The Bradford Manuscript

The Massachusetts State House contains artifacts from battles, artistic treasures and the trappings of the oldest continuously operated constitutional government in the world. However, the single most prized artifact in the State House is the hand-written journal of Governor William Bradford.

What is the Bradford Manuscript?

It is the authoritative history of the Pilgrim travels and life from 1608-1647. It was during this time in which they departed England for the Netherlands, organized themselves as a company to settle in America, and weathered several decades of life in North America.

The Bradford journal is the single most complete authority for the story of the Pilgrims and the early years of the Colony they founded. This includes first-hand accounts of their difficult arrival in America, in which half of their expedition perished during the first six months. It also records the Pilgrims' first contact with Native Americans, and is how we know about the first Thanksgiving.

The Bradford journal is a 270 page, handwritten manuscript of vellum-bound pages measuring 11 1/2" by 7 3/4." Though the ink has turned brown and faded, it is still completely legible. Like all documents of its time, it is written with non-standard spellings, and it uses assorted abbreviations. Therefore, there are various "translations" of the journals, of which the most famous was prepared by the historian Samuel Eliot Morison.

The Manuscript's Travels

The original manuscript was passed through Governor Bradford's heirs until it came into the collection of Reverend Thomas Prince. On his death it became part of the library at the Old South Church where it remained until the American Revolution. English troops occupied the Old South Church, and it is assumed that the manuscript was taken as a prize of war and was not seen for nearly one hundred years.

It was eventually discovered in the library of the Bishop of London in Fulham Palace in 1855. It took forty-two years of negotiations and political wrangling before it was returned with great fanfare to the Governor of Massachusetts. Fortunately the public did not have to wait that long to read Bradford's words as the Bishop of London agreed to have a copy transcribed which was published in 1856.

About Governor William Bradford

Because Plymouth Colony was small and isolated, being its Governor was a far less grand office than Governors enjoy today. Only one hundred and one colonists boarded the Mayflower, and of them only half survived the first six months of life in the new world. At times there were fewer than a half dozen men healthy enough to hunt food. So conducting annual elections was not a difficult undertaking. Governing was far less grand than that term would today suggest.

However, in such a setting the Governor's powers were considerably greater and concentrated on a very small constituency. The Governor was the colony's principal judge and treasurer, as well as its Secretary of State. Because the colony was chartered as a company, the Governor was literally a Chief Executive, with responsibilities to both the people and to investors.

Nothing in William Bradford's upbringing suggested he would be a head of state, or even the head of a company. He was born in 1590, the son of a farmer who died a year after William's birth. His mother remarried, and left William to be raised by his paternal grandfather and uncles. They taught him to farm, in the hope that he would follow his father's footsteps.

Around the age of thirteen Bradford met William Brewster and devoted himself to Puritanism, finding there a community and family in Christ. He was imprisoned in 1607 for his faith at age 17. He fled England, joining a group of Puritans living abroad in Leyden, the Netherlands. Leyden was a university town, and Bradford studied religious texts in classic languages, and married Dorothy May in 1613. Though he had difficulty with the language and earning a living, Bradford and the Puritan's were tolerated.

It was in fact the agreeable nature of Leyden which made it dangerous. The Puritan group was rapidly assimilating into the liberal Dutch culture. In June of 1620, he and fewer than forty of the two hundred and forty Puritans in Leyden returned to England to remove themselves to America where they could build a theologically based utopian society.

Of the one hundred and one passengers on the Mayflower, most were not Puritans. Their crossing of the Atlantic was difficult, and they found themselves several hundred miles north of their intended destination near the Hudson River. It was November, and winter in the new world had already begun. While Bradford went to scout for a site to develop as their winter home, his wife Dorothy gave in to the depression of the hard sixty day journey and inhospitable environment the found. She fell from the Mayflower, in what is assumed to be an act of suicide.

Over the next three decades Bradford served as governor near continuously. He remarried, and as Governor dealt with crime, envy, and the spiritual apathy of a new generation unaccustomed to the perils endured by his own.

There simply is no figure in Pilgrim history able to tell the Pilgrim story with the perspective of William Bradford. The return his manuscript to Massachusetts, restored this important heritage to the people of the Commonwealth whose government grew from the struggles there on Plymouth Plantation.