Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 Summary

William Bradford

Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647

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Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 Summary

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Considered one of the most valuable pieces of literature concerning American history, Of Plymouth Plantation is an insightful account of the Puritans’ arrival and settlement at Plymouth Plantation in 1620. Given Bradford’s firsthand knowledge, as well as the information he provides on the Puritans’ background and reasons for immigrating to the New World, this seminal work of nonfiction offers an honest depiction of accounts often seen in media that are, at times, aggrandized.

Two additional reasons that make the work so invaluable is that, for starters, it was almost lost to a fire when borrowed by Increase Mather in 1676. Having survived, it found its way to the library of Fulham Palace, perhaps having been brought by a soldier during the Revolutionary War, where it was later published in 1856. The second reason the work is so invaluable is that William Bradford served as governor of Plymouth Plantation for thirty-three years. This fact alone attests to the authenticity of the piece. In his position of leadership, Bradford had in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, as well as experience with the different factions of political and social life in the Puritan colony.

Bradford begins the work by providing a valuable background to the Pilgrim Church in England during the years leading up to the migration, 1550-1607. He explains how the emigration of the Separatists from England stemmed from religious freedom. These Separatists refused to adhere to what they saw as corrupt doctrine within the governing church of the day, the Church of England. Because of this, the Separatists were severely persecuted. In time, these religious objectors came to be known as the Puritans.

Despite Queen Elizabeth I’s tolerance for the Puritans, they were eventually persecuted and had many enemies on several fronts. Not only did they splinter from the Church of England, thus angering major factions of the population, they also split with the teachings and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, thus angering many more factions of local and global believers.

When James I assumed the throne, the persecution worsened. When the Puritans began suffering torture and seizure of their worldly goods, among other injustices, they made the decision to flee to Holland, where they could practice their faith without issue. James I reacted to this by closing the ports, and Puritans were then forced to pay steep prices to be smuggled out of their own country. Though the Puritans that fled found a new life in Holland, they feared that the Spanish would overtake Holland. As the Spanish were Roman Catholics, the Puritans ultimately feared persecution again, and so immigration to America was meant to resolve the issue of religious freedom.

Bradford mentions how the Puritans endured a lot of hardship while trying to start their new life in America, so much so that others of less faith would probably have given up. There were to be two ships, initially, but the Puritans ended up with only one, the Mayflower. The Puritans prevailed, however, and arrived at Cape Cod on November 11, 1620. They were amazed at their surroundings and what appeared to be harsh land and even harsher native peoples. In time, they established their own settlement at Plymouth, erecting the first common house on December 25 of that year.

The second book is made up of accounts or “annals.” The famous Mayflower Compact is outlined in this section. Bradford also notates the grim fact that more than half of the original Mayflower passengers died due to starvation and disease. The first Thanksgiving is also included in this section, as well as many other accounts, including the subsequent arrival of more ships, the leaner days that followed the bountiful Thanksgiving, and various encounters between the settlers and Native Americans.

Many notable events and names from history are also included in the second section, including Mr. Morton and the Merrymount settlement, which is immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his story “The Maypole of Merrymount.” Roger Williams, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island, is mentioned as well. Williams was exiled for his beliefs, and started the Providence colony for people who might be interested in freedom of conscience.

Bradford’s account of the arrival, as well as the subsequent trials and tribulations faced by the early settlers, mark an interesting contrast to many of the accounts that had been widespread, and still continue to be believed by people, such as the landing on Plymouth Rock and the settlers being greeted by the Native Americans. As Bradford’s narrative relates, there was no rock or ceremonial, dramatic landing. Moreover, the Native Americans were not waiting on the shore to greet them with open arms. The account does include dealings with the Native Americans, and how the settlement came about despite its setbacks, some of which were indeed dramatic.

One of the largest themes in Bradford’s work is that of religious tolerance. Indeed, as readers can surmise, the New World of the settlers was fashioned after a desire for religious tolerance. Those who fled their respective countries in search of religious tolerance (and other reasons), created their new homeland as a safe place, free of persecution. Their sacrifice and bravery are what initially created the United States, and what has allowed the United States and its surrounding environs to prosper.

As such, Bradford’s narrative also hits on the theme of endurance, including patience and strength. For Bradford, these themes are found in the Puritans’ belief in God. God gave them the strength to endure, to remain strong in the face of hardships. As a symbolic theme, this strength applies to people in general, despite religious beliefs. The will to endure and the strength to overcome trials and tribulations is viewed as an American virtue by many, again harking back to the early settlers and their struggles. Bradford’s narrative shows how believing in oneself and facing the odds, despite the consequences, might bring about a rewarding outcome for one’s trials and tribulations in life.