William Bradford was one of the most important Mayflower Pilgrims as they are known today.
He was baptized on 19th March 1589/1590 at Austerfield, Yorkshire. His father William died when he was one year old. He lived with his grandfather William, until his grandfather died when he was six. His mother Alice then died when he was seven. He and his older sister Alice were raised by their uncle Robert Bradford in The Manor House, Austerfield. William was a sickly boy, and by the age of 12 had taken to reading the Bible, and as he began to come of age he became acquainted with the ministry of Richard Clyfton and John Smith, around which the Separatist churches of the region would eventually form about 1606, meeting secretly to avoid persecution. They were in great danger: his family was not supportive of his moves, and by 1607 the Church of England under King James 1 of England, was applying pressure to extinguish these religious sects. Bradford, at the age of 18, joined with the group of Separatists that fled from England in fear of persecution, arriving in Amsterdam in 1608.
A year later he migrated with the rest of the church to the town of Leiden, Holland, where they remained for eleven years. Bradford returned to Amsterdam temporarily in 1613 to marry his 16-year old bride, Dorothy May. In Leiden, Bradford took up the trade of a silk weaver to make ends meet and was able to recover some of the estate in England that he had been left by his father, to support himself and his new wife in Leiden. They had a son, John, born about 1615-1617 in Leiden, before returning to England to prepare for the journey to America.
In 1620, some of the group decided to set off for America on the Mayflower, Bradford (now 30 years old) sold off his house in Leiden, and he and his wife Dorothy joined the group; however, they left young son John behind. Sailing on the Speedwell to Southampton they had to transfer to the seaworthy Mayflower and set sail in 1620. The journey resulted in many casualties and sickness and conditions were terrible.
While the Mayflower was anchored off Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod, and while many of the Pilgrim men were out exploring and looking for a place to settle, Dorothy Bradford accidentally fell overboard and drowned.
John Carver was designated governor of Plymouth and remained governor until his death a year later in April 1621. Bradford was then elected governor and was re-elected nearly every year thereafter. In 1623, he married to the widowed Alice (Carpenter) Southworth and had a marriage feast very reminiscent of the “First Thanksgiving,” with Massasoit and many Indians joining, and bringing turkeys and deer. William Bradford was the head of the government of Plymouth, oversaw the courts, the colony’s finances, corresponded with investors and neighbours, formulated policy with regards to foreigners, Indians, and law, and so had a very active role in the running of the entire Colony being a key signatory of The Compact. With his second wife Alice, he had three more children, William, Mercy and Joseph, all of whom survived to adulthood and married. His book, “Of Plymouth Plantation”, records the establishment and life in the colony and is an important source as one of the only accounts of the colony written by a passenger on the Mayflower.
William Bradford died on 9th May 1657, aged 67, in the Plymouth Colony.
The parish church of St Helena’s in Austerfield is reported to have been the location of the baptism of William Bradford, and in honour of him and the other brave pilgrims a beautiful stained glass window was installed in the church.
Read more about The Manor House and Austerfield itself.
There are many activities taking place locally to celebrate this historic event in November 2019, with the big anniversary being planned for around Thanksgiving in 2020.
Find out all about the planned celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailing.