Authors: William Bradford

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English-born American printer, historian, and poet

March 1590

Austerfield, Yorkshire, England

May 9, 1657

Plymouth, Massachusetts


William Bradford, the author of one of the best-known histories of the seventeenth century, was the third child and sole son of a yeoman farmer and a shopkeeper’s daughter. Devoted to reading the Bible from the age of twelve, he joined the Brownists, or Separatists, a group that wished to break from the Church of England. He emigrated with this group to Amsterdam in 1608 and subsequently to Leyden. While in Holland, he became a weaver to maintain himself and learned Dutch and some Latin and Hebrew. {$I[AN]9810000708} {$I[A]Bradford, William} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Bradford, William} {$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bradford, William} {$I[tim]1590;Bradford, William}

When the Separatists—along with some non-Separatists—sailed for the New World on the Mayflower, Bradford was among them, suffering the enormous physical and mental hardships of the journey. While Bradford and other men explored the coast for a suitable location for settlement, his wife, Dorothy, still on the Mayflower, drowned mysteriously. It is suspected that she committed suicide.

Upon the death of John Carver, Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth when he was thirty-one years old, and he was reelected thirty times; he served many terms unwillingly but, believing so strongly in the venture, was convinced that he could not shirk the duty. In 1627, along with four London merchants and seven other Pilgrims, Bradford assumed the £1,800 debt owed to the original underwriters of the adventure and worked mightily to satisfy the monopolists in London. This debt was finally paid off in 1648.

Although obviously in a position of power, Bradford never took advantage of the other Pilgrims, and under his leadership (although about half died during the first winter) the community grew. By the end of the first ten years, with the arrival of three ships, the community had grown to about three hundred. In 1650, the community numbered nearly a thousand.

Despite this apparent success, Bradford worried that such growth could lead to the dissolution of the original community founded at Plymouth. By 1650, he had stopped writing his History of Plymouth Plantation, no longer certain whether those in his community deserved to be called God’s chosen “Saints.”

In his last years, Bradford liked to read the Old Testament in Hebrew because he wanted to see “the ancient oracles of God in their native beauty.” He remained the simple man revealed in his writings. At his death, his holdings were modest: a house, an orchard and several pieces of land, and, among other things, a “great beer bowle” and two small ones, several chairs, ten and a half pairs of sheets and much table linen, a red waistcoat, a “sad colored” suit, and two hats—“a black one and a colored one.”

Author Works Nonfiction: Mourt’s Relation, 1622 (considered author of first half; with Edward Winslow) History of Plymouth Plantation, wr. 1630–50, pb. 1856 Dialogue Between Some Young Men Born in New England and Sundry Ancient Men That Came out of Holland, wr. 1648–52, pb. 1871 (third dialogue), 1920 (first dialogue) Poetry: “A Word to New England,” wr. 1650’s, pb. 1838 “Of Boston in New England,” wr. 1650’s, pb. 1838 “Epitaphium Meum,” 1669 The Collected Verse, 1974 Bibliography Daly, Robert. “William Bradford’s Vision of History.” American Literature 44 (1973). Outlines important, though opposing, viewpoints. Howard, Alan. “Art and History in Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation.” William and Mary Quarterly 28 (1971). Studies Bradford as a writer and a historian. Laurence, David. “William Bradford’s American Sublime.” PMLA 102 (1987). Places Bradford in a wider context of American encounters with nature. Ogburn, Floyd, Jr. Style as Structure and Meaning in William Bradford’s “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. Includes an index and a bibliography. Sargent, Mark L. “William Bradford’s ‘Dialogue’ with History.” The New England Quarterly 65 (September, 1992). Summarizes and expands upon the work of Alan Howard and Robert Daly. Smith, Bradford. Bradford of Plymouth. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1951. An excellent biographical source. Westbrook, Perry D. William Bradford. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A standard biography. Includes an index and a bibliography.

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