| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born into a Yorkshire family of yeoman farmers, William Bradford’s
early misfortune must have made him more receptive to the religious fervor and
sense of community that Puritanism later provided. By the age of seven,
Bradford was orphaned of both parents and a grandfather, and soon was sent to
live with his uncles, who raised him as a farmer. His fragile health and sense
of isolation allowed him plenty of time to read his Bible, and when at the age
of twelve he heard the sermons of Richard Clyfton, a nonconformist minister,
Bradford felt spiritually moved. Despite the scorn of family and friends,
Bradford in 1606 became a member of this group of Separatists who had formed
their own congregation in the village of Scrooby under the direction of
Clyfton, John Robinson, his later successor to the pulpit, and William
Brewster, the group’s pre-eminent elder. Because of pressure to conform to the
hierarchy of the Anglican Church, the Scrooby group in 1608 fled to Holland and
eventually settled in Leyden. After one disastrous business venture, William
Bradford became a weaver.
In 1620 part of the
Leyden congregation, along with an assortment of less pious emigrants, departed
on the Mayflower to establish a settlement where they could maintain a
church of “ancient purity” freed from European entanglements. In November they
arrived off the shores of what is now Cape Cod, Massachusetts (somewhat farther
north than they had intended), and in December disembarked at Plymouth. Since
John Robinson had stayed behind in Leyden, William Brewster became the
settlers’ spiritual leader, preaching regularly on Sundays; because of the
Separatist emphasis upon spontaneity, other members gave short, impromptu
sermons as they wished. When Plymouth’s first governor, John Carver, died in
1621, Bradford was elected to take his place. The governor wielded extensive
powers by contemporary standards: chief judge and jury, superintendent of
agriculture and trade, and secretary of state. During his lifetime Bradford was
re-elected to the position thirty times, serving almost continuously, for a
total term of thirty-three years until his death in 1657.
In 1630 William
Bradford wrote the first book of his history, Of Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps
the settlement that year of a much larger, and potentially overshadowing,
Puritan colony at Massachusetts Bay prompted Bradford to begin his history. He
put aside the manuscript until 1644, when he finished the eleventh chapter, and, between 1646 and 1650, he brought
the account of the colony’s struggles and achievements through the year 1646.
Bradford’s unfinished manuscript was not published until 1856. It had remained
in the Bradford family until 1728, when Reverend Thomas Prince placed it in his
personal library in Boston’s Old South Church. During the American Revolution,
the manuscript was lost, presumably stolen by a British soldier during the
British occupation of Boston
(1775–1776). In 1855, scholars intrigued by references to Bradford in
two books on the history of the Episcopal Church in America (both written in
England) located the manuscript in the bishop of London’s library at Lambeth
Palace. In 1897, after a protracted legal battle, Of Plymouth Plantation
was returned to Massachusetts. The unfinished manuscript of Of Plymouth
Plantation is not Bradford’s only literary effort—he wrote a journal of
Plymouth’s first year, some poems, and
a series of dialogues—but it constitutes his greatest literary achievement.
For Bradford the history of the
Plymouth settlers closely followed the plot of the Old Testament. The Puritans’
journey to the New World indicated a covenanted relationship with God for which
God’s relationship with the Israelites provided a model and a guide. This
interpretive strategy, known as typology, influenced a number of later
New England historians such as Nathaniel Morton, Cotton Mather, and Thomas
The way in which
Bradford composed Of Plymouth Plantation should remind us that his history
is not a yearly chronicle of events but a retrospective attempt to interpret
God’s design for his “saints,” that exclusive group of believers predestined
for eternal salvation. Like the Puritan journal, the genre of Puritan history
served a distinctly useful purpose in enhancing spiritual life. Bradford
hoped to demonstrate the workings of divine providence for the edification of
future generations, and since all temporal events theoretically conveyed divine
meaning, the texture of Bradford’s writing is as rich in historical detail as
it is patterned on the language of the Geneva Bible. The word choice and
cadence of Bradford’s prose manifested a constant reminder of the biblical
precedent for Puritan history. Yet a major tension in his narrative involves
the difficulty in interpreting the providential will. As Bradford repeatedly
encounters human wickedness and duplicity, Of Plymouth Plantation
increasingly reveals its author’s perplexity over the apparent ambiguity of
divine providence. Bradford maintains his piety, but he is forced to
acknowledge his perception of an infinite gulf between man and God. Such an
acknowledgment amplifies the narrative’s tone of humility, established at the
outset, in Bradford’s declaration that he shall write in the Puritan “plain
style” of Biblical simplicity and concrete image, and tell the “simple truth”
as well as his “slender judgment” would permit.
Many readers have
noted the elegiac note of sadness on which Of Plymouth Plantation ends.
If Bradford’s realization that “so uncertain are the mutable things of this
unstable world” dictates his humility throughout, his final entries
particularly pronounce a sense of loss. In the eulogy to William Brewster
Bradford lamented, most of all, the disappearance of a
communitarian vision embodied by the first-generation founders like Brewster
and John Robinson. To Bradford, those first emigrants whom he called “Pilgrims”
exemplified the value of community and sense of purpose that were presumably
waning in the 1640s as second-generation inhabitants and new immigrants looked
for better farmland. Of Plymouth Plantation thus speaks a message
characteristic of much of the literature of immigration: the paradoxical nature
of prosperity and success, the sense that, in this case, the founding of the
first successful British settlement in New England led only to fragmentation
In the Heath Anthology
from Of Plymouth Plantation (Book I)
from Chapter IX: "Of Their Voyage, and How They Passed the Sea; and of Their Safe Arrival at Cape Cod"
from Chapter I: "The Separatist Interpretation of the Reformation in England 1550-1607"
from Of Plymouth Plantation (Book II)
Chapter XI: "The Remainder of Anno 1620" [The Mayflower Compact, The Starving Time, Indian Relations]
from Chapter XIV: "Anno Domini 1623" [End of the "Common Course and Condition"]
from Chapter XIX: "Anno Domini 1628" [Thomas Morton of Merrymount]
from Chapter XXIII: "Anno Domini 1632" [Prosperity Brings Dispersal of Population]
from Chapter XXIX: "Anno Domini 1638" [Great and Fearful Earthquake]
from Chapter XXVIII: "Anno Domini 1637" [The Pequot War]
from Chapter XXXII: "Anno Domini 1642" [Wickedness Breaks Forth; A Horrible Case of Bestiality]
from Chapter XXXIII: "Anno Domini 1643" [The Life and Death of Elder Brewster, The New England Confederation and the Narragansetts]
from Chapter XXXIV: "Anno Domini 1644" [Proposal to Remove to Nauset]
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American Writers: A Journey Through History
Biographical sketch, links, and information about a video history of Bradford.
Morbid but fascinating site offering photos of Bradford's grave in Plymouth, MA.
Modern History SourceBook
Digitized selections from History of Plymouth Plantation, c. 1650.
Site offers a biography, ancestral summary, and selected secondary resources.
David Cressy, Coming Over, 1987
Robert Daly, "William Bradford's Vision of History," American Literature, 44, 1973
Alan B. Howard, "Art and History in Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 28, 1971
David Levin, "William Bradford: The Value of Puritan Historiography," in Everett H. Emerson's Major Writers of Early American Literature, 1972
Bradford, Smith, Bradford of Plymouth, 1951
Walter P. Wenska, "Bradford's Two Histories," Early American Literature, 8, 1978