William Bradford (1590–1656) religious leader and colonizer


One of the chief architects of the Pilgrim migration from Holland to Plymouth in 1620 (see Pilgrims and Puritans; Massachusetts colony), William Bradford served as Plymouth Colony’s governor between 1622 and 1656 (excepting 1633–34, 1636, 1638, and 1644). His wise leadership inspired confidence and helped ensure the survival of England’s second colony in America.
Bradford was born in Austerfield, Yorkshire, into a yeoman farming family. He joined a separatist congregation as a young man and in 1608 followed John Robinson to Leyden, Holland, to avoid religious persecution by King James I. Though granted complete freedom of conscience there, the separatists feared that their families were losing their English identity and began searching for a new home. In 1617, Bradford served on a committee to arrange migration to America and in 1620 was one of 102 Pilgrims to set sail for the New World aboard the Mayflower, an expedition funded by an English joint-stock company with only nominal interest in the Pilgrims’ religious cause. Bound with a royal patent to settle in Virginia, the Pilgrims had no legal standing in New England, where they landed as the result of a navigational error. This led Bradford and the other men in the group to sign the Mayflower Compact (November 11), establishing “a civil body politick” to protect the colony from anarchy.
After the 1621 death of John Carver, the colony’s first governor, Bradford was elected to the position. As leader of a small band of poor settlers, he faced many difficulties. In 1623, he abandoned Pilgrim communalism as detrimental to initiative; in 1636, he encouraged the codification of local laws and a basic statement of rights. Bradford led the Pilgrims to honor their financial commitments, though it took more than 20 years to repay their English investors. Much of Plymouth’s success owed to Bradford’s religious tolerance and good relations with the native peoples of the region. His historical masterpiece, Of Plimmoth Plantation, is one of the most vivid accounts of early settlement in America. It was written between 1630 and 1650, but not published in full until 1856.

A–Z index