Plymouth Plantation William Bradford had a rough start in life. He proves a person can experience multiple tragedies and challenges and yet grow up to live a long and productive life. Born in 1590 in Austerfield, a small farming community in Northern England, his father died when he was a toddler. His family then lived with his grandfather, until his grandfather died when he was six; his mother when he was seven. With no parents or grandparents to raise him, he spent the rest of his childhood with his father’s brother, Uncle Robert Bradford. He was often sick as a boy, which may have been what led him to study the Bible as a young lad. More rigorous pastimes were often not an option for him.
When he was around twelve, he began walking eight miles each way to a church in Babworth. Richard Clyfton, the pastor, supported the “Brownist” movement, so named for a pastor who sought to reform Christian communities to more resemble those of the first century. English clergy and their congregants who sympathized with this thinking, formed an illegal underground movement, dubbed the “Separatists,” for their growing desire and determination to separate completely from the Established Church of England.
Bradford’s family did not approve of his involvement in this movement, but he continued to meet with them anyway. Initially he went to Babworth with a friend. When his friend grew weary of the weekly trek and dropped out, Bradford continued on his own. He was around eighteen when he officially joined the Separatist congregation.
Richard Clyfton served as a surrogate father to Bradford. He and William Brewster first met at Clyfton’s Babworth congregation. Eventually Clyfton led an underground group of Separatists in Scrooby, where Brewster lived and served as the Bailiff at Scrooby Manor. The Manor was the property of the Church of England’s Archbishop Sandys, so it was inevitable the day would come when they could no longer meet there. In 1608 Bradford, Clyfton, Brewster and his family, and a total of around a hundred others, slipped out England illegally and sailed to Holland.
Bradford and Brewster became close friends, even though Brewster was more than twenty years older than Bradford. Bradford lived with the Brewsters when the community first moved to Holland. On December 10,1613 Bradford married Dorothy May in a civil service in Amsterdam. He was twenty-six; she was sixteen. Bradford learned the trade of silk weaving. That work, combined with an inheritance he received from his deceased father’s estate, provided support for the couple. Their son, John, was born while they lived in Leiden.
Adventure and Loss
In 1620 Bradford and Dorothy sailed on the Mayflower, leaving their young son behind in Holland with friends. The Mayflower sailed later than expected, nearly capsized mid-ocean, and arrived at the start of a brutal winter several hundred miles north of their destination. The ship dropped anchor in Provincetown Harbor November 11, 1620. It remained anchored there for weeks while teams of men sailed their small shallop along the coast or marched inland through snow and rain searching for the best place to establish their new settlement.
Bradford was on one of these expeditions when Dorothy died. The deck was slippery. They ship was anchored; but still moving back and forth and up and down. She fell overboard and her bulky, woolen winter clothing made it impossible for her to swim long enough to be rescued. She drowned December 7.
Re-Elected Governor 30 Times
Bradford later wrote volumes about the group’s adventures, but never mentioned Dorothy’s death. Perhaps it was too painful for him. Like most of the passengers, he fell quite ill from the rigors of the trip, lack of adequate nourishment, and extreme weather. He eventually recovered, but for a while it was not clear he would. Though he survived the first winter, Governor John Carver did not. When Carver died in the spring of 1621, the community elected Bradford as their Governor. He was thirty-years old. They re-elected him thirty times – all but five times – until 1656. He became gravely ill again the winter of 1656/57 and died May 9, 1657 at the age of 68.
In 1623 he remarried the widow Alice Carpenter Southworth, who joined the fledgling settlement in 1623. They knew each other from earlier years together in Holland. They celebrated their union with a feast attended by the Wampanoag Nation’s Sachem Massasoit and many other Natives. The Native guests brought turkeys and deer to the celebration. He and Alice had three children: William, Mercy, Joseph. They all lived to adulthood and married. Among their descendants are Noah Webster, Julia Child, and Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist.
Shaping the Future
As Governor, Bradford functioned as chief magistrate, high judge, and treasurer. He presided over the General Court deliberations, the Plantation’s legislation. Bradford corresponded with their investors back in England and communicated with their neighbors, including the Wampanoag.
In 1636 he helped draft Plymouth Plantation’s legal code. Under his influence, Plymouth never became a Bible commonwealth like their larger and more influential neighbor, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, established in 1630 by a group of Puritans. A Bible commonwealth is a theocratic system in which laws are based on the Bible and the right to vote is restricted to church members.
Of Plymouth Plantation
Plymouth Plantation remained fairly tolerant. For example, they did not restrict civic privileges to church members. Though most of the colonists were Separatists or Congregationalists, others lived among them without being pressured to conform to the majority’s religious convictions.
In 1630, Bradford began writing about what he and the others had experienced. He continued writing his recollections until 1651. Most of what we know about the Plymouth Colony comes from his writing. His work is available today in both Elizabethan and modern English as Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford’s writings are required reading in some history courses and are readily available from numerous sources. His is the only account of Plymouth Plantation written by a Mayflower passenger.
Some of Bradford’s letters and other correspondence have survived to the present day. His 1592 edition of the Geneva Bible and a chair belonging to him are currently on display at Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth.
If you’d like to read Bradford’s account of Plymouth Plantation for yourself, you can order a copy if it here.
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