History of Plymouth Plantation Summary

In History of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford recounts approximately twenty years in the history of Plymouth Plantation.

  • William Bradford, who served as Governor of the Plymouth colony for over thirty years, writes in detail about the colony's first years in America.

  • The First Thanksgiving was very plentiful, but following that day, the colony fell on hard times and was forced to survive on lean provisions.

  • Bradford also writes about Captain Wollaston, the founder of the Merrymount settlement, and Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1296

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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 place “just as they supposed fit for situation.” On December 25, they began to “erect the first house for common use” at Plymouth.

The account of the landing at the spot that has later become associated with Plymouth Rock is interesting for its nondramatic quality. Bradford’s is the only contemporary account of that landing, and it is notable in its differing from the account that popular lore has come to associate with the landing. There was no rock; this was the later invention of Elder John Faunce, who, in 1741, at the age of ninety-five, identified a certain rock as the “place where the forefathers landed.” Contrary to the widely held mental image of the Pilgrims’ arrival, the landing was made from a shallop, not the Mayflower; there were no women present; and no Indians appeared with hands outstretched in greeting.

Bradford’s second book is handled, for the sake of brevity, “by way of annals, noting only the heads of principal things, and passages as they fell in order of time, and may seem to be profitable to know or to make use of.” It begins with the famous Mayflower Compact, which was occasioned “partly by the discontented and mutinous speeches that some of the strangers,” that is, non-Separatists, voiced about their future: “That when they came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them, the patent they had being for Virginia and not for New England.”

Next comes the account of the starving days, when more than half of the original passengers on the Mayflower died, “especially during January and February, two or three a day,” of hunger or of scurvy and other diseases. At times, there were only “six or seven sound persons” to tend the numerous sick and dying.

The account of the first Thanksgiving is given with Bradford’s simplicity and restraint, with hints of the joy showing through. All things were had “in good plenty,” and all colonists were “recovered in health and strength.” Fish and fowl were plentiful. Besides numerous fowl, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.” All the great provisions “made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not faind but true reports.” Thus Bradford gives the account of the origins of one of the United States’ great institutions.

After the first rich harvest, however, lean days returned. Bradford records these days faithfully and fully. He lists also the numerous other occurrences: the arrival of new ships with additions to the colony, accounts of numerous encounters with the Indians, and associations with the surrounding colonies. One interesting section is that concerning the organization of the Undertakers, the people combining their talent and energy in a herculean effort to lift the debt imposed by the London Adventurers, the people in England who had financed the flight of the Pilgrims in the first place and who continued to exact payment from the Pilgrims for a debt that never grew smaller, no matter how much New England material was returned in payment.

There is an interesting and derogatory account of the notorious settlement at Merrymount, founded by Captain Wollaston and two or three other persons who brought numerous servants with them from England. After Wollaston departed for Virginia, Merrymount was taken over by a Mr. Morton, a man “having more craft than honesty,” who led the Merrymounters in “a dissolute life, pouring out themselves into all profaneness. And Morton became Lord of Misrule,” and continued as such until John Endicott came from England, caused the maypole to be cut down, “rebuked them for their profaneness and admonished them to look there should be better walking.” This event has been beautifully written up by Nathaniel Hawthorne in “The Maypole of Merrymount.”

Another interesting account is that of Roger Williams, whom Bradford calls “a man godly and zealous, having many precious parts but very unsettled in judgment.” Bradford tells how Williams, viewed by many commentators as perhaps the first American democrat, fell “into some strange opinions, and from opinion to practice,” which eventually caused his exile and his founding of Providence, Rhode Island, a haven for persons interested in freedom of conscience.

The essentially gentle and Christian character of the chronicler is revealed in his final comment on Williams. “He is to be pitied and prayed for; and so I shall leave the matter and desire the Lord to show him his errors and reduce him into the way of truth.” From beginning to end, such is the tone of this great account of the forefathers of the United States, without which American histories would be incomplete.

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