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Meet the Governor From Plymouth

William Bradford wrote a book that describes the struggles the Pilgrims faced as they settled in New England

IT'S almost Thanksgiving. Time to think of turkeys and grandparents and those people we have come to call the "Pilgrims." Who were they? And why did they sail across the ocean on a tiny ship called the Mayflower and then build a community called Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts?

William Bradford was the first important governor of Plymouth Plantation. Knowing a little something about him will show you a lot about the people he governed. He was a courageous, intelligent, and learned man who served for more than half his life as leader of the prosperous community. He wrote a very important book called "Of Plimoth Plantation" (spelling was a lot looser in those days - Plymouth was written in all different ways) that described the early struggles of his people in the new world of Am erica. His story is full of drama and humor, of hope, faith, and affection - though he certainly could be tough on the enemies of the community. What we know of this fascinating moment in American history, we know from Bradford's excellent account.

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Born in 1590, young William grew up in the village of Austerfield, in Yorkshire, England. Orphaned by the time he was seven, William was sent to live with his father's brothers who taught him husbandry (farming). But his uncles were not very kind to him, and he had a very sad and lonely childhood.

He may have attended grammar school, because he learned to read and write, which was something of a luxury for a farmer at that time. He loved study all his life and read many books, a lot of them in Hebrew.

In 1602 when he was just 12 years old, a friend brought him to a "Separatist's" meeting, a church service of the "Puritan" religion. They were called "Puritans" by their enemies because they wanted to purify the Church of England from what they considered pagan influences. The Separatist sect wanted to separate from the Church of England altogether. They were a little more puritan than the Puritans.

All of William's relatives were angry with him for attending the new church and tried to stop him. But every Sunday, and sometimes more often, he walked eight miles to the meeting house in Scrooby Manor.

In 1608, when William was just 18, many in the Scrooby congregation fled to Holland because the King of England did not like them and wanted to make them conform to his own religious beliefs. William fled to Amsterdam with his friends, sadly leaving his family.

In those days, there was really no religious freedom in England or in most of the rest of the world. No one had heard of "separation of church and state" yet. If you didn't practice the religion of your particular government, your property could be taken away, and you could land in jail, or even worse. Some governments were more tolerant than others, of course. But real freedom to pray in your own way and live according to conscience was very rare indeed.

In the Dutch city of Leiden, William learned to make cloth. There he came of age, inheriting his parents' property, and marrying a 16-year-old girl named Dorothy May whose father was a preacher. But in 1620 it was time for the Separatists of Leiden to set sail for a new home far across the sea.

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Bradford described in bright detail the cold winter of 1620 - how a small ship sailed across the stormy Atlantic with a brave little party of English farmers and artisans. They and their families suffered many hardships: hunger, cold, and a scary, raging sea.

When the Separatists arrived at American shores after many weeks, they found that they had been blown off course. They had been heading for Virginia. Though they were grateful for the mere sight of land, Massachusetts looked less than comfortable in that biting cold. So they sailed down the coast for half a day looking for a more pleasant environment. Alas, they found storms and rocky shoals and turned back to their original landing place, where they left their ship and stood upon land once more, land th ey named Plymouth.

That little band of "Pilgrims," as they were named by later generations, spent a terrible winter in the new land. It was very, very cold and food was scarce.

They built shacks as fast as they could, but those sorry little houses could not keep the cold out. All this they did so that they could practice their religion, free from the persecutions they suffered in England.

But though they left their own country to escape persecution, the Pilgrims themselves didn't exactly believe in freedom of religion, either. They didn't tolerate other religions in Plymouth during those early years. What they wanted was the right to live and pray according to their own religious beliefs.

When spring came in 1621, many of the little band had not made it through the winter. But for those who did, the spring brought with it new hope. The Indians, who were the original inhabitants of the place, led by Samoset and especially Squanto (both of whom spoke English), helped the Pilgrims to survive. These native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to plant corn using fish as fertilizer. They helped them hunt and fish and gather the nuts and fruits of the forests to lay up stores for winter. If it wer e not for the great kindness of the Indian people, the Pilgrims would not have survived another harsh winter.

But they did survive, and the first Thanksgiving as we have come to know it was celebrated that very fall in 1621. William Bradford, who had been elected governor of Plymouth the previous spring, invited the Wampanoag Indians to a three-day feast. The Indians generously brought a good deal of meat, some say many whole deer, to the feast.

Governor Bradford was elected every year for most of the rest of his life except for a short period. For many years he was not paid anything at all for his work as governor. In fact, he paid for all his official expenses out of his own pocket. He had plenty of chances to get rich as governor, but he passed up those opportunities because he wanted so much to be fair to everyone. And it was said of him by men of his own time, that he was a great leader: kind, just, and intelligent.

He was also kind of funny. Some people will try to tell you that the Pilgrims were all work and no play. But don't you believe it. It is true that they had to work very, very hard in order to survive in the new world. But they liked good food and good company and a good joke. Their children played games when they were done with their chores.

The image you may have of the Pilgrims wearing only black, brown, and gray, and of wearing very serious expressions all the time isn't right. Black was the color of formal costumes - dress-up-for-Sunday best - because it was practical and dressy. But the rest of the week the pilgrims dressed in the colors of the English farmers of the period: all colors, really, though especially loden green.

They painted their doors bright colors as soon as they could afford to, and later as the community grew more prosperous, those who could afford such finery as lace shawls and silver buttons, French mirrors and silk, bought and used them.

It is true that the Separatists did not celebrate Christmas or other religious holidays because those festivities seemed unchristian to them - except, of course, for thanksgiving celebrations. But while their religion was quite serious (and they took it quite seriously), they loved literature, including the music of literature, which is poetry. Bradford himself composed poetry late in life when he was done with public affairs.

Governor William Bradford was not a religious leader, yet he believed that the only way his community could stay together in the difficult and sometimes hostile new land was as a strong church-based community. In the new world, that church did give courage and support to the Pilgrims. Its precepts were behind all the laws of the new land, and it helped maintain courage and discipline among the people. And if the laws of Plymouth seem stern today, they were much less harsh than the laws of England at the time.

William Bradford had four children and two stepchildren. He believed in peace, love, brotherhood, prosperity, and salvation. He also believed in the rights of Indians (very unusual among white people of the period) and even ordered the execution of a colonist who murdered an Indian, though many of the people in his community were angry with him for it. He handled the business affairs of Plymouth with good judgement. In the early days, he treated the non-church members with respect and discouraged the pas sage of laws that would punish them for their un-religious behavior. He lived to a ripe old age, enjoying the respect and love of his community and the good will of the other settlements in Massachusetts.

The manuscript of "Of Plimoth Plantation" was handed down from generation to generation of Governor Bradford's descendants. During the Revolutionary War, it was stolen by a British soldier and disappeared for almost 80 years. It surfaced in the possession of a palace library in 1855. A hand-written copy was made, and the book was published for the first time in 1856. The British returned the original manuscript to the United States in 1897 and it now resides in a bronze and glass case in the State House in Boston. `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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