Bradford was born in March 1590 in Austerfield, Yorkshire, the son of a yeoman farmer. He was self-taught. As a young man, he joined Puritan groups that met illegally in nearby Scrooby and was a member of that congregation when it separated from the Church of England in 1606. Bradford was among the 125 Scrooby separatists who sought (1608) religious sanctuary in Holland.
When the congregation decided (1617) to seek refuge in America, Bradford took major responsibility for arranging the details of the emigration. The term Pilgrim is derived from his description of himself and his coreligionists as they left Holland (July 22, 1620) for Southampton, where they joined another group of English separatists on the Mayflower. Bradford was one of about a dozen original Scrooby church members who sailed for America on the Mayflower.
When John Carver, Plymouth Colony's first governor, died suddenly in April 1621, Bradford was unanimously elected to replace him. He was reelected 30 times. In 1640, Bradford and the group of original settlers known as the "old comers" turned over to the colony the proprietary rights to its lands, which had been granted (1630) to him by the Warwick Patent and then shared by him with the old comers.
During the period of his governorship, and especially during the first few years, Bradford provided the strong, steady leadership that kept the tiny community alive. He strove to sustain the religious ideals of the founders and to keep the colony's settlements compact and separate from the larger neighboring colonies. Bradford died on May 9 or 19, 1657.
Bibliography: Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, 16201647, ed. by S. E. Morison (1952); Langdon, G. D., Jr., Pilgrim Colony: A History of New Plymouth, 16201691 (1966); Smith, Bradford, Bradford of Plymouth (1951); Westbrook, Perry D., William Bradford (1978); Willison, G. F., Saints and Strangers (1945).