William Bradford's 'Of Plymouth Plantation'

By John M. Hunt, Jr.

In his great book "Mayflower", Nathaniel Philbrick "focused," as he put it in the preface, "on two people," William Bradford (the governor, "pious and stalwart") and Benjamin Church (the Indian fighter, "audacious and proud"). Both men wrote revealingly about their lives in the New World."

Having seen our Society's 1896 facsimile of Bradford's "Of Plymouth Plantation" (copy number "146"), Philbrick waxed enthusiastic on Bradford's wonderful manuscript."*

"From my standpoint," he said, "it's the greatest book written in the 17th-century New England. The original is preserved "in the [State Library of the] State House on Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts." "The archivist there sued to work in Nantucket Historical Society, and is a good friend; and so she gave me total access to Bradford's manuscript. It was an absolute thrill to hold that great book—it looks as if it was written ten years ago, and is in such an excellent state of preservation, given it travels over the years. I do encourage all of you, if you haven't had a chance to look at the facsimile—just look at the pages, because in his hand you will see so much of the character of William Bradford. (I mean, there's no mention of a "Rock" in any of the 17th-century documents, but if there was a "Rock" in Plymouth Colony it was William Bradford.) You know, it's just a fascinating book, because in the beginning there are all of these doodles in which he's teaching himself Hebrew towards the end of his life. Puritans felt that [the Bible] was the time machine that would take you back to the word of God; and, to get as unmediated as possible a glimpse of that, you had to go to the original language in which the Bible was written; and so late in life William Bradford was teaching himself Hebrew. I've written a lot of historical books but I've never come across a document such as that, which really brings the personality of the person to life."

In the words of the "Mayflower Compact, Philbrick thought he "saw a lot of Robinson," referring to Pastor John Robinson's "Letter to the Pilgrims" (a farewell to them on their departure from Leiden). He also mentioned Bradford:

"Bradford I'm sure had a lot to do with [the Compact] as well," he said. "You know Bradford is one of the great stylists in this land. Strangely enough, as governor [he] had an element of the poet in him that I think is under appreciated, and I think had a lot to do with his ability to relate to a wide spectrum of people."

On Bradford's books, Philbrick commented:

"William Bradford had a good library... It was a time when books were not disposable things, but passed down to reread." Though the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay were better known for education (they founded Harvard, for example), "there was [in Plymouth] an element of book learning, self-taught in many ways, particularly when it comes to William Bradford. He had the heart of a scholar as well, you know, that shines forth in the accounts that we have."

On his reference to Bradford as "the Rock" of Plymouth Colony, Philbrick expanded:

"Bradford is someone for whom I've had much respect because, you know, we think of the Pilgrims as sustained by a faith that dwarfs all else, as giants, as a people undergoing some of the most psychically strenuous things [in exile]. Think of what Bradford goes through when they arrive [in the New World]. He's on all three of their exploratory ventures along the shore of Cape Cod looking for a settlement site. They finally find, after a month in the coldest of winter," a place, "not ideal," at Plymouth Harbor. "It's December now. They should have planted long ago! They return on the shallop back to the Mayflower to tell the good news, and he discovers that his wife, Dorothy, while he was gone, slipped over the side of the ship and drowned. Can you imagine this? Their three-year-old son [John] was left with relatives back in Holland. We don't know; there's been some speculation it may have been suicide—who knows? Bradford would never write about it. But he has to continue on. They begin to establish a settlement at Plymouth Colony that winter, half of them die, half of them die. I mean, if you're fighting in an army, if you're fighting a war and your unit suffers those kinds of losses, you're all traumatized beyond being able to operate. They continue on. He becomes ill—they think he's going to die. And then Carver, the governor upon whom they have been depending, dies. Bradford's still not ready to go physically, but agrees to become governor, and with that move he becomes the rock upon which the future of the colony will be based. And so, you know, he's in his early thirties, he's not an old man, but he clearly had something upon which they all realized—this is the guy we need to lead us. And he stepped up to the plate. He had lost his wife, his son, who was 3,000 miles away in Europe; his health was marginal at best; but he led them through what was just a horrendous year. And so with that I really feel that he is the Rock."