William Bradford: The Man Behind Thanksgiving

By Taytum Marler

As we look forward to the Thanksgiving season, we should also look back at the people who initially started this holiday. William Bradford played an important role in starting the tradition of Thanksgiving, but what was that role specifically? We will look at who he was even before leaving Europe, how he rose to be governor, and how he helped arrange the first Thanksgiving. Although not called Thanksgiving at the time, Bradford was the one who encouraged a thankful mindset into his fellow Pilgrims after their first successful year in North America.

Who was William Bradford? Before he sailed the seas to the New World, he was simply an English man leading a religious lifestyle. William Bradford was born in 1590, in Yorkshire, England. Unfortunately, when he was about seven years old he was orphaned, this lead to William and his sister Alice having to live with their uncle, Robert. William was always a sickly boy and would spend most of his time reading the Bible and taking on the beliefs of the Separatist church. In 1608, when under harsh persecution from King James I, a group of Separatists fled to the Netherlands. Bradford was one of them and ended up living in the small city of Leiden for eleven years. While in Leiden, he owned a silk weaving workshop which he worked to support his wife Dorthy May, whom he married in 1613, and their son, John. 

William and Dorthy planned to leave for the New World, leaving behind three-year-old John, on the Speedwell in 1620. As with most of the people, they wanted a better world for their family, one without religious persecution and Dutch ruling. However, before leaving England, the Bradford’s already faced problems. They were forced to abandon the leaky Speedwell and join the Mayflower, which was already overcrowded. Over two months later, after a hard and tumultuous trip, the ship finally landed on the coastline of Virginia. William ended up being one of forty-one men to sign the Mayflower Compact, and his copy of the compact, which he wrote in his journal, has become the sole record of it after the original was lost years later.   

The early days of the settlement were not easy. In Bradford’s case, after he went out with other men to scout the land, he returned to find that his wife, Dorthy, had fallen over the side of the Mayflower and drowned in the freezing Atlantic. In the spring, after a very harsh winter that killed nearly half of the colony–including John Carver who was the first governor of Plymouth Bay–William Bradford was elected as governor. Bradford was the leader that pulled the colony through their toughest years. He was re-elected almost every year until he died in 1657.  Throughout his time as governor, Bradford made an effort to extend a hand to the Wampanoag Indians in the area. Other than his relations with the Native Americans, Bradford oversaw all the finances of the colony, all the court cases, and even welcomed new settlers coming to North America. He was a very active governor and did his best with correspondents, policies, and enforcing laws. By 1630, William had remarried to Alice Southworth, had his son, John, join him in the States, and began writing one of the only written accounts of the Mayflower Voyage. His book, “Of Plymouth Plantation”, is the only accurate and thorough telling of Plymouth Colony in its early years written by a Mayflower passenger.  

In his book, Bradford gives a detail account of the first Thanksgiving. He mentions that there were 52 English people at this celebration and that the dinner consisted of deer, wildfowl (most likely turkey), fish, and an assortment of vegetables. A little-known fact is that William Bradford was one of the initiators for the first Thanksgiving. Since he was serving as governor at the time, Bradford decided that a celebratory feast should be held in honor of the Pilgrim’s first corn harvest being a success. Because of his acquaintance with the Wampanoag Indians, they also shared in this celebration. It is unclear on why the Native Americans were there, some say Bradford personally invited them, that they mistook the celebration for a fight, or that their leader, Massasoit, was making diplomatic rounds when they came across the Pilgrims. In any case, the Native Americans were present and welcomed at the first Thanksgiving, and even made many of their own dishes to add to the feast!  

Since Thanksgiving is rapidly approaching, it is always nice to know a little bit more about where the holiday originally started. Bradford, the successful harvest, and the Native Americans are all vital parts of this history story because little things that they initiated have become something so important to Americans today. Now as you set up for your own holiday traditions, remember that some traditions (like the turkey) started back in 1621 with William Bradford!

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