Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bradford, William (1590-1657)

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BRADFORD, WILLIAM (1590–1657), second governor of Plymouth, New England, and one of the founders of the colony, was born in a small village on the southern border of Yorkshire. The name of the village is in Mather's 'Magnalia,' the chief authority on his early life, wrongly printed Ansterfield, and was first identified as Austerfield by Joseph Hunter (Collections concerning the Early History of the Founders of New England). William was the eldest son and third child of William Bradford and Alice, daughter of John Hanson, and according to the entry still to be found in the parish register was baptised 19 March 1589-90. The family held the rank of yeomen, and in 1575 his two grandfathers, William Bradford and John Hanson, were the only persons of property in the township. On the death of his father, on 15 July 1591, he was left, according to Mather, with 'a comfortable inheritance,' and 'was cast on the education, first of his grandparents and then of his uncles, who devoted him, like his ancestors, unto the affairs of husbandry.' He is said to have had serious impressions of religion at the age of twelve or thirteen, and shortly afterwards began to attend the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Clifton, puritan rector of Babworth. Notwithstanding the strong opposition of his relations and the scoffs of his neighbours, he joined the company of puritan separatists, or Brownists, who first met at the house of William Brewster [q.v.] at Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, in 1606, and were presided over by Clifton. The community within a short period obtained considerable accessions, but, being threatened with persecution, resolved to remove to Holland. Bradford, along with the principal members of the party, entered into negotiations with a Dutch captain who agreed to embark them at Boston, but betrayed their intention to the magistrates, who sent some of them to prison, and compelled others to return to their homes. Bradford after several months' imprisonment succeeded, in the spring of the following year, in reaching Zealand, and joining his friends in Amsterdam, he became apprenticed to a French protestant who was engaged in the manufacture of silk. On coming of age he converted his estate in England into money, and entered into business on his own account, in which he is said to have been somewhat unsuccessful. About 1609 he removed with the community to Leyden, and when, actuated by a desire to live as Englishmen under English rule, they resolved to emigrate to some English colony, he was among the most zealous and active in the promotion of the enterprise. Their choice lay between Guinea and New England, and was finally decided in favour of the latter. By the assistance of Sir Edwin Sandys, treasurer, and afterwards governor of Virginia, a patent was granted them for a tract of country within that colony, and on 5 Sept. 1620 Bradford, with the first company of 'Pilgrim Fathers,' numbering in all a hundred men, women, and children, embarked for their destination in the Mayflower at Southampton. By stress of weather they were prevented landing within the territory of the Virginia Company, and finding themselves in a region beyond the patent, they drew up and signed a compact of government before landing at the harbour of Plymouth—already so named in Smith's map of 1616. Under this compact Carver was chosen the first governor, and on his death on 21 April 1621 the choice fell upon Bradford, who was elected every year continuously, with the exception of two intervals respectively of three years and two years at his own special request. This fact sufficiently indicates his paramount influence in the colony, an influence due both to the unselfishness and gentleness of his nature, and to his great practical abilities as a governor. Indeed, it was chiefly owing to his energy and forethought that the colony at the most critical period of its history was not visited by overwhelming disaster. Among the earliest acts of his administration was to send an embassy to confirm a league with the Indian sachem of Masassoit, who was revered by all the natives from Narragansett Bay to that of Massachusetts. Notwithstanding his friendship it was found necessary in 1622, on account of the threats of the sachem of Narragansett, to fortify the town, but no attack was made. Another plot entered into among certain chiefs to exterminate the English was, through the sachem of Masassoit, disclosed to Bradford, and on the advice of the sachem the ringleaders were seized and put to death. The friendship of the Indians, necessary as it was in itself, was also of the highest advantage on account of the threatened extinction of the colony by famine. The constant arrival of new colonists frequently reduced them almost to the starving point. The scarcity was increased by the early attempts at communism, and it was not till after an agreement that each family should plant for themselves on such ground as should be assigned them by lot, that they were relieved from the necessity of increasing their supplies of provisions by traffic with the Indians.

In 1629 a patent was obtained from the council of New England, vesting the colony in trust in William Bradford, his heirs, associates, and assigns, confirming their title to a certain tract of land, and conferring the power to frame a constitution and laws. In framing their laws, the model adopted by the colonists was primarily and principally the 'ancient platform of God's law,' and secondly the laws of England. At first the whole body of freemen assembled for legislative, executive, and judicial business, but in 1634 the governor and his assistants were constituted a judicial court, and afterwards the supreme judiciary. The first assembly of representatives met in 1639, and in the following year Governor Bradford, at their request, surrendered the patent into the hands of the general court, reserving to himself only his proportion as settler by previous agreement. He died on 9 May 1657. His first wife, Dorothy May, whom he married at Leyden on 20 Nov. 1613, was drowned at Cape Cod harbour on 7 Dec. 1620, and on 14 Aug. 1623 he married Alice Carpenter, widow of Edward Southworth, a lady with whom he had been previously acquainted in England, and who, at his request, had arrived in the colony with the view of being married to him. By his first marriage he had one son, and by his second two sons and a daughter. His son William, by the second marriage (born on 17 June 1624, died on 20 Feb. 1703-4), was deputy-governor of the colony, and attained high distinction during the wars with the Indians.

Though not enjoying special educational advantages in early life, Bradford possessed more literary culture than was common among those of similar occupation to himself. He had some knowledge of Latin and Greek, and knew sufficient Hebrew to enable him to 'see with his own eyes the ancient oracles of God in their native beauty.' He was also well read in history and philosophy, and an adept in the theological discussion peculiar to the time. He employed much of his leisure in literary composition, but the only work of his which appeared in his lifetime was 'A Diary of Occurrences' during the first year of the colony, from their landing at Cape Cod on 9 Nov. 1620 to 18 Dec. 1621. This book, written in conjunction with Edward Winslow, was printed at London in 1622, with a preface signed by G. Mourt. The manuscripts he left behind him are thus referred to in a clause of his will: 'I commend unto your wisdom and discretion some small books written by my own hand, to be improved as you shall see meet. In special I commend to you a little book with a black cover, wherein there is a word to Plymouth, a word to Boston, and a word to New England.' These books are all written in verse, and in the Cabinet of the Historical Society of Massachusetts there is a transcript copy of these verses which bears date 1657. It contains (1) 'Some observations of God's merciful dealings with us in this wilderness,' published first in a fragmentary form in 1794 in vol. iii. 1st series, pp. 77-84, of the 'Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society,' by Belknap, among whose papers the fragment of the original manuscript was found, and in 1858 presented to the society; published in complete form in the 'Proceedings' of the society, 1869-70, pp. 465-78; (2) 'A Word to Plymouth,' first published in 'Proceedings,' 1869-70, pp. 478-82; (3) and (4) 'Of Boston in New England,' and 'A Word to New England,' published in 1838 in vol. vii., 3rd series of the 'Collections;' (5) 'Epitaphium Meum,' published in Morton's 'Memorial,' pp. 264-5 of Davis's edition; and (6) a long piece in verse on the religious sects of New England, which has never been published. In 1841 Alexander Young published 'Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth from 1602 to 1625,' containing, in addition to other tracts, the following writings belonging to Bradford: (1) A fragment of his 'History of the Plymouth Plantation,' including the history of the community before its removal to Holland down to 1620, when it set sail for America, printed from a manuscript in the records of the First Church, Plymouth, in the handwriting of Secretary Morton, with the inscription, 'This was originally penned by Mr. Wm. Bradford, governor of New Plymouth;' (2) the 'Diary of Occurrences' referred to above, first printed 1622, again in an abridged form by Purchas 1625, in the fourth volume of his 'Pilgrims,' thus reprinted 1802 in vol. viii. of the Massachusetts Historical Society 'Collections,' and the portions omitted in the abridgment reprinted with a number of errors in vol. xix. of the 'Collections,' from a manuscript copy of the original made at Philadelphia; (3) 'A. Dialogue or the Sum of a Conference between some young men born in New England and sundry ancient men that came out of Holland and Old England,' 1648, printed from a complete copy in the records of the First Church, Plymouth, into which it was copied by Secretary Morton, but existing also in a fragmentary form in the handwriting of Bradford in the Cabinet of the Massachusetts Historical Society; (4) a 'Memoir of Elder Brewster,' also copied by Morton from the original manuscript into the church records; (5) a fragment of Bradford's letter-book, containing letters to him, rescued from a grocer's shop in Halifax, the earlier and more valuable part having been destroyed. Bradford was the author of two other dialogues or conferences, of which the second has apparently perished, but the third, 'concerning the church and government thereof,' having the date 1652, was found in 1826 among some old papers taken from the remains of Mr. Prince's collection, belonging to the old South Church of Boston, and published in the 'Proceedings' of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1869-70, pp. 406-64. Copies of several of his letters were published in the 'Collections' of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. iii. 1st series, pp. 27-77, and his letters to John Winthrop in vol.vi. 4th series, pp. 156-61. The manuscripts of Bradford were made use of by Morton, Prince, and Hutchinson for their historical works, and are the principal authorities for the early history of the colony. Besides the manuscripts already mentioned, they had access to a connected 'History of the Plymouth Plantation,' by Bradford, which at one time existed in Bradford's own handwriting in the New England Library, but was supposed to have been lost during the war with England. In Anderson's 'History of the Colonial Church,' published in 1848, the manuscript was referred to as 'now in the possession of the Bishop of London,' but the statement not having come under the notice of any one in New England interested in the matter, it was not till 1855 that certain paragraphs in a 'History of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America,' by Samuel Wilberforce, published in 1846, professedly quoted from a 'MS. History of Plymouth in the Fulham Library,' led to its identification. These paragraphs were shown by J. W. Thornton to the Rev. Mr. Barry, author of 'The History of Massachusetts,' who brought them under the notice of Sam. G. Drake, by whom they were at once identified with certain passages from Bradford's 'History,' quoted by the earlier historians. On inquiry in England the surmise was confirmed, and a copy having been made from the manuscript in Bradford's handwriting in the Fulham Library, it was published in vol. iii. (1856) of the 4th series of the 'Collections' of the Mass. Hist. Soc. The manuscript is supposed to have been taken to England in 1774 by Governor Hutchinson, who is the last person in America known to have had it in his possession. The printed bookplate of the New England Library is pasted on one of the blank leaves.

[The chief original sources for the life of Bradford are his own writings; Mather's Magnalia, vol. ii. chap. i.; Shurtleff's Recollections of the Pilgrims in Russell's Guide to Plymouth; Morton's Memorial; Hunter's Collections concerning the Early History of the Founders of New Plymouth, 1849. See also Belknap's American Biography, ii. 217-51; Young's Chronicles of the Pilgrims; Fessenden's Genealogy of the Bradford Family; Savage's Genealogical Dictionary of the First Settlers of New England, i. 231; Raine's History of the Parish of Blyth; Hutchinson's History of Massachusetts; Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 4th series, vol. iii.; Winsor's Governor Bradford's Manuscript History of Plymouth Plantation and its Transmission to our Times, 1881; Dean's Who identified Bradford's Manuscript? 1883.]

T. F. H.