William Bradford: Leader of Early Pilgrims

Updated Oct 20, 2022
William Bradford: Leader of Early Pilgrims

In April 5, 1621, Governor John Carver and about 100 Pilgrims at Plymouth watched the Mayflower hoist anchors and sail from Cape Cod Bay back to England. What fears and doubts must have raced through their minds as they watched their last slender link to civilization pass out of sight.

One week later, on a hot, sunny day, Carver dropped his hoe, complaining of an awful headache. Two days later he was dead. By unanimous consent, the handful of remaining colonists elected 32-year-old William Bradford to take his place. The fate of the colony, indeed of their very lives, hung in the balance. With unfaltering faith and unwavering courage, Bradford accepted the challenge, trusting the outcome to the Lord.

Early Lessons in Trust

Although life at Plymouth would test his faith in ways William Bradford could not yet imagine, he already had 20 years experience trusting the Lord. In 1591, one year after his birth in Austerfield, Yorkshire, his father died. When his mother remarried, she sent young William to live first with his grandfather and then with his uncles, who set the puny lad to plowing.

At the age of twelve, a serious illness left him concerned for his soul. At this time, organized religion in England was in disarray. Many priests did not live near their parishes, and many did not even preach the four sermons each year required by law. Although Austerfield's priest lived in his parish, he was ignorant and easygoing, showing no zeal for the things of God. Evangelical groups formed in the area, and Bradford began to attend their meetings, even though this angered his uncles.

The Church of England and the English government joined together in persecuting those who wanted to separate from the Church of England. These Separatists were harassed, fined, and imprisoned on various pretexts. The persecution was so severe that they eventually decided to emigrate to the Netherlands in search of religious freedom and relief from persecution. Their voyages, however, were plagued with innumerable difficulties. Since England made it illegal for them to leave the country, they had to sneak out. Some had money and goods treacherously stolen, while others were pursued by troops. In addition to these setbacks, some Separatists were betrayed by the captains who were supposed to take them overseas. Captured in 1607, 18-year-old William Bradford found himself imprisoned for his beliefs.

Because of his youth, he was soon freed and made his way to Holland where he obtained employment as a weaver. He married Dorothy May in 1613, and was soon included in the highest Separatist councils. The exiles, under Pastors John Robinson and William Brewster, settled in Leyden. Conditions were harsh and income was scarce. The mortality rate was high, and the work grueling. In desperation, the Separatists determined to emigrate to the new world and establish a settlement where they could improve their situation. After many hardships, betrayals and dangers, a small party of Separatists, along with some other migrants, sailed to New England on the Mayflower. This small band of travelers became known as Pilgrims, and Bradford helped select Plymouth as the place where they would settle.

Bradford Inherits a Mess

Bradford began his new life as a widower: his wife Dorothy drowned in the Cape Cod harbor, "falling" overboard when the ship was sitting still in the water. Because of the reticence of the account, historians conjecture her death might have been a suicide.

Conditions at the new settlement were formidable. When Carver died, Bradford inherited enormous problems. Food was scarce and for several years the Pilgrims lived close to starvation. The Indians rightfully resented the encroachment on their lands, and plague broke out, killing more than half the Pilgrims the first winter. There were quarrels with the "strangers" in their midst. The "adventurers" (venture capitalists) who funded the expedition made unreasonable demands, quarreled among themselves in England, and forced the small colony to live for several years under a system which could never work. Enemies from England imposed upon their Christian charity.

Under these trying circumstances, Bradford was repeatedly elected governor, serving without pay for fourteen terms and then receiving only £20 annually for all his work. The workload was so heavy that he pleaded with others to take turns governing the settlement, but in 34 years he was able to escape re-election only five times, in 1633, 1634, 1636, 1638 and 1644.

Rejecting a Chance to Grab Power

Although overworked and underpaid, Bradford was a good governor. He was legislator, executive and judge rolled into one, but he stood by his integrity and did not abuse his powers. He tried to be peaceable and fair with the Indians, showed Christian charity to later colonists who abused the system, and was not power hungry. In 1630, a patent from England gave him authority to take all the land of the colony for himself. Bradford showed his true Christian spirit by immediately dividing the property between the "Old Comers" and allowing their rights of self-government to continue as before.

Not everyone who arrived in Massachusetts was a Puritan. Bradford was tolerant of those whose religious views differed from his own (except Quakers). Indeed, he relied heavily on Myles Standish, one of the "strangers" who sailed with the Pilgrims. Some historians speculate that Standish was a Catholic; whether or not this is so, Bradford placed him in a position of enormous responsibility.

Thus, in all his dealings, Bradford showed that he believed deeply in God and acted with the Father in mind. His writings repeatedly give thanks for the manner in which God provided for the settlers. "And thus they found the Lord to be with them in all their ways, for which let His holy name have the praise forever, to all posterity." He questioned how it was that so many of the Pilgrims lived to such a ripe old age despite the terrible hardships they passed through. He concluded that it was because God had wanted to show the world that "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word of God." For all his godliness, he never allowed the church to dominate his colony the way it did at Massachusetts Bay. Church and government were restricted to appropriate spheres.

Of Plimoth Plantation

While in Holland, Bradford worked hard to further his education. In his later years at Plymouth, he used his education to write a history of the colony and called it Of Plimoth Plantation. It was not intended for publication, but rather for the use of his children. Historians knew about the manuscript early on, however, and some consulted it. Then the document disappeared. Many years later, it turned up in England and was eventually restored to Massachusetts and printed. By writing this history, Bradford preserved the memory of the noble men who risked their lives, health and goods for the honor of God.

Bradford's "Pledge of Happiness"

William Bradford died in 1657, having guided the Plymouth colony to survival despite blows so severe that other colonies collapsed when faced with similar difficulties. He died triumphant in his faith in God. The day before his death he told his friends with joy, "that the good Spirit of God had given him a pledge of happiness in another world, and the first fruits of his eternal glory."

Bradford Explains Why the Pilgrims Left Leyden for the New World

After they had lived in this city [Leyden]for about eleven or twelve years (which is memorable because it coincided with the famous truce between the Netherlands and the Spanish), and several of them were taken away by death, and many others began to be well stricken in years, the grave mistress experience having taught them many things, those prudent leaders with several of the wisest members began both deeply to apprehend their present dangers and wisely to contemplate the future and consider timely remedies.

In the agitation of their thoughts and much discourse of matters around here, at length they began to incline toward this solution: moving to another place. This was not out of change for the sake of change or similar giddy fancy, by which people are often transported to their great hurt and danger, but for various weighty and solid reasons, some of the chief of which I will here touch on briefly…

The four principal reasons Bradford gave were these:

1. Conditions in Holland for the Separatists were so harsh that few who believed as they did dared to join them, and some actually preferred to go to prison in England.

2. Many of them were growing old, their old age hastened by their sufferings and hard work, so that they were beginning to sink under the weight of their endless struggle and soon would be forced to find better conditions or die prematurely.

3. Their children were being lost to them. The bodies of some broke down in youth because of overwork. Many were being led into bad behavior by irreligious neighbors. Others, to escape drudgery, had joined the army or become sailors, thereby endangering their souls by wicked companionship.

4. They hoped to promote the Gospel of Christ in "remote parts of the world."

William Bradford and an English-Speaking Indian

"…But Squanto continued with them, and was their interpreter, and was a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation. He directed them how to plant their corn, where to catch fish, and how to procure other items, and was also their pilot to guide them to unexplored places for their use, and never left them until he died. He was a native of this place, and had almost no one left alive besides himself. He had been carried away with various others by one Hunt, a master of a ship, who expected to sell them for slaves to Spain, but [Squanto] escaped to England where he was lodged by a merchant in London, and employed in Newfoundland and other places, and finally brought here by one Mr. Dermer, a gentleman employed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges and others, for exploration and other projects in these parts…

[In 1622 at Manamoick Bay] Squanto fell sick with an Indian fever, bleeding heavily from the nose (which the Indians consider a symptom of death), and within a few days died there, requesting the governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen's God in heaven; and he bequeathed some of his things to different ones of his English friends as tokens of his love. He was a great loss."

From Book 2 of Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation 1606-1646. Ed. by William T. Davis. New York: Scribner's, 1908. English modernized by Dan Graves.


1. Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation; Bradford's History of the Plymouth Settlement. Mantle Ministries n.d.

2. Bradford, William. Bradford's History of Plymouth Plantation 1606-1646. Edited by William T. Davis. New York: Scribner's, 1908.

3. "Bradford, William." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958-1964.

4. "Bradford, William." American Authors, 1600-1900: a biographical dictionary of American literature, by Kunitz, Stanley. New York: The H. W. Wilson company, 1938.

5. Ruttman, Derrett B. "Bradford, William." Encyclopedia of American Biography. Editor John A. Garraty. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

6. Walker, Williston. Ten New England Leaders. New York, Boston, [etc.] Silver, Burdett and company, 1901.

7. Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965, 1945.

Graphic by G. Connor Salter. Photo of Bradford signature public domain from 1855 edition of Encyclopedia of American Literature (via Wikimedia Commons).

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