William and Dorothy Bradford were among the eighteen couples on the famous 1620 Mayflower voyage from England to New England. History has preserved a great deal of information about this Separatist couple since Dorothy’s husband, father, and grandfather were all involved in various religious movements that made the history books. These groups objected to the practices and doctrines of the Established Church of England in the 1500 and 1600s. That history, combined with the Dorothy’s tragic death, has preserved more of her story than most of the 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 non-conformist 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 Northern England Separatists.
Seeds of Religious Rebellion
The couple probably met in 1608, during the one year the Northern England Separatists lived in Amsterdam. When the Northern England Separatists decided to emigrate they went first to Amsterdam where other English Separatists had already established a congregation. After conflicts broke out in the Brethren congregation, 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 non-conformist 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 the unconventional beliefs prompted several English groups to relocate to the more religiously liberal Lowlands. John May’s son, Henry and his family, including Dorothy, were among those who resettled in Amsterdam. When conflicts broke out in the Amsterdam congregation, church leaders prevailed upon Pastor John Robinson, now 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.
Marriage Customs Then and There
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 on their wedding day, was 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.
William and Dorothy had one child they named John, 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.
The Grand Plan to Relocate
William and Dorothy were among those in Robinson’s congregation who volunteered to go with the first group to establish a new religious colony in North America. The congregation decided to initially send a small group of settlers to establish a new religious community in the New (to them) World. These first settlers left some of their family behind in the care of the rest of the community, intending to reunite once the settlement was firmly established. In doing so, the settlers were assured they could 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 new Plimoth Plantation.
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. It was November. The water was extremely cold and 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. His father died when he was a baby. By the time he was eight his mother and her parents also died. Additionally, he was often sick during his childhood. The relatives that raised him 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. However, he survived. Governor John Carver did not. He died in the spring of 1621 and 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 August 14, 1623. Their marriage included a feast attended by the Pokanoket leader Massasoit Ousa Mequin and many other Indians. 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.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy reading about Plymouth Plantation William Bradford.
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: