William Bradford

William Bradford

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.

Primary Sources

(1) William Bradford, History of the Plymouth Plantation (1651)

They (the Plymouth settlers) had no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh their weather-beaten bodies, no houses or much less towns to repair to. The season was winter, and they that know the winters of this country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast. Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.

(2) William Bradford, journal (1621)

At times there were but six or seven strong enough to hunt, cook and care for the entire company. These men and women at great risk to their own health spared no pains, night or day.

(3) William Bradford reported that things had improved by the summer of 1621.

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against the winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. Some were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached. Besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc.

(4) In 1630 John Billington was found guilty of murdering John Newcomen and was executed. William Bradford, as governor, recorded what happened in his journal.

John Billington the elder, one that came over with the first, was found guilty of willful murder, by plain and notorious evidence. And was accordingly executed. He and some of his had often been punished before, being one of the profanest families among them; they came from London. He waylaid a young man, one John Newcomen, about a former quarrel and shot him with a gun, whereof he died.