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William Bradford





Austerfield, Yorkshire


William Bradford was one of the key figures in the Mayflower story with a very sad and complex start to life.  He was a signatory to the Mayflower Compact.

He was born in the small farming community of Austerfield, Yorkshire. His father William died when William was just one year old.  His mother remarried when he was four years old, and he was sent to live with his grandfather.  His grandfather died two years later, and he returned to live with his mother and stepfather.  His mother died a year later.  Orphaned both from parents and grandparents, he and older sister Alice were raised by their uncle Robert Bradford.  William was a sickly boy, and by the age of 12 had taken to reading the Bible.  A friend invited him to hear the Rev. Richard Clyfton preach nearby.  Clyfton believed that the Church of England ought to eliminate all vestiges of Roman Catholic practices, and that this would result in a purer Christian church.  William was inspired by his preaching and continued to attend his sermons.  During one meeting, Bradford met William Brewster, a bailiff and postmaster who lived at Scrooby manor, four miles from Austerfield.  During frequent visits, Bradford borrowed books from him, and Brewster
regaled him with stories of the efforts toward church reform taking place throughout England.


His family was not supportive of his moves, and by 1607 the Church of England were applying pressure to extinguish these religious sects.  William at the age of 18, joined with the group of Separatists that left England and ended upin Leiden.   He had no family with him and was taken in by the Brewster household. The Scrooby congregation had to work the lowest of jobs and to live in poor conditions, having spent most of their money in attempts to get to the Dutch Republic.  William took up the trade of a silk weaver.  However, conditions changed dramatically for him when he turned 21 and was able to claim his family inheritance in 1611. He bought his own house, set up a workshop as a weaver, and earned a reputable standing.  In 1613, he married Dorothy May, the daughter of a well-off English couple living in Amsterdam.  In 1617, they had their first child, named John.

Finding Land

When the Mayflower anchored in Provincetown Harbor and he volunteered to be a member of the exploration parties searching

for a place for settlement.  In November and December, these parties made three separate ventures from the Mayflower on foot and by boat, finally locating Plymouth Harbor in mid-December and selecting that site for settlement.  During the first expedition on foot, Bradford got caught in a deer trap made by Indians and hauled nearly upside down.  The third exploration departed from the Mayflower on December 6, 1620 when the group located Plymouth Bay.  A winter storm nearly sank their boat as they approached the bay, but they managed to land on Clark's Island, suffering from severe exposure to the cold and waves.  During the following days, they explored the bay and found a suitable place for settlement, now the site of downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts.  The location featured a prominent hill ideal for a defensive fort.  There were numerous brooks providing fresh water, and it had been the location of an Indian village known as Patuxet; therefore, much of the area had already been cleared for planting crops.  The Patuxet tribe had been wiped out by plagues between 1616 and 1619, beleived to be as a result of contact with European English.  Sadly, while the exploring party made their way back on board, he learned of the death of his wife Dorothy, she had fallen overboard off the deck of the Mayflower during his absence and drowned.

The Sickness

The settlers began building the colony's but their efforts were slowed, when a widespread sickness struck the settlers.  By the end of the winter, about half of the settlers had died.  During the epidemic, there were only a small number of men who remained healthy and bore the responsibility of caring for the sick.  One of these was Captain Myles Standish, a soldier who had been hired by the settlers to coordinate the defense of the colony.  Wiilliam was elected governor soon after the death of John Carver, and was re-elected nearly every year thereafter.  In 1623, he married to the widowed Alice (Carpenter) Southworth, and had a marriage feast very reminiscent of the 'First Thanksgiving', with Massasoit and a large number of Indians joining, and bringing turkeys and deer.  William was the head of the government of Plymouth, oversaw the courts, the colony's finances, corresponded with investors and neighbors, formulated policy with regards to foreigners, Indians, and law, and so had a very active role in the running of the entire Colony.  With his second wife, he had three more children, all of whom survived to adulthood and married.

Beginning in 1630, he started writing a history of the Plymouth Colony, which is now published under the title Of Plymouth Plantation. He continued writing his history of Plymouth through about 1651.  Bradford's History is one of the primary sources used by historians, and is the only thorough history of Plymouth Colony that was written by a Mayflower passenger.

Visit Caleb Johnson's Mayflower History for more details

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