William 3-month journey across the ocean, but the

William Bradford was one of the founders of Plymouth Colony in 1620.

Learn about his involvement with the Mayflower Compact, the first Thanksgiving, his writings, and his role as governor of Plymouth Colony.

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William Bradford (1590-1657) was one of the founders of Plymouth colony in 1620 in America. He was important for colonial American history because he was a signer of the Mayflower Compact, he played an important role in the first Thanksgiving, he was Plymouth colony’s governor for more than 30 years, and he wrote Of Plymouth Plantation, one of the first history books on European settlement in the New World.

Statue of William Bradford

Early Years

Bradford was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1590. He came from an upper-middle class family and expressed his religious differences even while in his early teens.

During his teens, he joined the Pilgrims, also known as Separatists, a group that wanted to separate from the Church of England, something that was not allowed at that time. The Pilgrims were persecuted in England, and Bradford joined the Pilgrims as they fled to the Netherlands for religious freedom.

Mayflower Compact

After 11 years in the Netherlands, the Pilgrims decided to set up a colony in the New World. They set sail in 1620 on the ship called the Mayflower for North America. It was a rough 3-month journey across the ocean, but the Pilgrims finally arrived off the coast of what is now Massachusetts. Before leaving the ship and starting Plymouth Colony, the Pilgrims decided to write the ‘Mayflower Compact,’ one of America’s first documents defining government and civil laws in colonial American history.

Bradford was one of the men who signed the document, which emphasized his importance and leadership qualities among the Puritans.

Plymouth Colony

Bradford and the First Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims landed in America in the fall season in 1620. Although they quickly started trying to build shelters and gather and hunt for food, their first New England winter was quite harsh, and starvation and sickness killed almost half of their population. The survivors began working hard for better survival as soon as winter passed, but they had much beneficial assistance from friendly local Indians.

The combination of hard work and assistance from local Indians meant that the Pilgrims reaped an abundant harvest after the summer of 1621.The celebration that we now regard as the ‘First Thanksgiving’ was the Pilgrims’ 3-day feast celebrated in November of 1621. Bradford helped organize the celebration. This feast was a celebration for their first rich harvest as well as a way to thank the local Indians who helped teach them important survival skills. The first Thanksgiving started a tradition of giving thanks for good harvests and good health through feasting sometime during the fall season. By the mid-17th century, the custom of Thanksgiving spread throughout New England and became so popular that, after the American Revolution, the newly established Congress officially recognized the need for this holiday.

Bradford as Governor of Plymouth Colony

Upon landing and establishing Plymouth Colony, elections were done for choosing the governor of the colony.

For the first year, John Carver was governor. However, Carver passed away after one year as governor. From then on, Bradford was elected governor, a leadership role that he held for most of his remaining life.

The governor was elected every year, and Bradford was governor for 30 years. During the five years in which he chose not to serve, he was elected as the governor’s assistant.Bradford was an excellent leader for the new colony. There were very few complaints made about his governorship in historical records. He worked hard to maintain friendly relations with the Native Americans and also managed to organize fishing, trading, and farming in their community.Bradford was largely responsible for keeping Plymouth Colony independent of the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony. Since the Massachusetts Bay Colony was made up of Puritans who wanted to continue worshiping in the Church of England style (just a ‘purified’ version of it), and Plymouth Colony was made up of Pilgrims who wanted to remain separate from the Church of England, it was a wise decision for Bradford to keep his colony apart from the other.

Bradford was a very active political figure in Plymouth Colony. Not only was he the governor, he was also chief magistrate, high judge, and treasurer, and he presided over legislative issues in the General Court. In 1636, he helped draft the colony’s legal code. Bradford was also known for being more religiously tolerant than the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s governor, John Winthrop. Many of the people who were banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony for religious reasons often found shelter in Plymouth Colony under Bradford’s leadership.

Bradford and ‘Of Plymouth Plantation’

Around 1630, Bradford started writing a history of the Plymouth Colony that is called Of Plymouth Plantation.

This historical account of Plymouth Colony is one of very few primary sources about Plymouth Colony, the Mayflower, and general information on early settlement in New England. Bradford’s book clearly showed the balance Bradford tried to use when it came to managing Plymouth Colony: he did not want to be as religiously strict as Massachusetts Bay Colony, but he also did not want religion to play absolutely no part in Plymouth’s organization.

Of Plymouth Plantation

Lesson Summary

William Bradford passed away at the age of 68, after living a long, fulfilling life in Plymouth Colony. Bradford was an influential and important Pilgrim figure. He was an important signer of the Mayflower Compact and helped organize the first Thanksgiving. He led an active political life, serving as governor as well as in other political offices for the remainder of his life upon settling Plymouth Colony.

In addition, Bradford’s historical account Of Plymouth Plantation would eventually become a very important primary source for historians about early colonial life in America. Bradford was an influential and important man in Colonial American history.

William Bradford: Overview

Dates & Events Explanations
1590 birth of Bradford in Yorkshire, England
Pilgrims religious group also known as Separatists; they wanted to separate from the Church of England
Netherlands Bradford and other Pilgrims lived in this country for 11 years
Mayflower Compact document signed by male ship members of the Mayflower that defined the government and laws
Thanksgiving celebration held with the helpful Indians after an abundant harvest in their second year
Governor Bradford was elected and reelected governor for over 30 years
Massachusetts Bay Colony Bradford kept his colony separate from this group of less tolerant Puritans
Of Plymouth Plantation history of the Plymouth colony written by Bradford

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, students should be ready to:

  • Identify the importance of William Bradford in American history
  • Summarize the Pilgrims’ harsh beginnings when coming to America
  • Contrast how Bradford ran Plymouth vs how Winthrop ran the Massachusetts Bay Colony
  • Detail the importance of the Mayflower Compact
  • Describe the first Thanksgiving

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