Believed to have been born in 1590, William Bradford became a leading figure in the Puritans' Separatist movement. He and other congregants eventually sailed from England on the Mayflower to establish a colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Bradford became longtime governor after a devastating winter. He died in 1657, with much of the history of the settlement recorded in his two-volume work, Of Plymouth Plantation.
William Bradford was believed to have been born in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England, in March 1590, with records indicating his baptism being held around this time. His parents died early in his childhood, leaving Bradford in the care of various relatives. Attending a religious service in Scrooby before his teen years, the youngster joined the Separatist denomination, a more radical branch of Puritanism that believed in removing itself from the Church of England. He and other congregants eventually fled to the Netherlands to escape persecution, though in their adopted land, they still faced attacks, due to the country’s affiliation with England’s King James I.
Bradford stayed in the Netherlands for more than a decade, with the idea taking root among the Separatist congregation that they should journey to the New World and settle north of the already established Virginia Colony. Bradford was in a leadership position and handled a major portion of administrative duties, including sorting out financial backing for the trip and related claims to land. After one of the two commissioned ships was deemed unworthy for travel, in September 1620 the group of 102 passengers later dubbed “pilgrims” sailed forth from England on the Mayflower. The voyagers consisted of people called “Saints,” those who followed Separatist ideology, and “Strangers,” those who paid for passage with no regard of religious affiliation.
The troubled journey took more than two months, and due to harsh weather and being forced off course, the vessel arrived a significant distance from their planned destination, in Cape Cod, where Bradford's wife fell overboard and drowned. Soon afterward Bradford and the other male travelers signed the colonial contract known as the Mayflower Compact, a document emphasizing self-governance.
The Mayflower then sailed for the area called Plymouth, where the settlers set up a permanent community. After a grueling winter, during which many died, including the already chosen governor, Bradford was unanimously elected to be governor of the settlement. He served a combined 30 years (with breaks taken) from the early 1620s until almost the time of his death. During that time, in autumn 1621, the settlers held what would later be seen as the first Thanksgiving, a secular harvest feast shared with the Wampanoag tribe, with Native American transatlantic voyager Squanto having helped colonists in the growing of corn.
Bradford eventually remarried and had more children after the arrival of additional ships. His governance was responsible for handling judicial matters that included land disputes as well as economic matters, with religious tolerance another marker of his administration. Bradford also became known for his meticulous journaling, as evidenced by his historical work Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647. The Plymouth settlement would ultimately disperse, becoming subsumed by other settlements and far overshadowed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
William Bradford died on May 9, 1657, in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
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