Of Plymouth Plantation | Study Guide

William Bradford

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William Bradford | Biography


Early Life and Religious Affiliations

William Bradford was born in March 1590 in Yorkshire, England, and was raised there during an era of growing religious dissent. His father, William, died when he was only one year old, in July 1591. At age four his mother, Alice Bradford, remarried and he was sent to live with his paternal grandfather, who was also named William Bradford. A year later, his grandfather died, and he went to live with his mother and stepfather. His mother died a year later, and by age seven, Bradford was an orphan. A sickly child now being raised by two uncles, Robert Bradford and Thomas Bradford, young Bradford was sent to school where he learned reading and rudimentary math skills. He often read the Bible, and at age 12 he was drawn to Puritanism, a religious sect that disagreed with Anglicanism, the official religion of the Church of England. They were called Puritans because they sought to "purify" themselves from Anglican formalities. Around this time Bradford also became interested in the teachings of what became the foundation of the Separatist movement, a branch of Puritanism with an even more simple style of worship. The Protestant Reformation had swept through Britain in the early 16th century, leading to the establishment of the Church of England as a separate entity from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Some, such as the Puritans and Separatists, however, believed the Anglican English Church did not go far enough in its reforms—specifically, in distancing itself from the hierarchical structure and formal rituals of Roman Catholicism.

Separatist Movement

In 1606 at age 16, Bradford joined a new Separatist group of reformers headed by William Brewster and located in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire. The Separatist position was never tolerated by the established church leadership or King James I, who ruled England during this time. Separatist preachers and other elders were often jailed. The Scrooby Separatists decided to leave England and move to the Netherlands. However, religious nonconformists were not given permission to leave England, so the congregation had to sneak out of the country. After several failed attempts to leave, which landed Bradford and the others, including women and children, in jail twice, the congregation finally made it to Holland in 1608. Bradford was 18 when he arrived in Amsterdam. Life in Holland was difficult, however, and the English Separatists never truly adapted to their new home. Back in England, many of them had been farmers, Bradford himself coming from yeoman stock, meaning he was of the social class of landowning farmers. In Holland, without land to farm, the Separatists had to learn new ways to make a living. Bradford took an apprenticeship with a silk weaver. He also met Dorothy May, whom he would eventually marry.

After a year in Amsterdam, the group moved to Leyden (spelled Leiden in the present day). In Leyden, many of the members found work in the manufacturing trade. Meanwhile, back in Yorkshire, Bradford's uncles had died and left him an inheritance. In 1611 he sold his uncles' properties, bought a house in Leyden, and went into business for himself as a fustian (heavy cotton) weaver. He married Dorothy a few years later, on December 10, 1613. Their wedding took place in Amsterdam, and in 1615 they had a son, John. However, life in general remained a struggle to make ends meet for the Separatists in Leyden, and the congregation opted to relocate to the New World in the Americas.

Plymouth Colony

Bradford, by this point one of the congregation's acknowledged leaders, was among those who made the Mayflower voyage, setting sail along with his wife, from Plymouth, England, in September 1620, leaving their son John behind in Leyden with the Separatists who had chosen to remain in Holland. The group arrived in Cape Cod in November, which they named New Plymouth, commonly known today as Plymouth Colony. That December, while Bradford was out on an expedition of the new territory, Dorothy fell overboard the Mayflower and drowned. Three years later, he remarried a widow, Alice Southworth, who had two young sons. The couple had three more children together.

Bradford's signature, along with those of 40 others, appears on the Mayflower Compact, the November 1620 agreement that served as a basis for the law and government of Plymouth Colony. He soon assumed leadership in a more formal capacity. When the colony's elected governor, John Carver, died in 1621, Bradford was the next to be chosen for the position. He went on to govern Plymouth Colony for most of the next 35 years, presiding over the colony's General Court and overseeing trade and diplomacy with other European colonists.

The events recorded in Of Plymouth Plantation give a sense of Bradford's temperament as a governor. He was, for the most part, eager to keep the peace with local Native American tribes and with other English colonies, including Massachusetts Bay and New Haven. He also brokered friendly relations with the Dutch, whose own colonies in the region became good trading partners for Plymouth. As an interpreter of the colony's laws, Bradford was praised for his fairness and generosity. However, his reluctance to punish wrongdoers and expel troublemakers sometimes led to outsiders taking advantage of Plymouth's tolerance and hospitality.

Death and Legacy

Bradford remained governor of the colony almost continuously until 1656. He died at Plymouth on May 9, 1657, and was interred on nearby Burial Hill. His grave marker, a simple but imposing obelisk placed in 1825, on one side records his birthplace, his parentage, and the dates of his numerous terms in office. The words Jehovah is our help appear in Hebrew on the north side. Below his terms of office years are the Latin words Qua patres difficillime adepti sunt nolite turpiter relinquere, which mean, "What our fathers with so much difficulty secured, do not basely relinquish."

Bradford's detailed descriptions of his voyage on the Mayflower and of the difficulties of life in Plymouth Colony make Of Plymouth Plantation one of the most important primary source documents of American history. It is the only comprehensive history written by a Mayflower passenger. Furthermore, Bradford's tolerant and democratic ways led to the development of American institutions such as voting and town meetings.

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