by Stephen Gaither
Born in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England in March of 1590, William Bradford was one of the first "pilgrims" to sail across the Atlantic on the Mayflower and settle in Plymouth, Massachusetts. He served as governor of the Plymouth colony for 30 years starting in 1621 and was re-elected 30 times, serving all but five years until 1656. He also helped to shape and stabilize the political institutions of the first permanent colony in New England. Bradford also left an invaluable journal chronicling the Pilgrim venture, of which he was a part.
As a boy in England, he became caught up in the fervour of the Protestant Reformation. Later, Bradford left his family home for Scrooby, Nottinghamshire, where he joined a small community of religious believers who had "separated" from the Church of England. Because English law considered it an act of treason to choose a "particular" over the "national" church, the Scrooby community was forced to move to Holland, three years later, where he became an apprentice to a silk manufacturer. In 1620, dissatisfied with the lack of economic opportunity there, he helped organize an expedition of about 100 "Pilgrims" to the New World, where he helped found the Plymouth Colony. In April 1621 he succeeded Governor John Carver as chief executive of Plymouth Colony. He organized the first Thanksgiving Day celebration in New England in 1621, as well as, negotiating a treaty with Massasoit, the chief of the Wampanoag tribe. Under the treaty, which was crucial to the maintenance and growth of the colony, Massasoit disavowed Native American claims to the Plymouth area and pledged peace with the colonists. Bradford was a delegate on four occasions to the New England Confederation, of which he was twice elected president.
Bradford is remembered primarily for his contribution in nurturing the fledgling colony's democratic institutions, such as the franchise and town meeting, thus establishing those traditions of self-government that would set the pattern for national political development in years to come. Although he called himself a Congregationalist, he discouraged sectarian labels and made a point of welcoming all Separatist groups to New England shores. In addition, he evolved means of assimilating nonbelievers into the life of the colony. On May 9, 1657 William Bradford died in Plymouth, Massachusetts.