William Bradford came from humble beginnings. He was born to a farming family in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England. Trained from an early age to follow the family occupation, he nonetheless displayed a great love of learning, and he joined the small group of Dissenters from the Anglican Church that met at the home of William Brewster (see no. 15) in Scrooby In 1609, Bradford went with the Separatists to Amsterdam and then to Leyden, both in the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
Eleven years in the Netherlands convinced Bradford and his fellows that they did not want their children to grow up more Dutch than English. Therefore, they went back to England and chartered two ships, the Mayflower and the Speedwell, to take them to the New World.
The Speedwell proved to be unseaworthy, so the Mayflower sailed alone from England on September 6, 1620. On Novemebr 10, it arrived off Cape Cod, and the next day forty-one of the adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact; Bradford was the second to sign, after John Carver.
Bradford’s common sense and grave sense of duty won him great respect among his fellow Pilgrims, and in April, 1621 he was elected the first governor of the new colony.
Bradford was at this time struggling to overcome personal grief. His wife, Dorothy May, whom he had married in Amsterdam in 1613, had drowned in Cape Cod harbor in 1620. He married Alice Southworth in 1623 and together the couple had three children.
Although he came from simple origins, Bradford was no democrat. He thought it necessary and proper that an elite should govern the new colony Devout by nature, Bradford began to see the hand of God in all the things that helped the Pilgrim colonists survive.
In his diary, which was later publishedas History ofPlimoth Plantation (1620- 1647), Bradford time and again referred to the hand of Providence operating on behalf of the Pilgrims. Thus, the appearance of Samoset and Squanto (see no. 17) and their subsequent instructions on how to farm and fish, were seen as a favor from of God.
After his first term as governor, Bradford was re-elected 30 times in the next 35 years. He outlived nearly all of the original Pilgrims and remained an icon of virtue to the community. In later years, the writings in his diary exhibited a depressing tone, as he realized the Pilgrims were too small in number to remain pure, and that their community would be absorbed by other, larger communities.