William Bradford was born in Austerfield, England in about 1590. He joined the Separatists, a Puritan religious group who were highly critical of the Anglican Church. They were followers of Robert Browne, a preacher who thought the Church of England should abolish bishops, ecclesiastical courts and other relics of Roman Catholicism such as kneeling and the use of priestly vestment and altars. The Separatists also believed that the government was too tolerant towards those who were guilty of adultery, drunkenness and breaching the Sabbath.
The Separatists, who held their church services in secret, were persecuted and several members were imprisoned for their activities. The Dutch government had a reputation for tolerance towards dissenters and in 1608 Bradford and a group of Separatists decided to emigrate to Holland. Bradford and his friends soon became disillusioned with life in their new home in Leyden. They could only find low-paid work and they feared that their children were losing their English identity.
In 1620 Bradford, John Carver, Edward Winslow, William Brewster and other Separatists based in Holland decided to emigrate to America. One hundred and two people boarded the Mayflower in Delft Harbour and after crossing the Atlantic they decided to settle at a place they called Plymouth in Massachusetts Bay.
The Separatists established their own government and John Carver was elected governor of the colony. The plan was for the pilgrims to live on fish caught from the sea. However, they were not very successful at this, and by the spring of 1621 half of them had died of starvation or disease. This included Bradford's wife who had drowned in Cape Cod harbour.
When John Carver died in 1621 Bradford became the new governor of the colony. He was re-elected governor 30 times during the next thirty-four years and developed a reputation as a firm and fair leader. He completed his book, a History of Plymouth Plantation, just before his death in 1656.