William Bradford

1590–1657

William Bradford was an English Separatist who is most famous for being one of the Pilgrims who sailed to America on the Mayflower and established Plymouth Colony in 1620. Bradford played a vital role in establishing the colony and making it the first permanent English settlement in New England.

William Bradford, Pilgrim Father, Governor of Plymouth Colony

William Bradford was a prominent leader of Plymouth Colony, the first successful English settlement in New England. Image Source: American History Central Digital Illustration.

William Bradford Facts

  • Born — William Bradford was born around March 19, 1590 (c. 19 March 1590 – 9 May 1657)
  • Died — Bradford died on May 9, 1657, at the age of 67.
  • Important Fact — He was an English Puritan Separatist from Austerfield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England.
  • Important Fact — Orphaned as a young boy, he discovered the Separatist congregation near Austerfield when Bradford was 12.
  • Important Fact — He moved to Leiden, Holland to escape persecution by King James I of England.
  • Important Fact — Bradford emigrated to New England on the Mayflower in 1620
  • Important Fact — He signed the Mayflower Compact, which established a government for Plymouth Colony.
  • Important Fact — Bradford served as Governor of Plymouth Colony intermittently for about 30 years (1621–1657).
  • Important Fact —  He kept a journal that included a history of Plymouth Colony. He also contributed to another early history of the colony, known as Mourt’s Relation.
  • Interesting Fact — Bradford was commissioner of the United Colonies of New England on multiple occasions and served as President twice.

Significance of Willliam Bradford

William Bradford is significant to United States history because he was a Pilgrim Father and played an important role in establishing the Plymouth Colony in New England. Bradford was also essential to the colony, serving as Governor for many years.

William Bradford, Home, Plymouth, NYPL
This illustration depicts the Bradford home in Plymouth. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Life and Career of William Bradford, Pilgrim, Governor, and Historian

Birth and Family

William Bradford was born in Austerfield, West Riding of Yorkshire, England. 

  • His parents were William Bradford and Alice. 
  • He was baptized on 19 March 1590
  • The family owned a large farm and was considered wealthy and influential

Childhood Difficulties and Education

After his father passed away, he was taken care of by his uncles. 

  • Bradford’s father died when he was just over a year old.
  • His mother remarried when he was four, and he went to live with his grandfather, William Bradforthe.
  • His grandfather died two years later, and he returned to live with his mother and stepfather.
  • His mother died in 1597, leaving Bradford an orphan at the age of seven.
  • Following his mother’s death, he went to live with two uncles.

While living with his uncles, Bradford suffered from illness and was unable to work on the family farm. During this time, he learned to read and enjoyed books written by Erasmus and also John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

  • Bradford became well-acquainted with the Bible and other classic literature.
  • His reading is considered a key factor in his intellectual curiosity, which led to his interest in Separatist Puritan theology.

Separatists and the Scrooby Congregation

By the time he was 12, he was attending the services of Reverend Richard Clyfton in All Saints’ Church, Babworth, Nottinghamshire, which was 10 miles away from his home.

  • Following Puritan theology, Clyfton advocated for the elimination of Roman Catholic practices from the Church of England, aiming for a purer Christian church.
  • Bradford was inspired by Clyfton’s preaching and continued to attend his sermons, despite objections from his family.
  • During one of the meetings, Bradford met William Brewster, a bailiff and postmaster, who lived at Scrooby Manor, which was 4 miles from Austerfield.
  • Bradford borrowed books from Brewster and engaged in discussions about the church reform efforts that were happening in England.

Bradford eventually decided to leave the Church of England and follow Protestant Separatism, which upset his family. 

Scrooby Manor House in 1907
Scrooby Manor House, where the Separatists held their religious meetings, in 1907. Image Source: The Pilgrims by Frederick Alonso Noble.

Persecution of Non-Conformists Under King James I

King James I ascended to the English throne in 1603 and expressed his intention to put an end to church reform movements and deal harshly with critics of the Church of England, who were generally referred to as “Non-Conformists.”.

  • By 1607, Bradford was attending meetings at Scrooby Manor, attended by around 50 people, under the leadership of Clyfton and the Reverend John Robinson.
  • This group, like many others, came to the conclusion that reforming the Church of England was not an option, and they decided to sever their ties to it.
  • The meetings of the Scrooby Congregation attracted the attention of the Archbishop of York, leading to the arrest of many members in 1607.
  • William Brewster was found guilty of “disobedience in matters of religion” and fined.
  • The Scrooby Congregation also learned that Non-Conformists in London had been imprisoned.
King James I of England, Portrait, Critz
King James I. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Escape from England

Due to the persecution they suffered, Bradford and Brewster, along with their Scrooby Congregation, decided to move to the Netherlands, where religious freedom was offered. They intended to join other Separatist groups who had already left England.

  • In 1607, the Scrooby Congregation made the decision to leave England, which required the permission of the King of England.
  • The Scrooby Congregation did not seek the King’s permission, which made their intentions illegal.
  • The group group had a difficult time escaping. At one point, they were betrayed by an English sea captain who had initially agreed to transport them to the Netherlands but instead handed them over to the authorities.
  • Following this failed attempt, most of the congregation, including Bradford, were held in prison for a short time.

Amsterdam and Move to Leiden

By the summer of 1608, they successfully escaped from England in small groups and settled in Amsterdam. 

Bradford was 18 years old when he arrived in Amsterdam in August 1608. He was by himself and lived with the Brewster family.

The Scrooby Congregation found themselves caught up in disagreements between the Separatist congregations in Amsterdam, which they wanted to avoid. After roughly nine months, the congregation decided to move to Leiden

Life in Leiden

Bradford continued to reside with the Brewster family in a neighborhood known as “Stink Alley,” which was known for poor conditions.

In 1611, when he turned 21, he was able to access his inheritance. This allowed him to buy his own home. He also set up a workshop and worked as a weaver, making cloth for men’s clothing. By all accounts, he was well-respected in his occupation.

Bradford married Dorothy May in 1613. She was the daughter of a wealthy English family living in Amsterdam. In 1617, they welcomed their first son, John.

Plans to Leave the Netherlands

Because of cultural differences with the Dutch and concerns about the Dutch going to war with Spain, the Separatists started planning to move to New England, which was controlled by the London Adventurers Company.

  • In 1617, the congregation started to make plans to move to the northern parts of the Colony of Virginia, which at that time extended north to the Hudson River.
  • While they enjoyed religious freedom in the Netherlands, they were concerned about their children adopting Dutch customs and language.
  • They also struggled financially, because they were not Dutch natives, and could not join the worker’s guilds. Most of them were forced to work menial, low-paying jobs.

Bradford’s Return to England

In 1619, Bradford sold his house in Leiden and returned to England. By March 1620, he was living in London, in a parish known as the Duke’s Place in Aldgate, which was known as an area where Non-Conformists lived.

By the following year, 1620, Edward and Alice Southworth were living in Aldgate, with their two sons. He held a high position within the Leiden group but died in 1621 or 1622. Following Edward’s death, Alice emigrated to Plymouth Colony.

Negotiations to Move to America

The Separatists joined a joint-stock company to raise money to pay for transportation and provisions. They work with a group of investors who called themselves the “Merchant Adventurers,” including Thomas Weston. To raise enough money, the Adventurers decided to send a group of their own settlers — also known as planters — on the voyage with the Separatists.

  • It took roughly three years for the Leiden group to make the necessary arrangements to move from Leiden to America.
  • Negotiations with the Merchant Adventurers, a group of financial backers in London, created challenges.
  • By July 1620, two representatives from the Leiden group, Robert Cushman and John Carver successfully arranged transportation from Leiden to England.

The Journey of the Pilgrims Begins — the Separatists Leave Leiden

  • Roughly 50 Separatists embarked from Delftshaven on board the Speedwell.
  • The departure was difficult because they could not afford to send everyone to America right away. 
  • Many families were separated, including the Bradfords. William and Dorothy decided to leave John, who was just 3 years old, with Dorothy’s parents in Amsterdam.
  • Some Separatists chose to remain in the Netherlands, intending to join the voyage to America once they established their settlement.

Setbacks in England

In August 1620, the group embarked on a journey with two ships, the Speedwell and the Mayflower. However, only the Mayflower successfully made it across the ocean. 

  • The original plan, as arranged by Carver and Cushman, involved the Speedwell meeting the Mayflower off the coast of England.
  • The Speedwell was found to be structurally unsound, necessitating the transfer of some passengers to the Mayflower, resulting in crowded conditions. Before the transfer, some of the Separatists decided to stay in England.

Saints, Strangers, and Pilgrims

The Mayflower departed from Plymouth, England on September 6, 1620, with 102 passengers. 49 of the passengers were Separatists, but only two of them — Brewster and William — were from the original Scrooby Congregation. It is estimated there were 20-30 crewmen on the ship. The Separatists were joined by 35 colonists recruited by the Merchant Adventurers. There were also 18 servants on the ship.

The Separatists referred to themselves as “Saints.” They referred to everyone else on the Mayflower, crew, and passengers, as “Strangers.”

Collectively, they are referred to as the “Pilgrims.”

The Mayflower’s Difficult Voyage

After 65 days, the Mayflower arrived off the East Coast at Cape Cod on November 9, 1620. The ship was much further north than expected due to violent storms. Captain Christopher Jones tried to sail south, but the rough seas forced him to turn back. 

  • In the second month of the voyage, the Mayflower encountered westerly gales that violently shook it.
  • The caulking used to seal the ship’s seams proved ineffective in keeping out seawater, leading to wet passengers and the spread of illness.
  • There were two deaths during the voyage, one among the crew and one among the passengers.
  • Two babies were born before they established their settlement.
  • On November 9 the crew and passengers spotted Cape Cod Hook.
  • Two days later, the ship anchored in present-day Provincetown Harbor.

The Mayflower Compact

There was disagreement between the Separatists and the other passengers. There were concerns they did not have the authority to settle anywhere but at the mouth of the Hudson. 

According to William Bradford’s account, “several strangers made discontented and mutinous speeches.” A decision had to be made before anyone left the ship, so the leaders of both groups worked together on an agreement that formed a government for the new colony — the “Mayflower Compact.” 

Bradford was one of the signers of the compact.

Separatist John Carver was chosen as the first Governor of the colony.

Mayflower Compact, Ferris
This painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicts the signing of the Mayflower Compact. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Bradford and the Early Days of Plymouth Colony

Upon reaching New England, Bradford played a vital role in exploring the area for their settlement. When he returned to the ship after one of the expeditions, he discovered that his wife had fallen overboard and died. 

  • Bradford was 30 years old, but had not yet taken on a prominent leadership role.
  • After the Mayflower arrived in Provincetown Harbor, Bradford volunteered to join the exploration to find a location for settlement.
  • Between November and December, these Pilgrims sent three expeditions by foot and by boat from the Mayflower.
  • During the first expedition, Bradford was caught in a deer trap made by Native Americans, which hoisted him up and nearly turned him upside down.

The Third Pilgrim Expedition Finds a Place to Live

On December 6, a third expedition sailed in a small boat down the coast of Cape Cod Bay. Two days later, they arrived at present-day Clark’s Island and then spent the next few days exploring the area. On December 11, they explored the area of what is now Plymouth Bay and decided it was the place to establish their settlement.

  • The location featured a prominent hill ideal for a defensive fort and abundant freshwater.
  • The site was an abandoned Indian village called “Patuxet,” and much of the land had already been cleared for planting crops.
  • The Patuxet Tribe had been decimated by sickness between 1616 and 1619, possibly due to contact with English fishermen or with the French to the north. 
  • In his history, Bradford noted that the bones of the dead were visible in many places.

The First Winter

The Mayflower reached Plymouth Bay on December 20, and the Pilgrims started constructing the colony’s first house on December 25. Progress was slowed by a sickness that had afflicted the settlers, initially starting on the ship.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor, 1620
This painting by William Halsall depicts the Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Sickness Afflicts Bradford and Plymouth Colony

  • On January 11, 1621, while building a house, Bradford suddenly experienced severe hip pain and collapsed.
  • He was transported to the “common house,” the only completed building at that time, and there were concerns that he might not survive the night.
  • Bradford eventually recovered, but many other settlers were not as fortunate.
  • By the end of the winter of 1621–1621, nearly half of the original Pilgrims died due to various hardships and illnesses.
  • To prevent the Indians from finding out so many had died, the Pilgrims buried their dead in unmarked graves on Cole’s Hill. The burials were often done at night.

Bradford and Standish

During the epidemic, a small number of healthy men took on the responsibility of caring for the sick, and among them was Captain Myles Standish, a soldier hired by the settlers to oversee the colony’s defense.

  • During Bradford’s illness, Standish took care of him, which was the beginning of a long friendship between the two men.
  • Following the death of John Carver, Bradford was elected governor and closely Standish, depending on him for advice on defense and military strategy for Plymouth.

Bradford and Massasoit

On March 16, an Indian named Samoset walked into Plymouth, and, according to legend, asked for bread and beer — in English. He was acting as a representative of Massasoit, the sachem of the Pokanokets, which was part of the larger Wampanoag People.

Soon after, Massasoit visited Plymouth and signed a treaty with Governor John Carver. The treaty created an alliance between the Pokanokets and Plymouth. They agreed to provide military assistance to each other.

According the Bradford, the treaty contained a provision that said, “If any did unjustly war against him, we would aid him; if any did war against us, Massasoit should aid us.”

The treaty gave Plymouth an ally in New England but also created tension between the colonists and Massasoit’s rivals, including the Narragansett Tribe and the Massachusetts Tribe.

Bradford Becomes Governor of Plymouth Colony

Governor Carver died in mid-April 1621. He was working in the fields on a hot day when he collapsed. He passed away a few days later. Bradford was elected Governor and was re-elected nearly every year until he died in 1647. 

Under Bradford’s leadership, Plymouth Colony experienced ongoing challenges, including sickness, food shortages, disputes with settlers from other colonies, and conflicts with the London investors. Eventually, the Plymouth colonists bought out the London investors.

Bradford also worked to maintain a good relationship with John Winthrop, whose competing colony in Boston challenged Plymouth. Over time, the growth of Massachusetts weakened Plymouth’s strength in the New England Colonies.

Plymouth Colony in 1622
This illustration depicts Plymouth Colony in 1622. The Pilgrims by Frederick Alonso Noble.

Government in Plymouth Colony

Bradford’s success as Governor was enabled by his willingness to rely on advice from men like Standish and his Assistants.

  • Plymouth Colony’s leadership consisted of a Governor and an Assistant Governor, with Isaac Allerton serving as the Assistant Governor during the first three years.
  • In 1624, the structure was modified to include a Governor and five Assistants, collectively known as the “Court of Assistants” or the “Governor’s council.” These men advised the Governor and were allowed to vote on significant matters.
  • Important assistants during the early years of the colony included Thomas Prence, Stephen Hopkins, John Alden, and John Howland.

Marriage to Alice Southworth

Alice Southworth and her two sons, Constant and Thomas, arrived at Plymouth in 1623, on the ship Anne

  • Bradford married Alice on August 14, 1623. 
  • They had three children together, William, Mercy, and Joseph. 
  • In their later years, William and Alice took in several of the colony’s orphaned children. 

Bradford’s History of Plymouth

Bradford’s most important literary work is his history of the colony, called Of Plimouth Plantation, or History of Plymouth Plantation. Written in the style of a journal, Bradford documented the history of the Pilgrims from their time in the Netherlands to 1647. His manuscript ends with documentation regarding the Mayflower Passengers.

The original manuscript was kept in the Old South Meeting House in Boston, which was occupied by British troops during the American Revolutionary War. During the war, the manuscript disappeared.

It was discovered at Fulham Palace in the Bishop of London’s library in 1855. Ownership of the document was controversial. Some officials from the Church of England believed the journal belonged in church records. However, a British court ruled the document was taken after the 13 Original Colonies declared Independence, and the original was ordered to be returned to Massachusetts.

On May 26, 1897, the journal was presented to Roger Wolcott, the Governor of Massachusetts during a joint session of the legislature.

Pilgrims, First Thanksgiving, 1621
This painting by Jennie A. Brownscombe depicts the First Thanksgiving in 1621. Image Source: Wikipedia.

William Bradford APUSH Definition and Significance

The definition of William Bradford for APUSH is the Pilgrim leader and the second governor of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Bradford is best known for his role in organizing and leading the Mayflower voyage in 1620 and for his detailed journal, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” which provides valuable insights into the early history of the colony. 

The significance of William Bradford for APUSH is the important role he played in establishing Plymouth as the first successful English settlement in New England. Brewster also managed to create a peaceful, cooperative relationship with Native Americans, particularly the Wampanoag, who were led by Chief Massasoit. Bradford’s history of the colony is a vital historical source regarding the early colonization of America.

Learn More About the Pilgrims and Pilgrim Fathers on American History Central

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Citation Information

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  • Article Title William Bradford
  • Date 1590–1657
  • Author
  • Keywords William Bradford, William Bradford biography, William Bradford history, William Bradford accomplishments, William Bradford legacy, Who was William Bradford, What did William Bradford accomplish, When was William Bradford born, When did William Bradford die, Where was William Bradford from, Why is William Bradford a Pilgrim Father, How did William Bradford become a Pilgrim
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 27, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 22, 2024

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