Betrayed as he attempted to leave England, he was thrown into prison. But when he was twenty, Bradford left England in the company of other Separatists and settled down to hard work as a weaver in the Netherlands. Well-read, he became a leader of the Pilgrims who sailed to Plymouth in 1620.
The voyage to the New World was stormy. Intending to sail to Virginia, the Pilgrims blew off course and found themselves in New England. Their instructions from the Virginia company did not anticipate this changed circumstance, and so William Bradford, with other leaders, drew up and signed the Mayflower Compact.
They had named John Carver their governor. But Carver "came out of the field very sick, it being a hot day. He complained greatly of his head and lay down, and within a few hours his senses failed, so as he never spake more till he died, which was within a few days after (April 5, 1621)." On this day, April 21, 1621, the colonists chose William Bradford as Carver's replacement. He proved to be a gentle but firm ruler and served thirty one-year terms. This was not by his own choice. He rejoiced on the few occasions when someone else could be convinced to take a term.
Thanks to Bradford's high position and his persistent early efforts to educate himself, he was well-equipped to write a history of the plantation. He completed this in 1651, six years before his death. In it he gives the reasons why the Pilgrims felt it necessary to leave Leyden for the New World. One was the Pilgrim's concern for their children, who were not only crushed by hard labor but were drawn away from Christ by the temptations of their adopted city, and "drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses."
But the Pilgrims' paramount reason for transplanting to the New World was "a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundation, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world--yea, though they should be but even stepping stones unto others for the performing of so great a work."
- Avery, Elroy McKendree. History of the United States and its People. Cleveland: Burrows Bros, 1904.
- Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620 - 1647. [a.k.a History of Plymouth Plantation.] Many editions available.
- "Bradford, William." Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Scribner, 1958-1964.
- Kunitz, Stanley. "Bradford, William." American authors, 1600-1900: a biographical dictionary of American literature. New York: The H. W. Wilson company, 1938.
- Ruttman, Darrett B. "Bradford, William." Encyclopedia of American Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein. New York, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1974.
- Willison, George F. Saints and Strangers. New York: Ballantine, 1965, especially chapter VII.