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- Occupation: Governor of Plymouth Colony
- Born: 1590 in Austerfield, England
- Died: May 9, 1657 in Plymouth, Massachusetts
- Best known for: Leading the Pilgrims and founding Plymouth Colony
William Bradford was born in Austerfield, England in 1590 to William and Alice Bradford. His father, a wealthy farmer and landowner, died when William was still a baby and his mother died when he was seven. William was brought up by his uncles where he worked on the farm and read the Bible.
Against the will of his uncles, William began to attend Separatists church meetings around the age of 12. Separatists were people who wanted to "separate" from the Church of England to form a more "pure" church. At that time, however, it was illegal in England to practice any religion other than the Church of England.
William began to secretly meet with other Separatists at William Brewster's house. In 1607, the Church of England had many of the Separatists arrested. Some of them were sent to prison while others, like William Bradford, were fined. From that point on, suspected Separatists were watched all the time and were constantly in fear of being arrested. The Separatists decided to move to the Netherlands where they could worship freely.
In 1608, when William was eighteen, he moved to the Netherlands
along with many other Separatists. While in the Netherlands he married Dorothy May. They had a son, John, in 1617. Around that time, the Separatists decided to start their own colony in the Americas. William and Dorothy decided to make the trip to America, but they left their son John behind with his grandparents.
Bradford and his wife sailed across the Atlantic on the Mayflower
in 1620. The group of travelers would later be called the Pilgrims because of their quest to find religious freedom in the New World. Upon arrival, Bradford signed the first set of laws for the colony called the Mayflower Compact
Bradford volunteered to be on the first expeditions to find a place to settle. He was part of the group that discovered Plymouth Harbor where the Pilgrims would build Plymouth Colony. Unfortunately, upon his return Bradford learned that his wife had fallen off the Mayflower and drowned.
The first winter at Plymouth Colony
was brutal. Around half of the original settlers died that first year from disease or starvation including the first governor, John Carver. That Spring, William Bradford was elected the new governor of Plymouth Colony.
Bradford served as governor for the next twelve years. He would be elected several more times and serve a total of thirty years as governor. His strong leadership was just what the colony needed to survive. He worked at keeping the peace with the local Native Americans and allotted farmland to all of the settlers.
Of Plymouth Plantation
Bradford was also a writer. He wrote a detailed history of the Plymouth Colony called Of Plymouth Plantation
. This document is one of the best records of the Pilgrim's struggles to survive in the early years. It also gives great insight into the daily lives of the colonists. It covers much of the history of the Pilgrims up until the year 1647, twenty seven years after they arrived at Plymouth.
William Bradford died in Plymouth on May 9, 1657.
Interesting Facts about William Bradford
To learn more about Colonial America:
- Bradford married his second wife Alice Southworth in 1623. They had three children together.
- Famous descendants of William Bradford include actor Clint Eastwood, chef Julia Child, inventor George Eastman, Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist, and Noah Webster.
- He presided over what many historians consider to be the first Thanksgiving celebration in the autumn of 1621.
- One of Bradford's partners in leading the colony was Captain Myles Standish who handled the defense and military aspects of the colony.
- Bradford performed the first marriage ceremony at Plymouth Colony in 1621.
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