was deep enough to accommodate shipping, and the settlers had found, back from the coast, “divers cornfields and little running brooks,” a...
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Anderson, Douglas. William Bradford’s Books: “Of Plimmoth Plantation” and the Printed Word. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. An in-depth textual analysis of the book. Anderson disagrees with other scholars who describe the history as sad and elegiac; he argues that Bradford demonstrates ambition and “subtle grace” in his depiction of the colonists’ adjustment to the New World.
Daly, Robert. “William Bradford’s Vision of History.” American Literature 44 (January, 1973): 557-569. Analyzes events narrated in History of Plymouth Plantation to show that at first Bradford noted God’s cooperation in the colony’s survival and prosperity; after 1638, or perhaps as early as 1632, however, internal threats demonstrated God’s withholding of aid. Accordingly, the history changes from a public report of divine aid to a more private lament.
Garbo, Norman S. “William Bradford: Of Plymouth Plantation.” In Landmarks of American Writing, edited by Hennig Cohen. New York: Basic Books, 1969. Theorizes that Bradford was the first to express the American trait of feeling committed to a predestined, historical mission.
McIntyre, Ruth A. Debts Hopeful and Desperate: Financing the Plymouth Colony. Plymouth, Mass.: Plimouth Plantation, 1963. In discussing the business side of the colonists’ undertaking, McIntyre makes use of Bradford’s many passages devoted to his support from English merchant adventurers, commercial affairs, troubles, debts and repayments, and eventual solvency.
Read, David. New World, Known World: Shaping Knowledge in Early Anglo-American Writing. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. A literary interpretation of Bradford’s book and three other American colonial texts. Read demonstrates how the writers shaped their knowledge and experience of colonial life into distinctive narrative patterns.
Westbrook, Perry D. William Bradford. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Discusses the major themes of Bradford’s history and comments on the artistry of its prose, its early impact, and responses of modern historians to it.