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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 progress in establishing shipping and fishing industries. For a while they enjoyed success in the fur trade, but had to compete with the Dutch, the French, and the English in that pursuit. The colony struggled to pay off its indebtedness. Bradford, realizing that the communal system discouraged initiative, had it abandoned in 1623. In 1627, he and seven other colonists and four Londoners associated as “Undertakers” to pay off the eighteen-hundred-pound debt to the English members of the joint stock company, which was now dissolved. Bradford and the other “Undertakers” were given a monopoly of the fur trade and offshore fishing. Still, it was not until the 1640’s that the debt was paid. Also at the time of dissolving the connection with the English merchants, all property in the colony, real and personal, was divided equally among heads of families and free single men.

Bradford and the Pilgrims fortunately had scant troubles with the Indians. The Patuxet Indians, who had lived in the vicinity of Plymouth town, had died off from the white man’s diseases, principally the plague (typhus) brought over by English fishermen. Two Indians, Samoset and Squanto, who had themselves been to Great Britain and spoke the English language, served at the outset as a vital liaison with other Indians. Bradford was successful in keeping the friendship of Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, the only strong tribe in close proximity to the colony.

Indeed, though troops were mustered on several occasions to be sent against the Indians (for example, during the Pequot War of 1637), the colony under Bradford’s administration contended with no large Indian hostility. Miles Standish’s butchery of several Massachusetts Indians at Wessagusett can, however, be charged to Bradford’s blame.

Amazingly, the latitude of freedom at Plymouth was great, in contrast to the Puritan colonies. At first seeking to oust dissenters, Bradford came to favor a policy of tolerance, allowing persons of other faiths to settle in the colony. Yet Bradford was thin-skinned with those who put the Pilgrims in a bad light in England, and once, upon intercepting the letters of two such individuals, forced them to return to England. A major blotch on Bradford’s career was his overreaction to the “wickedness” of the times, namely during the alleged sex-crime wave of 1642. During this brief hysteria, induced largely by anxiety over an Indian crisis, a teenager was hanged for buggery. Otherwise, to the Pilgrims’ credit, there were only executions for murder. In addition to serving as governor, Bradford was a commissioner of the Puritan defensive confederation, the United Colonies of New England, in the years 1647 to 1649, 1652, and 1656.

Of Plimmoth Plantation is Bradford’s masterpiece. Probably intended only for the enlightenment of his family, it was not published in its entirety until 1856. For a long time, the manuscript was lost, probably taken out of the country by a British soldier during the Revolution; it surfaced at the Bishop of London’s Library at Fulham Palace. In the late nineteenth century, as a goodwill gesture, it was returned to the United States. Bradford worked on it at various times, from 1630 to 1650, writing from notes, correspondence, and memory. The history traces the whole Pilgrim story from their English exile to 1646. Other writings of Bradford include admonitory poems and two dialogues between “some Younge-men borne in New-England” and “Ancient men which came out of Holand and Old England.” Bradford was also the coauthor of the promotional tract, Mourt’s Relation (published in London, 1622), and letters, printed as Governor Bradford’s Letter Book, in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, first series, volume 3 (1794; reprinted in 1968).

Besides his home in Plymouth, Bradford had a three-hundred-acre farm on the tidal Jones River and scattered real estate elsewhere, which made him the largest landowner in the colony. Bradford, during the evening of the day in which he dictated his will, died, on May 19, 1657 (N.S.). He was buried on the hills overlooking Plymouth. He left four children: John (by his first wife), William, Mercy, and Joseph.


William Bradford’s life epitomized the plain and simple virtues of a people longing to be free. From yeoman farmer in England to artisan in Leyden to immigrant in a primitive land, he displayed the courage and faith of one who believed that there was a better way. With skill, a sense of fair play, and an open-mindedness, he guided his people to founding a successful community, which would eventually grow into some twenty towns. Bradford’s colony was unable to secure a charter, largely because of the lack of resources needed to support a lobbying effort in England. Plymouth Colony would later be incorporated into the royal colony of Massachusetts Bay, an event that Bradford probably would not have been too happy about, considering the differences between the Puritans and the Pilgrims. While Bradford discouraged people from hiving off and forming new settlements, he himself became a suburbanite, tending his farm outside of Plymouth.

Bradford’s administration brought peace and stability to Plymouth, and the Pilgrim experience in founding government served as a model for the establishment of other colonies. In Plymouth Colony, under Bradford, there was a rigid separation of church and state, as to officeholding, though between them there was a mutuality of action.

Bradford’s history of Plymouth exemplifies highest standards of clarity and straightforward prose; at the same time, it is enlivened by an understated humor that belies the popular image of the Pilgrims. It is regarded as one of the major works of Colonial American literature.


Bartlett, Robert M. The Pilgrim Way. Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1971. Sponsored by the Pilgrim Society, Plymouth, Mass. Discusses the Pilgrims only through the early years in America. Though emphasizing the role of John Robinson and religious issues, it probes the thinking and actions of the Pilgrim leaders, including Bradford.

Bradford, William. Of Plimmoth Plantation. Edited by Charles P. Deane. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1856. Reprint. New York: Random House, 1952. This work has undergone a number of editions since it was first published. Samuel E. Morison’s 1952 reprint with the modernized title Of Plymouth Plantation is the most readable of the various editions. Morison lists all the previously published editions.

Dillon, Francis. The Pilgrims. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1973. Popularly written but well researched, this narrative traces the Pilgrim story to the time of the death of Bradford. Views the Pilgrim experience through Bradford’s eyes.

Langdon, George D., Jr. Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 1620-1691. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966. A scholarly and perceptive examination of the Plymouth colony until its union with Massachusetts Bay Colony. Emphasis is on the government and institutions.

Runyan, Michael G., ed. William Bradford: The Collected Verse. St. Paul, Minn.: John Colet Press, 1974. Contains the seven items of verse attributed to Bradford. Places the poems in their historical context and in the context of Bradford’s life as well as discussing their literary qualities.

Sargent, Mark L. “William Bradford’s ‘Dialogue’ with History.” New England Quarterly 65, no. 3 (September, 1992): 389-422.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B., and David Pulsifer, eds. Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England. Boston: Press of W. White, 1861. Reprint. 11 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1968. All of Bradford’s service as governor can be discerned from this collection, which contains the records of the General Court (governor, assistants, and deputies). Volume 11 is a compilation of the colony’s laws.

Smith, Bradford. Bradford of Plymouth. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1951. The only full-scale biography of Bradford. It is well researched but glosses over many topics.

Westbrook, Perry D. William Bradford. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. Examines all of Bradford’s writings from the point of view of literary criticism. Contains a chronology of Bradford’s life.

Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945. This is a lively and thorough narrative of the Pilgrim experience to 1691, stressing the early years. On small points the reliability and interpretations of the author are questionable. An appendix identifies all members of the “Pilgrim Company” who arrived in the colony during the formative period.