William Bradford: Governor & Historian


William Bradford (1590-1657), Pilgrim Father, governor of Plymouth colony and this nation’s first historian, was born at Austerfield, Yorkshire in England. Early on, he fell under Puritan influence. As a young man, he left the local parish and joined a Separatist congregation at Scooby whose members included Richard Clyfton, John Robinson and William Brewster. He had only a modest elementary education but he managed to teach himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew among other languages. In 1608, the Separatists left England for the Netherlands in the search for religious freedom. They settled in Leiden where Bradford worked in a textile workshop. He lived there from 1609-1620.

In 1620, Bradford joined his fellow Separatists on the voyage on the Mayflower to America. These Pilgrim Fathers founded Plymouth colony. Bradford was chosen as governor and was re-elected as governor nearly every year of his life until his death in 1657. He is respected for his skillful administration and religious piety.

Bradford is well-known for his work as an historian. His work, Of Plymouth Plantation, is a classic of seventeenth-century Puritan literature. It tells the story of the founding of the Plymouth colony and it is the first work to refer to the Separatists as “pilgrims.” He writes about them leaving Leiden:

So they left the goodly and pleasant city which had been
their resting place for near twelve years, but they knew they
were pilgrims and looked not much on these things but lifted
their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted
their spirits.

He describes the events in terms of the sovereignty of God and he relates many stories in which God intervened on their behalf to bless the Pilgrims. “The marvelous providence of God” protected them. His providential view of early American history would help to give later Americans great confidence that they and the nation were in God’s good hands.