Study Guide

William Bradford

William Bradford Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Bradford was the leader of the Pilgrims once they settled in America, and he was the author of a history of Plymouth colony, one of the great works of early American literature.

Early Life

William Bradford was born in March, 1590 (baptized on March 29), at Austerfield, Yorkshire, England, one of three children and the only son of William Bradford, a yeoman farmer, and Alice Hanson. His father died when he was sixteen months old. Upon his mother’s remarriage when Bradford was four, he was put into the custody of his grandfather, after whose death in 1596 he went to live with his uncles, Robert and Thomas Bradford. “Like his ancestors,” William Bradford pursued “the affairs of husbandry.” At age twelve, Bradford started attending religious services conducted by Richard Clyfton, at Babworth, eight miles from Austerfield. The group was made up of Separatists, who believed in the sovereign authority of the Scriptures and the autonomy of each church. The Separatists had spun off from the Puritan movement, which sought reform toward greater simplicity in the worship and practices of the Church of England. When Clyfton’s own congregation split, he took part of the original group to hold services at the bishop’s manor house in Scrooby. William Brewster, who became a mentor and tutor for Bradford, was the local bailiff and postmaster and resided at the bishop’s decaying mansion. John Robinson, who later would be the leader of the group when they went to Holland, was teacher of the congregation. Bradford had only to walk three miles to attend services at Scrooby, which was in Nottinghamshire, 150 miles north of London.

The Scrooby Separatists, completely at odds with the national church and fearing further persecution after King James I ascended the throne, sought refuge in the Netherlands. Failing in their first attempt to leave England in 1607, having been betrayed by the ship’s captain, the following year via a Dutch vessel they went to Amsterdam, where they stayed briefly, and then moved to the university town of Leyden. The Netherlands offered the refugees full freedom of conscience. Their new home proved a relief, as Bradford said, from the situation which the Pilgrims (as they were to be called) had faced in England, where they were “hunted and persecuted on every side, so that their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of those which now came upon them.”

At Leyden the Pilgrims worked as artisans, with Bradford becoming a maker of fustian (a twilled cloth of cotton and linen). While in Leyden, Bradford learned some Latin and Hebrew. Coming of age in 1611, he gained an inheritance from his uncles, which he applied to buying a house; he also became a Dutch citizen. In December, 1613, Bradford married Dorothy May. The Pilgrims were unhappy in their new home for a variety of reasons, but chiefly for that of being an alien people in a strange land. In 1617, Bradford was one of a committee to make arrangements to take the congregation to America.

With the expedition financed by a joint stock company formed by English merchants and a patent from the Virginia Company (which was invalid because of where the Pilgrims had settled and was replaced a year later with one from the Council of New England), the Pilgrims set out for America. Shares in the company were ten pounds each, with an actual settler receiving one free. Bradford was among the 102 persons who crossed the Atlantic in the Mayflower, and was a signer of the Mayflower Compact in November of 1620 as the ship anchored off the tip of Cape Cod. This document, as John Quincy Adams observed, was “the first example in modern times of a social compact or system of government instituted by voluntary agreement conformably to the laws of nature, by men of equal rights and about to establish their community in a new country.” Bradford led exploring parties, and the colonists chose a site at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. On December 17, 1620 (N.S.), Bradford’s wife fell overboard and drowned, possibly a suicide. In August, 1623, he married Alice Carpenter, widow of Edward Southworth.

Life’s Work

Upon the death of John Carver in 1621, William Bradford was elected governor of the colony, remaining in that office until his death in 1657, with the exception of the years 1633 to 1634, 1636, 1638, and 1644. He received no salary until 1639, when he was paid twenty pounds annually. Bradford virtually dominated the colony’s government, which had no standing under English law and had no charter from the king. Bradford, however, shared executive, legislative, and judicial powers with a court of assistants, which by the 1640’s numbered eight people. The governor and assistants were elected annually by the freemen at large. Beginning in 1638, legislative powers were divided with a lower house of two representatives from each town, starting with those from Plymouth town, Duxbury, and Scituate. Bradford assisted in the codification of the Plymouth laws in 1636, significant as the first such embodiment of statutes in the Colonies, also noteworthy for setting forth basic rights.

Bradford and his colony faced many hardships. The people who emigrated to the settlement were poor, and for the most part the land was of poor quality. Lacking means for capital investment, the Pilgrims made little...

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William Bradford Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

William Bradford, the author of one of the best-known histories of the seventeenth century, was the third child and sole son of a yeoman farmer and a shopkeeper’s daughter. Devoted to reading the Bible from the age of twelve, he joined the Brownists, or Separatists, a group that wished to break from the Church of England. He emigrated with this group to Amsterdam in 1608 and subsequently to Leyden. While in Holland, he became a weaver to maintain himself and learned Dutch and some Latin and Hebrew.

When the Separatists—along with some non-Separatists—sailed for the New World on the Mayflower, Bradford was among them, suffering the enormous physical and mental hardships of the journey. While Bradford and other men explored the coast for a suitable location for settlement, his wife, Dorothy, still on the Mayflower, drowned mysteriously. It is suspected that she committed suicide.

Upon the death of John Carver, Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth when he was thirty-one years old, and he was reelected thirty times; he served many terms unwillingly but, believing so strongly in the venture, was convinced that he could not shirk the duty. In 1627, along with four London merchants and seven other Pilgrims, Bradford assumed the £1,800 debt owed to the original underwriters of the adventure and worked mightily to satisfy the monopolists in London. This debt was finally paid off in 1648.

Although obviously in a...

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William Bradford Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Daly, Robert. “William Bradford’s Vision of History.” American Literature 44 (1973). Outlines important, though opposing, viewpoints.

Howard, Alan. “Art and History in Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.” William and Mary Quarterly 28 (1971). Studies Bradford as a writer and a historian.

Laurence, David. “William Bradford’s American Sublime.” PMLA 102 (1987). Places Bradford in a wider context of American encounters with nature.

Ogburn, Floyd, Jr. Style as Structure and Meaning in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. Includes an index and a bibliography.

Sargent, Mark L. “William Bradford’s ‘Dialogue’ with History.” The New England Quarterly 65 (September, 1992). Summarizes and expands upon the work of Alan Howard and Robert Daly.

Smith, Bradford. Bradford of Plymouth. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1951. An excellent biographical source.

Westbrook, Perry D. William Bradford. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A standard biography. Includes an index and a bibliography.