The History of Bradford’s History

The History of Bradford’s History

For such an important text, William Bradford’s journal, which he titled Of Plimoth Plantation, has a complicated history. I’ve taught pertinent excerpts from it for years (the story of Thomas Granger makes a good test to see who is actually doing the reading!). As part of my research process, I’m constructing a timeline of major events in the development of the Pilgrim story, to which his journal is key.

Although the journal covers the Pilgrims’ experiences beginning in 1608, he did not start writing it until 1630. This fact should immediately raise questions about memory and how closely the journal reflects objective history. But the timing isn’t the only thing keeping it from being an objective, factual account. It’s clear from the text that we’re getting Bradford’s interpretation of the events, so it has to be read with that caveat. He wrote the history with posterity in mind.

I like archival research, but I'm really glad I don't have to decipher this handwriting!
I like archival research, but I’m really glad I don’t have to decipher this handwriting!

The journal covers about 30 years of the colony’s history, with certain subjects garnering more attention and detail than others. The handwritten manuscript was kept in the family and occasionally loaned out to various historians, until Reverend Thomas Prince acquired it for his Chronological History in 1736. Prince apparently stored the manuscript in the Old South Meeting House in Boston, and after the Revolution, the manuscript was lost and presumed stolen.

In the meantime, various excerpts from Bradford’s writings, which he sent to Thomas Morton and which were published in his lifetime in the text known as Mort’s Relation, were also being published. The most notable is Alexander Young’s 1841 Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, which includes a footnote identifying that early harvest celebration as the “first” Thanksgiving. Dr. George Cheever published his own edition of Mort’s Relation in 1848, repeating and thus substantiating the claim.

But in 1844, Samuel Wilberforce published A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, which contained quotations from Bradford’s original manuscript, not from Mort’s Relation. The manuscript was housed in the Bishop of London’s library. The assumption was that British soldiers stole the manuscript and took it to London.

A full-length version of the manuscript was then published in 1856, but it took over forty years to have the original manuscript returned, due to legal battles. Largely through the efforts of multiple historical societies led by senator George Frisbie Hoar, the courts decided that a copy could remain in London and the original returned to America. Today the original manuscript is in the State House in Boston.

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