“Embarkation of the Pilgrims,” by Robert Walter Weir. William Bradford is depicted at center, kneeling in the background, symbolically behind gov. John Carver (holding hat) whom Bradford would succeed.—Wikipedia

Thanksgiving: An American Holiday

Thanksgiving is a critical part of  America’s history. Most of us, when celebrating the occasion, remember that it originated in the autumn of 1621 when the pilgrims celebrated a bountiful harvest by giving thanks to God for bringing them safely to their “promised land.” They’d been through a lot: persecution, disasters, conflicts, hardships, disease, and famine, but God had brought them through and given them an especially bountiful harvest. It was now a time of rejoicing and sharing with all around them—including the Indians—a bountiful meal to celebrate His goodness. Hearts were merry and very thankful.

This year I thought to investigate the background of that first day of Thanksgiving. So last night, when I asked my historian husband for a book on the subject, he went to his library and pulled out: “Of Plymouth Plantation from 1620-1647” by William Bradford. The book is the official chronicle of the story of the Pilgrim Fathers. I began reading and, though the English was weighted with archaic language, I got so engrossed that hours slipped by before I could put it down. How thankful I was that we have a record that tells first hand just like it was. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but compare it with the escape and wanderings of the children of Israel as told in the Old Testament. Thankful I am that I was able to discuss some things with my husband who, as a professor—now retired—of American History, can speak of the story as if he himself was there. Since not everyone has a historian in their home, I thought to share a few of the details from the life of William Bradford that touched me, and will affect my own thanksgiving celebration this year. Here’s a very abbreviated account of Bradford’s life drawn from his book and also from the links given below.

He was born at Austersfield, Yorkshire in the spring of 1590, the third child and only son of William Bradford, a farmer, and Alice Hanson, the daughter of a village shopkeeper. His father died when he was one year old. Later when his mother remarried, he was put under the care of his grandfather, until he too died, and one of his uncles, Robert Bradford, took over. As a child he suffered from ill health and thus spent much of his time reading and studying the Geneva Bible.

His inquisitive mind brought him in contact with the reformist movement spear-headed at the time by Preacher Richard Clyfton, a radical advocate of purifying the Church of England, who preached regularly at a Babworth, Nottinghamshuire, about eight miles from Austerfield. He would retain fond memories of this man who, “by his pains and diligence brought many to conversion.”

Bradford’s uncles—followers of the state church—were not at all pleased with this attachment to Clyfton, nor to another reformer, William Brewster, a man in his thirties who became his mentor. Bradford would meet regularly with these men, and others, for prayer and discussion in the nearby village of Scrooby. When the group organized itself into a separate Congregational church in 1606, Bradford joined, in spite of the fact that it was technically considered illegal. From then on, and until his death, his life revolved around this church first in Scrooby, then in the Low Countries, and finally in New England.

In 1617 when the preparations began for moving to America, Bradford was Twenty-seven years old, but his maturity and abilities so impressed the elders of the congregation that he was chosen to make all the arrangements. He sailed on the Mayflower with his wife Dorothy May, whom he had married in Amsterdam in 1613. He took part in the risky boat expedition that explored Cape Cod, including the one that scudded into PlymouthBay before the snowstorm and landed on Plymouth Rock on Decemebr 11, 1620.

In May 1621, after the death of Governor John Carver of Plymouth Colony, William Bradford, just turned thirty-one was unanimously chosen to that office, for which he was reelected thirty times in the years to come. So from 1621 to his death, Bradford was the main leader of the Pilgrim Fathers. William Brewster, a university graduate, became elder of the church; Edward Winslow took on diplomatic business, and Miles Stanford the political arrangements. But Bradford, who never left New England after landing there, was the man who made the major decisions.

Had he been motivated by power or ambition he could have become the sole proprietor of Plymouth Colony, but he chose instead to share his proprietary rights. He managed to pay off the debt of the Mayflower voyage to the loan-shark merchant adventurers, who had financed it by taking advantage of the destitute pilgrims in their desperate conditions. The debt hung heavily over their heads until 1648 when Bradford, Alden, Standish, Wisnlow and Prence sold off houses and large parcels of land to make up the balance.

In his later years Bradford wrote poetry distinguished by its simplicity and sincerity:

From my years young in days o’ youth

God did make known to me his truth,

And call’d me from my native place

For to enjoy the means of grace.


In wilderness he did me guide,

And in strange lands for me provide.

In fears and wants, through weal and woe,

A Pilgrim passed I to and fro.

Links:  Links: Awesome Stories

 William Bradford, the immigrant ancestor


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