William Bradford Essay - Critical Essays

Bradford, William


William Bradford c. 1590-1657

Colonial American historian and poet.

William Bradford, the author of Of Plymouth Plantation (c. 1630, c. 1646), has been hailed as the father of American history. A Puritan of modest descent and learning, Bradford played a leading role in in the Separatist movement and was elected Governor of Plymouth Colony thirty-one times. His account of the Pilgrims' journey to America and their struggles in the fledgling colony, Of Plymouth Plantation has provided a seminal resource for many of the histories that followed. It is noted for the “plain style” characteristic of Puritan writing, as well as for its humor, sincerity, and deeply felt spirituality. Both praised as “a commanding work of literary art” and disparaged as “a providentialist history gone awry,” Of Plymouth Plantation remains one of the founding works of American literature and historiography.

Biographical Information

Bradford was born in 1590 to William Bradford, a successful yeoman farmer, and Alice Hanson Bradford. The exact date of his birth is not known, but records show that he was baptized on March 19, 1590, in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England. His early life was marked by a series of losses and dislocations. Shortly after Bradford's birth, his father died. When his mother remarried a few years later, Bradford went to live with his paternal grandfather; upon his grandfather's death two years later, he returned to his mother. In 1597 his mother died, and Bradford moved again, to live with his uncles Thomas and Robert Bradford in Austerfield, where he worked on their farm and likely attended school. By the time Bradford reached age twelve he had begun attending meetings of Separatists in nearby villages, despite the opposition of his family. At one of the meetings in nearby Babworth, Bradford heard the preacher Richard Clyfton, who would later be an important influence in his conversion to Puritanism. In 1606 Clyfton formed the Separatist congregation in the village of Scrooby, and Bradford became a member. It was among the Scrooby Seperatists that Bradford first met other influential mentors, including William Brewster, who would later become an elder of the church at Plymouth, and John Robinson. Bradford worked in the textiles industry, and moved with the Scrooby Separatists to Amsterdam and then to Leyden. In 1613 Bradford married Dorothy May, whose father was a member of the English Church of Amsterdam; they had a son, John, in 1615. Within days of the Pilgrims' arrival in America in 1620, Dorothy drowned, having either jumped or fallen from the Mayflower.

The following year the first governor of Plymouth, John Carver, died, and Bradford was elected to succeed him. He held the position until 1656, but served as an assistant to Governor Winslow and Governor Prence for brief periods during his tenure. In 1623 he married Alice Carpenter Southworth, with whom he fathered three children. His son from his first marriage and two children from Alice's first marriage were also part of the Bradford household, as were two sons of deceased friends. In 1630 Bradford began work on Of Plymouth Plantation, in response, some scholars suggest, to the arrival of the settlers of the nearby Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the same year, the Council for New England issued the Warwick Patent for the colony of New Plymouth in Bradford's name, meaning that he could, if he wished, become the sole proprietor of the colony. True to his principles, Bradford instead shared his rights with those who had come with him to New England. Toward the end of his career, however, Bradford came to feel that the young people of the colony did not share those principles. He wrote three dialogues—only two of which have survived, one dated 1648 and another from 1652—between the original settlers of Plymouth and colonists born in New England. In the dialogues Bradford attempts to explain the values of Puritanism and the sacrifices of the founders of Plymouth. From 1650 until his death in 1657 he also expressed these themes in verse, but neither they nor the dialogues were widely read.

Major Works

Bradford's most important work is Of Plymouth Plantation, an account of the activities of the Puritans from 1621 to 1646. The work existed only in manuscript form for two centuries, but was widely circulated. During the American Revolution the manuscript mysteriously disappeared, possibly stolen from the New England Library by a British soldier. Not until 1855 did scholars realize that a manuscript on Pilgrim history in the Bishop of London's library at Fulham Palace was the long-lost Bradford manuscript; it was published the following year. Although Of Plymouth Plantation presents a year-by-year narration of events, it is not a diary or journal but a retrospective in two books. The first book, written mostly in 1630, focuses on the journey of the Pilgrims from England to Amsterdam, then to Leyden, and finally to North America, concluding with the founding of the Plymouth settlement. This first book is composed as a providential history, stressing the spiritual importance of the Separatists' struggles to reach America. Bradford did not begin the second book until 1646, drawing from earlier notes and letters to relate the story of the Pilgrims in North America. The second book, possessing a less coherent narrative structure, is annalistic and more concerned than the first book with prosaic details of life in the colony. It also reflects Bradford's growing anxiety about the spiritual welfare of the colonists and his increasing uncertainty regarding the workings of providence. Beginning in 1648 Bradford wrote a number of didactic works aimed at the younger generation. Poems such as “On the Various Heresies in Old and New England” and “Some Observations of God's Merciful Dealing with Us in This Wilderness” and his two surviving dialogues, A Dialogue or the sume of a Conference between som Younge-men borne in New England and sundery Ancient-men that came out of holland and old England Anno dom 1648 (1648) and A Dialogue or 3d Conference … concerning the Church, and the Government thereof, (1652) demonstrate Bradford's concern with the continuance of his community and its Separatist culture.

Critical Reception

Even before its publication in 1856, Of Plymouth Plantation was an important resource for early American historians, including Increase Mather, who used the manuscript for his account of the Indian wars, and his son, Cotton Mather, who used it for his own history of the Plymouth colony. Following its publication, the history was widely admired, in part because of its demonstration of Bradford's sincerity and strength of character, traits which were regarded as quintessentially American. Modern criticism on Of Plymouth Plantation has tended to fall into two broad categories, either focusing on Bradford as historian or as a prose stylist. Scholars have taken a number of different approaches in their analyses of Bradford's historiography. Some critics, including Walter P. Wenska, have focused on the differences between the two books of Of Plymouth Plantation. Others have explored influences on Bradford's construction of his history. David Levin, for instance, has examined the ways that Bradford's Puritan piety shaped his view of history. Kenneth Alan Hovey has traced the influence of earlier colonial histories on the theological themes of Bradford's work, while David Read has stressed the impact of commercial and economic concerns on Bradford's writing. Jonathan Goldberg has examined Bradford's treatment of sexuality, gender, and race in the process of “inclusion and exclusion” by which he defined the community depicted in Of Plymouth Plantation. Other scholars have attempted to demonstrate the history's merits as a literary work. E. F. Bradford has focused Bradford's use of a “plain style,” a Puritan contrast to the highly ornamented prose of other Renaissance authors. This critic, along with G. Cuthbert Blaxland and others, have emphasized that the seeming simplicity of Bradford's writing was the product of conscious literary intent. Other examinations of the literary qualities of Bradford's writing have included Perry Westbrook's survey of a broad range of styles and techniques employed by the author, and David Laurence's investigation into Bradford's evocation of the sublime in Of Plymouth Plantation.

Principal Works

*Of Plimmoth Plantation (history) c. 1630, c. 1646

A Dialogue or the sume of a Conference between som Younge men borne in New England and sundery Ancient-men that came out of holland and old England Anno dom 1648 (dialogue) 1648

A Dialogue or 3d Conference between some Younge-men borne in New-England, and some Ancient-men, which came out of Holand and Old England, concerning the Church, and the governmente thereof (dialogue) 1652

Governor Bradford's Letter Book (letters) 1794

William Bradford: The Collected Verse (poetry) 1974

*The first book of Of Plimmoth Plantation was begun in 1630. Work on the second book was begun in 1646. The manuscripts were lost around the time of the American Revolution, rediscovered in 1855, and published in 1856 as History of Plymouth Plantation.


G. Cuthbert Blaxland (essay date 1896)

SOURCE: “William Bradford, as Author, Man, and Statesman,” in “Mayflower” Essays on The Story of the Pilgrim Fathers, Ward & Downey Ltd., 1896, pp. 100-29.

[In this excerpt, published only a few decades after the discovery of the Bradford manuscript, Blaxland offers one of the earliest scholarly discussions of Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation. Blaxland considers Bradford's style and influences, and attempts to show a deep connection between Bradford the individual and Bradford the historian.]

In the History of Plymouth Plantation we have William Bradford presented to us in the aspect of author, autobiographer, and historian. Of course the...

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E. F. Bradford (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: “Conscious Art in Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 1, 1928, pp. 133-57.

[In the following essay, the critic discusses the “plain style” of Of Plymouth Plantation, highlighting the techniques the author employed and the literary influences on the work to argue that Bradford's seemingly artless prose was achieved through careful design.]

Those who have hitherto made a detailed critical study of William Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation have been for the most part historians whose primary interest, naturally, is rather in what Bradford says than in his manner of saying it. Those who...

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John Griffith (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Of Plymouth Plantation as a Mercantile Epic,” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1972, pp. 231-42.

[In the essay below, Griffith examines the oppositions between economic and spiritual concerns and between the individual and the community in Bradford's History, characterizing the work as a “mercantile epic” in which the tragic conflicts are presented in economic and commerical terms.]

The era of New Criticism may have exhausted itself in its rapt insistence on treating the literary work as an autonomous artistic construct whose deepest significance is divorced from such externalities as history, psychology, or sociology. But there...

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David Levin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “William Bradford: The Value of Puritan Historiography,” in Major Writers of Early American Literature, edited by Everett Emerson, University of Wisconsin Press, 1972, pp. 11-31.

[In this excerpt, Levin considers the relationship between Bradford's Puritanism and his historiography, discussing the author's reconciliation of economic and spiritual goals in his work, and arguing that Bradford's faith encouraged him to study history.]

Famine once we had, wanting corn and bread,
But other things God gave us in the stead,
As fish and ground nuts, to supply our strait,
That we might learn on providence to wait;
And know by bread man lives not in his need,
But by...

(The entire section is 8359 words.)

Kenneth Alan Hovey (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “The Theology of History in Of Plymouth Plantation and Its Predecessors,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 10, No. 1, Spring 1975, pp. 47-66.

[In the essay below, Hovey explores the theological themes of several early colonial histories in order to demonstrate how Bradford follows, adapts, or abandons those themes in his own history. Hovey considers Bradford's literary technique in addition to his theological concerns to explicate his developments in historiography.]

When William Bradford in “about the year 1630”1 began to write his full scale history of Plymouth Plantation, several carefully written historical relations of the first...

(The entire section is 9148 words.)

Walter P. Wenska (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Bradford's Two Histories: Pattern and Paradigm in Of Plymouth Plantation,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall 1978, pp. 151-64.

[In the following essay, Wenska stresses that the two volumes of Of Plymouth Plantation present two distinct histories, the first celebrating new beginnings and the second providing a “retrospective search for significant order” and the meaning of history.]

Scarcely twenty years after the discovery of his manuscript history in 1855 and its first publication a year later, William Bradford was acclaimed by Moses Coit Tyler as “the father of American history,” a man whose account of the Plymouth...

(The entire section is 7594 words.)

Perry D. Westbrook (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Of Plimmoth Plantation as a Literary Work,” in William Bradford, Twayne Publishers, 1978, pp. 122-40.

[In this essay, Westbrook surveys Bradford's use of varied prose styles and literary devices, including metaphor and irony.]

Bradford's minor prose and his poetry would receive scant notice, at least as belles-lettres, had they not come from the pen of the man who wrote Of Plimmoth Plantation. Their value lies in what they reveal of their author's mind and in the light they may cast on the values and ideals of early New England. Any assessment of Bradford's literary talents must be made on the basis of his History.


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David Laurence (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “William Bradford's American Sublime” in PMLA, Vol. 102, No. 1, 1987, pp. 55-65.

[In this essay, Laurence suggests that Bradford's seeming anticipations of both the Romantic concept of the sublime and the unique qualities of American literature help to expand scholarly notions of those literary categories.]

Sometime in 1630 William Bradford, perennial governor of Plymouth Plantation in New England, recorded for posterity the inhospitable, wintry scene on which the pursuit of separatist convictions had landed an obscure company of plain English country folk a decade earlier, in November 1620:

But here I cannot but stay...

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Jonathan Goldberg (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Bradford's ‘Ancient Members’ and ‘A Case of Buggery … Amongst Them,’” in Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, Stanford University Press, 1992, pp. 223-246.

[In this excerpt, Goldberg examines Bradford's treatment of sexuality, gender, and race in the process of “inclusion and exclusion” by which he defined the community depicted in Of Plymouth Plantation.]

I move from Landa now to William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation to pursue further these paths of negation and their relation to representations of sodomy. From many perspectives Bradford's text could seem out of place in this discussion, and indeed the introduction...

(The entire section is 9825 words.)

Mark L. Sargent (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “William Bradford's ‘Dialogue’ with History,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, 1992, pp. 389-421.

[In the following essay, Sargent examines Bradford's fictional dialogues between young men of New England and older colonists from Europe, comparing them to Of Plymouth Plantation. Sargent concludes that the dialogues shed light on Bradford's struggles within the Separatist movement as well as his ambivalence about the colonial project in North America.]

When the manuscript of William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation was shipped to Boston in 1897, Massachusetts Senator George F. Hoar boasted that the commonwealth had recovered one of...

(The entire section is 10663 words.)

Thomas Cartelli (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Transplanting Disorder: The Construction of Misrule in Morton's New English Canaan and Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation” in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 258-80.

[In this essay, Cartelli examines contrasting accounts written by Thomas Morton and Bradford of the controversy surround a maypole at Morton's Ma-re Mount settlement. Cartelli places the accounts in the context of Puritan debates about festive practices and wider concerns about disorder and misrule.]

In his “Authors Prologue” to New English Canaan (1637), a work devoted to extolling the virtues of, and promoting, that portion of the New...

(The entire section is 10460 words.)

David Read (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Silent Partners: Historical Representation in William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation” in Early American Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, 1998, pp 291-314.

[In the following essay, Read proposes that Bradford's history is best understood as an early development in economic historiography. Read focuses on differences between the first and second books, noting an emphasis on providential and genealogical history in the first and an emphasis on economics in the second.]

William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation remains both one of the most and one of the least readable texts from early colonial New England. Bradford receives praise for his unusually...

(The entire section is 11636 words.)

Further Reading


Gallagher, Edward J. and Thomas Werge. “Writings About William Bradford, 1669-1973.” In Early Puritan Writers: A Reference Guide,pp. 1-58. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1976.

Annotated bibliography that includes extensive studies as well as brief references to Bradford.


Doherty, Kieran. William Bradford: Rock of Plymouth. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 1999, 189 p.

Examines both Bradford and the history of the early Pilgrims, attempting to flesh out the sparse records of Bradford's personal life.

Smith, Bradford. Bradford of...

(The entire section is 422 words.)