William and Dorothy Bradford – Mayflower Voyagers

In 1620 William and Dorothy Bradford sailed on Mayflower from England to New England. A great deal of what we know about the establishment of the Plymouth colony comes from Bradford’s  Of Plymouth Plantation. Four hundred years later this book is still a good source of information about the Pilgrim story, though it is obviously written from the English perspective. Today historians go to great lengths to tell the same story from the Native perspective. History has preserved a a large volume of data about this Separatist couple. Bradford’s wife Dorothy had a father and grandfather involved in the non-conformist religious movement in England in the late 1500 and early 1600s. Bradford’s life has all the makings of a feel-good movie about a young boy with a difficult childhood growing up to be a successful leader. Dorothy’s family history, combined with the her tragic death, has resulted in us knowing more about her than most of the other Mayflower women.

New research by genealogists Sue Allan and Caleb Johnson indicate that Dorothy moved to Amsterdam around 1608 from Eastern England, near Boston, with her mother Katherine and father Henry May. Henry served as a leading church elder in the Henry Ainsworth Amsterdam congregation of the Ancient Church of the Brethren. William Bradford moved there from Northern England that same year with other Separatists from Northern England.

Seeds of Religious Rebellion

The couple probably met in 1608, during the one year the Northern England Separatists lived in Amsterdam. That group first emigrated to Amsterdam where other English Separatists had already established English-speaking congregations. When conflicts broke out between and among these congregtions, the Northern English group established their own congregation in nearby Leiden, with John Robinson as their pastor.

Dorothy’s grandfather, John May had been part of the English Familia Caritatis (The Family of Love) movement. This Protestant group opposed several Established Church of England policies and practices. Members spread their beliefs primarily through family members, encouraging marriages within the faith community. They rejected infant baptisms; an unconventional view considered heretical by some church authorities.

Religious Refugees on the Move

Rising pressure against their unconventional beliefs prompted several English groups to relocate to the more religiously liberal Lowlands. Henry May and his family, including Dorothy, were among those who resettled in Amsterdam. When the conflicts erupted the church leaders prevailed upon Pastor John Robinson, down the road in Leiden, to help calm the turmoil.

Pastor Robinson probably visited the Amsterdam congregation on occasion, perhaps taking William Bradford and others from his Leiden congregation with him. There is some speculation Pastor Robinson may have encouraged the union between Henry May’s daughter, Dorothy, and William, in keeping with the groups preference that membes marry within the community.

Dorothy May was sixteen on December 10, 1613 when she married William Bradford in Amsterdam. Her age and the laws at that time dictated she must have her father’s permission to marry. Henry May gave permission and attended the civil ceremony since the Separatists did not consider weddings a function of the church.

William Bradford, twenty-three when they married, had been orphaned in childhood. In the seventeenth century, men not yet twenty-five years old usually didn’t marry without parental consent. Considering how active Bradford was in the Leiden Separatist congregation, perhaps someone from the congregation stood in as a surrogate father. The Bradford engagement and banns were recorded in both Amsterdam and Leiden.

Rough Start for William Bradford

When William was orphaned his uncles took him. They did the basics for him, but little more. From a very young age William was interested theology and scripture. He was often confined to bed due to some childhood illnesses. When he was well enough, walked seven or eight miles to a church where future Separatist pastor Richard Clifton mentored the boy. That is where he met Elder William Brewster. Bradford was a frequent guest in the Brewster home, and lived with the family a couple of times in both Leiden and Plymouth.

The Bradfords had one child they named John, born in Leiden, probably in 1617. The Bradford’s left the boy behind when they sailed for North America – presumably with the intention of sending for him when Plymouth Colony was established and more suitable for a young child. Dorothy’s parents remained in Leiden and probably assumed care for little John. The child may have been named for Pastor John Robinson, or more likely, his grandfather, John May. John did eventually join his father in Plymouth.

The Grand Plan to Relocate

The Bradfords were among those in Robinson’s congregation who volunteered to go with the first group to establish a new religious colony. The congregation decided to initially send a small group of thirty-seven settlers to establish a new religious community in the New (to them) World. Some of these settlers left family behind with rest of the community, intending to reunite once the settlement was firmly established. This plan enabled the settlers to return to Leiden if efforts to establish a colony failed.

The voyage was both tedious and treacherous. After ten weeks at sea, the Mayflower anchored off Provincetown Harbor on November 11, 1620. Using the shallop they’d brought with them, several men, including Bradford, set out to locate the best place to build their new colony. William was away on one of these expeditions when Dorothy died. She fell overboard and drowned in the frigid water. Bradford rarely referenced her death in his accounts of the colony.

An 1869 fictional magazine story suggested the twenty-three-year-old woman jumped overboard to avoid the bleak future ahead of her. More likely she  leaned too far out, perhaps searching the horizon for signs that the men were returning, and slipped overboard. Women in that era wore multiple layers of clothing. Once her clothes got wet it would have been nearly impossible for her to fight long enough to be discovered and rescued from the frigid November sea. It is unlikely Dorothy knew how to swim. It seems most probable she lost her balance, fell overboard, and drowned before anyone missed her.

A Life of Challenges and Leadership

William Bradford struggled against a series of tragedies. The relatives that raised him when his parents died took no interest in his thirst for religious education and spiritual nourishment. Even as a young boy Bradford engaged in intensive Bible study, perhaps because illness prevented him participating in more rigorous pastimes.

Like many of the Mayflower passengers, William became quite ill the first winter in the new colony, but survived. Governor John Carver did not. When Carver died the first spring in the new land, Bradford assumed duties of Governor. The Colony elected him to serve in that position a total of thirty-one years. He married the widow Alice (Carpenter) Southworth on August 14, 1623. Their marriage included a feast attended by the Pokanoket leader Massasoit Ousa Mequin and many other Natives. William and Alice had three sons who all lived to adulthood, married, and had children.

A portion of this articles comes from the Mayflower400 Website.

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Read more about the Bradfords in my historical novel, Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale or Two Cultures.  It is now available in electronic, print, and audio format at these places:


  1. Betty C. Sweeney

    Enjoyed reading this account!

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