From PBS an American Experience: The Pilgrims
The story of William Bradford comes directly to us from his writings of the early history of America, from the time he grew up in England, to his time in Amsterdam and Leiden, Holland, to his journey aboard the Mayflower, concluding with the first thirty years of the Plymouth colony in America. The sounds of the New Testament echoed in the ear of William Bradford before he ever made the voyage. Bradford was keenly intelligent and aware of his part in the history of Plymouth colony. Pieced together over twenty years, the story developed with these passages from the New Testament as its strongest theme:
Hebrews 11: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it, the elders obtained a good report. Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear…. Abel…Enoch…Noah…Abraham… Sara… these all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek another country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he hath prepared for them a city.
William Bradford had read this account in the New Testament and envisioned such a kingdom on this Earth. He and the other separatists caught a vision of what could be. They wanted to see a new sort of life, unhampered by monarchy, and what they saw as Roman Catholic hierarchy that beset the Church of England. This tiny but determined group of people went forward with plans that would affect the world like no other. They would be the founders of a new nation, even in spite of the disunity of the passengers aboard the ship Mayflower– a speculative group in its broadest sense, sent to establish a profitable colony in America. Intertwined are the stories of the religious persecution and the voyage to become a profitable colony in the new world. The writings of William Bradford almost never survived intact, but for the effort of a few in later American history. We must digress to learn of William Bradford and Kings James I of England to understand the pilgrims of this journey, which was both physical and spiritual.
Bradford was born and baptized in Austerfield in 1590 in the county of Yorkshire, England. His family was neither wealthy nor among the poorest in his day. But by the time he was twelve, all his immediate family had died and he was left orphaned. Sent to live with his uncle Robert Bradford where he would work the fields, an illness took him away from the work day world of the fields and delivered him to months of intense study of the New Testament. His eyes were opened to the simplicity of the early church, which inspired him greatly. The world that he experienced around him was far from this vision of purity. Immoralities in the church, an overbearing monarch and a what he saw as a Roman Catholic inspired church hierarchy would engender in him the desire to see the church separate from the worldly forces that threatened it. Private religious meetings were banned. The king had ultimate authority over the church and its parishioners.
Protestantism had risen up particularly in the area where he lived and he sought connection with the people who he believed had the correct interpretation of scripture. Even at age 12, William Bradford saw elements in the church in his day that sharply contrasted with those in the early church. Among them were ministers who became spiritual leaders of Bradford’s–John Robinson who was leading some of these puritans. A friend invited Bradford to hear the Rev. Richard Clifton preach ten miles away. Clifton believed that the Church of England ought to eliminate all vestiges of Roman Catholic practices, and that this would result in a purer Christian church. Bradford was inspired by his preaching and continued to attend his sermons, even though he was forbidden by his uncles. During one meeting, Bradford met William Brewster, a bailiff and postmaster who lived at Scrooby manor, four miles from Austerfield. During frequent visits, Bradford borrowed books from him, and Brewster regaled him with stories of the efforts toward church reform taking place throughout England. King James I had enacted strict laws whereby parishioners would be fined for missing church. And if the fines didn’t work, they were sent to prison to reflect on their waywardness. Ultimately, the result could be banishment from the kingdom. This group decided that reform of the Church of England was hopeless and they would sever all ties. Their weekly meetings eventually attracted the attention of the Archbishop of York, and many members of the congregation were arrested in 1607. Brewster was found guilty of being “disobedient in matters of religion” and was fined. Some members were imprisoned and others were watched “night and day”, according to Bradford, by those loyal to the archbishop. Adding to their concerns, the Scrooby congregation learned that other dissenters in London had been imprisoned and left to starve. They decided in 1607 to leave England unlawfully for the Dutch Republic where religious freedom was permitted, and Bradford determined to go with them. The group encountered several major setbacks when trying to leave England, most notably their betrayal by an English sea captain who had agreed to carry them to the Netherlands, but instead turned them over to the authorities. Most of the congregation were imprisoned for a short time after this failed attempt, including Bradford. By the summer of 1608, however, they managed to escape England in small groups and emigrate to Amsterdam in the Dutch Republic
Nothing could be clearer. The monarch was the mediator between the Christian and God, even above the clergy. King James I was single minded in this persuasion. Even by 1603 Bradford had been convinced that complete separation from the Church of England was the only way for the church to purify itself. Even the meetings of these few became illegal and were not to be tolerated by the King. Looking over into Amsterdam, Holland, these puritans had seen what might be the place where they could worship and separate from the society that seemed so damning.
Their new home in the Dutch Republic was much more difficult than they had ever imagined: harsher climate, language barrier, the daunting work they had to take as newcomers in a new land. Since they were finally allowed to leave, King James considered them good riddance.
By this time, William Bradford was 18. From Amsterdam, they eventually made their way to Leiden where they felt they could worship as they chose but, as immigrants, took jobs that no one else wanted and worked long days, sometimes seven days a week weaving and making clothing. After ten years in Holland, it was clear that this was not the place they had hoped it would be. It was time to make a plan. Their children were becoming Dutch right before their eyes. The first attempt to escape to Holland in 1607 was disastrous. Word of the plan to escape reached authorities and the ship was seized and the group of people were arrested.
Even in Holland, they needed permission to leave. The group encountered numerous issues that would hinder their goal to make a new life in a new world. Bradford and his wife made the decision to leave their only son in Leiden, as well as the pastor and a large portion of the congregation. Eventually they obtained permission to emigrate to the new world. They would organize the journey with a legal charter. But how were they to finance the journey, who would lead them militarily? Many questions remained. Early in 1620 a broker from London, 35 year-old Thomas Westin, offered to arrange financing and obtain a ship to take them to the new World. The group venture was called The Fellowship of the Merchant Adventurers. In due time, they boarded the aging Speedwell, which was to rendezvous at Southampton with a ship called the Mayflower–which, by the way, was not a unique name–25 other English ships bore the name Mayflower in England at that time. The first plan was for both ships to make the journey to the new continent. August 5 1620 both ships set sail. The Speedwell proved to be an unworthy vessel and twice returning to the port delayed them further. As a last-ditch effort, members of the religious group on the Speedwell boarded the Mayflower– a group of 50 joined the other 52 persons the investors had secured to make the journey for the business venture. Some of the separatists were forced to return to their homes in Holland, including the son of William and Mae Bradford. They had married in Holland in a civil ceremony, which would symbolize a foundation of separation of church and state. The rest on board went ahead.
It was now September 6, 1620 as the 102 souls left for America. The Mayflower lay anchor at Plymouth, England, the name they would give the place where they landed in America. The passengers were already weary before the ship set sail, having been aboard for two months, and much of their provisions were depleted. The voyage would be fraught with cramped quarters, damage to the ship which had to be repaired enroute and the discomfort the church members felt with the ragtag group of strangers that the investors had insisted accompany them. But the plan came together. The journey would begin.
For all practical reasons it was really too late in the year to be making the journey, and, as a result, they encountered extra tempestuous seas. Its passengers were tossed violently about. At one point, an indentured servant named John Howland had gone out on deck to get fresh air when the ship lurched and tossed him overboard. He lay hold of one of the ropes attached to the ship. He hung on, and the crew aboard were able to hoist him back on the ship. We know that he would marry Elizabeth Tilley and have ten children, from whom nearly 2 million people in the new world would descend. Among their descendants we know were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Smith, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Humphrey Bogart, Chevy Chase and both George Bushes. It was a slow and arduous journey, with animals aboard, the birth of a child, sickness and even the death of two passengers.
When the Mayflower finally arrived November 9, 1620, rough seas forced them to land 200 miles north of their intended destination, a site which had been specified in their contract with the investment company. In fact, it seemed that all would be lost in shipwreck at their arrival because of choppy seas. But Captain Jones decided to save the ship rather than chance trying to sail to the original destination and was able to anchor in place. Some of the secular group were talking of going their own way once ashore because they had not reached the approved destination. However, the idea was raised to make a simple written compact to govern the group and the settlers signed on, making the Mayflower Compact, the very first document to bind a political group outside the bounds of monarchy. A search ensued for a place to settle. The first month they lived on the Mayflower as scouts rowed ashore to find fresh water and a suitable place to live. Since the Mayflower was unable to get close to shore the men ferried to shore in the freezing cold for at least a month. Myles Standish, William Bradford and a group of fourteen other explorers repeatedly scouted out the land and returned to the ship with loads of firewood.
In December, the bitter winter had iced over the deck of the Mayflower. William Bradford’s wife Dorothy fell overboard and drowned. There was no explanation of the event, whether she slipped on the ice, or whether she had borne all she could and jumped to her death. It was such a devastating loss that Bradford was unable ever to write about the despair of this event. It was the end of December before they finally began making their homes in the new world.
So many died the first winter, everyone remaining was in grief. They propped up the dead against trees so the natives would think they were guarding the settlement. They buried the other dead at night so as not to be seen by the natives, and even planted corn on the graves to disguise the losses. They were attacked one night in the dark. Clashing of weapons and arrows met with explosions of muskets. Much was the damage and death the immigrants experienced before cooperation was established with the Wampanoags, a loose confederacy made up of several Indian tribes. It became apparent that an alliance would serve both groups under the harsh conditions that first year. The immigrants would occupy some of the remaining homes of those who had died from the winter. Disease. Extreme cold. Attacks by the natives. The dead could not even all be buried, because none were left to bury them.
The first ‘thanksgiving,’ which we often praise as a great showy event, was never as we have envisioned it for generations. William Bradford did not even mention it in his diary. But we know the immigrants along with about 90 Indians joined together for a few days of celebration and the natives killed and brought deer to the gathering. They had been in such misery, had experienced such great losses, there was a sense of relief and gratefulness. Alliance, abundance and great loss formed the tapestry of our first thanksgiving story.
On April 5, 1621 the Mayflower set sail returning to England. Within a year, its Captain Jones died. Indeed, the Mayflower itself made few more journeys and eventually was sold for scrap, ever to be lost to history.
An entire year passed with no sign of any other Europeans. November 9, 1621 a ship was spotted and approached the colony. The arrival struck fear in the colonists immediately but it was a ship sent by Thomas Westin called the Fortune, with 35 additional recruits, who were, according to Bradford, not welcome. He described them as “profane and disorderly outsiders”. Along with the ship came a scathing letter from Thomas Westin for sending the Mayflower back empty. They struggled to stay alive, from warfare, economics and demographics. For eighteen months they struggled to accrue beaver skins and to ship back to the dismayed investors. When the Fortune attempted to return to the investors, the ship was pirated and all the cargo was lost. That made two years with no success by the colonists to pay down their debt.
Pressures rose from the rumors that the natives had plans to wipe out the entire colony once and for all. Leaders of the Pilgrims went on the pretense of making trade to these Indian chiefs, and murdered them with their knives, taking the severed head back to the colony placing it on a pike. It remained there for years as a grisly reminder to would be attackers.
Then, to their utter discouragement, Westin sent in two additional ships, loaded with immigrants who would be a competing colony and who had no desire for spiritual freedom, but only a stake in the investment. By 1623, other challenges ensued. The pilgrims had come for religious freedom, and everything had worked against their desires. Bradford could only report disappointment, time after time, in his journal.
By 1625 Bradford reports disunity and disappointment. In 1626 news came from Leiden that John Robinson had died the previous winter.
Finally, in 1626 Merchant Adventurers declared bankruptcy and disbanded the venture. The beaver skins had not initially been that valuable. In 1627 and 1628 prices grew for them back in the homeland. The colonists managed to trap many beaver skins to sell back to the homeland.
John Winthrop arrived in 1630. A thousand puritans were sent. Bradford and the puritans finally saw success economically. But spiritually, the vision of a unified group of Christians never materialized.
Bradford’s friends moved off, moved on, died away, as he wrote in his journal. The spiritual reality of what had happened with the pilgrims who searched for a new city was fortified in his mind. It became part of the story of America, but the story of the pilgrims remained at the center of it all. Bradford turned his remaining years toward learning Hebrew to attempt a closer understanding of his God.
After he died at 67 years of age, he was lamented as a father to them all. In the years to come, the world would be utterly changed. May 9, 1657 William Bradford died having outlived all his contemporaries. Within 15 years of his death, there were seventy thousand settlers, in 110 cities, and served as governor for 31 of the thirty seven years. And fewer than twenty thousand natives along the New England coast in half a dozen tribes. And perhaps less than a thousand Wampanoags.
King Phillip and his natives fought from 1675–1678 to put an end to the colonists’ stronghold. It was between this large group of natives and the New England colonists with their Indian allies. The war is named for Metacomet, the Wampanoag chief who adopted the name Philip because of the friendly relations that had been between his father Massasoit and the Mayflower pilgrims. Bradford’s journal was almost lost to history, but later found its way to a church in England. The story of this early sect in American history was finally returned to its origins in America and America adopted it as the founding story of all stories of the beginning of these United States.