Begun in 1630 and completed in 1647, William Bradford’s account of the Pilgrims’ journey, survival, and flourishing in the New World is considered by historians to be one of the most accurate historical accounts of the Plymouth Colony. The manuscript was passed down through the family, lost, and eventually recovered in England. It was not published until 1847.
Bradford’s narrative is unique, because his focus was not on himself, as other writers trying to drum up excitement about the New World often did in their own writings. Instead, Bradford focused on how the Pilgrims, as a community, overcame many obstacles together, with their faith as the focus of their survival. Bradford wrote with a Providential view; that is, he saw their struggles and their accomplishments as being guided by the hand of God.
Throughout his narrative, Bradford highlights many important themes still near and dear to the hearts of Americans today, including the importance of faith, the strength of a united community, perseverance, and the rewards of hard work.
The Pilgrims were formed from a group of people called Puritans, who had officially left the Church of England because they believed it to be corrupt. [Note for students: Remember, the Church of England was formed when Henry VIII couldn’t get permission from the Pope to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in order to marry Lady Anne Boleyn.] The Puritans also believed that the Anglican Church hadn’t gone far enough in severing its ties with Catholicism. The group emigrated to Holland in 1608, but as Bradford writes in Of Plymouth Plantation, there were concerns about the younger people in their group being corrupted by the turmoil of the Dutch fight for independence from Spain. The group was also concerned about a lack of economic opportunities, and the loss of their English identities as they continued to settle into the Dutch society.
Not all of the Pilgrims were Puritan Separatists, however. Of the 102 passengers, only about half were Puritans. The Puritans referred to themselves as “Saints” and the others as “Strangers.”
The leaders of the small band of people aboard the Mayflower realized that before they debarked, they needed to have a game plan for their government since they had landed without a patent. In particular, William Bradford realized that not every person in their group was willing to respect their desire to establish a new society with their own rules (i.e., the Strangers), which made the Mayflower Compact a necessary document. The Mayflower Compact was signed by a majority of the males on the ship, and is often called the first written constitution. It was viewed as an important precedent for the later writing of the U.S. Constitution.
The Mayflower Compact outlined the following important conditions for the Pilgrims: