The son of a prosperous farmer in Yorkshire, England, William Bradford took a radical step as a twelve-year-old: Bradford began attending the meetings of a small group of Nonconformists, a group of Christians who broke from the Church of England. In 1606 Bradford joined the group when they organized as a separate Congregational Church. In 1608 under fear of persecution, the group crossed the North Sea to Holland. Then, after twelve years in Holland, aided by London profiteers and merchants who lent them a ship and a crew, the group set sail for America in order to found a community where they would be free to worship.
After landing at Plymouth in December, Bradford and other men took a small boat ashore to scout for a place to land and shelter. In the meantime, Bradford's young wife fell or jumped from the ship, perhaps in despair at not finding the green hills of an earthly paradise. That bitterly cold winter of 1620, half of the settlers died from the cold, disease, and malnutrition. The Pilgrims' dream of an ideal society--"the city upon a hill" ended in disappointment and failure and Plymouth was abandoned for the more fertile areas around Boston.
In his work, Plymouth Plantation, Bradford writes of how a just Providence took a "very profane young seaman by setting upon him a "grievous disease" for his execrations against the poor people in their illness.
And, in another passage, Bradford records the number who were dying of scurvy and other diseases, yet only a few "sound persons" cared for them, demonstrating their "true love unto their friends and brethren." These survivors formed a treaty with Samoset, a Pemaquid Indian from Maine, and with Squanto, an Algonquian. Then, the first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621. After the initiation of a national holiday, there was the formation of the Undertakers, a group who worked courageously to lift the debt owed the London profiteers, a debt that never seemed to grow smaller, no matter how much was sent in payment.
When he was thirty-one years old, Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth, and he was reelected thirty times, serving because he believed so firmly in the causes of the Puritans.