Introduction to Of Plymouth Colony

By George Willison

Of Plimoth Plantation, as Governor William Bradford modestly styled his now famous history of the Pilgrims, tells one of the great American stories. And Bradford, who was the ruling spirit in the Plymouth Colony during its first thirty years, had the wit and skill to tell it well, with rare eloquence and power. A fascinating record of high adventure in the realm both of the flesh and the spirit, of profound human interest from first page to last, his engaging chronicle is a towering monument in American history and in American literature as well.

Most Americans, recalling their days in school, think they know that story well. The simple and demonstrable fact is, most of us do not know it half as well as we should - at least, not in authentic and significant detail, and even less in its larger historical context, so that we fail to appreciate the great reach of the story, and its meaning for us today. Our ideas about the Pilgrims, unfortunately, have been shaped far more by the pale fictions of uninspired mythmakers than by the clear and luminous facts left us by the Pilgrims themselves. As a consequence, the latter are still extravagantly praised for accomplishing what they never attempted or intended, and are even more foolishly abused for attitudes and attributes quite foreign to them. In the popular mind, to complicate matters further, the Pilgrims are still generally confused - to their disadvantage - with the Puritans who later came to settle north of them around Boston Bay.

It is time, I think, to go back to the record and see for ourselves who the Pilgrims really were and what they were about.

For that purpose Bradford is indispensahle. Indeed, he is unique, for without him there would have been no Pilgrim history worthy of the name, and the ghosts raised by the mythmakers could never be laid.

It was in 1630, ten years after the landing at Plymouth, that Governor Bradford sat down amid the distractions of office to begin what he called his "scribled Writings." Of necessity, these were "peeced up at times of leisure afterwards," for to the end of his days almost forty years later Bradford led a busy life at the center of affairs. By 1650, when he laid down his pen, he had compiled a manuscript of 270 folio pages, all patiently inscribed in his own neat hand. Here, in fine full-bodied prose spiced with a grim kind of humor and lighted occasionally by flash of malicious wit, was the story of the Pilgrims From its beginning at Scrooby in 1606 to the year 1647, through the most critical and eventful period of their always eventful career.

As is clear from Bradford's pages, the Pilgrims were not the people that legend has represented them to be. They were not pale plaster saints, resigned to practicing the merely negative virtues. On the contrary, they were red-blooded and self-assertive rebels, in conscious and deliberate revolt against the existing order. Having boldly declared their independence of the Church of England at a time when Church and State were one, they were prepared to sacrifice much for their principles, even their very lives, as many of them were called upon to do. But they were armed, in Bradford's memorable phrase, with always "answerable" courage. Having set their course, they were resolved to go on, cost them what it might - and "that it cost them something, this ensewing historic will declare," as Bradford remarked.

It should not be forgotten, as it often is, that the Pilgrims, far from being genteel and rather anemic Victorians, were children of the Elizabcthan Age and shared to the full the robust qualities of that amazing age. They were restless and impatient with old ways, scornful of precedent and tradition, daring in their speculations, pas-donate in their enthusiasms, eager for change, bold and even reckless in action. Not once, but many times, they embarked on desperate adventure and nothing could stop them or divert them from their course. Far from being meek and mild and soft-spoken, they were always stout and sometimes savage fighters in their own defense. Fond of controversy and sharp of tongue, they indulged in many strident quarrels with foes, with friends, and even among themselves, as Bradford tells us in describing many such incidents-including the mutiny on the Mayflower to which we are indebted for the celebrated Mayflower Compact.

In their acceptance of the simpler joys of life the Pilgrims were likewise Elizabethan. They were not ascetics, practicing no torments of self-denial. They liked the pleasures of the table and the comforts of the bottle, being fond of "strong waters" and beer, especially the latter, and at Plymouth never complained more loudly of their hardships than when, in their extremity, they were reduced to drinking water. Good Elizabethans suspected water in all its uses, a bath being regarded as a very dangerous thing, exposing the body to every imaginable ill, a view the Pilgrims shared.

In their dress, too, the Pilgrims mirrored their times. Only on the Sabbath did they go about in funereal blacks and grays. Ordinarily they wore the bright Lincoln green and the rich russet browns common among the English lower classes from which they sprang, for it should be remembered that the Pilgrims were simple and plebeian folk. Farmers and artisans, for the most part, they were "from the cottages and not the castles of England," as has been well said. Whatever else may have been shipped on the Mayflower - and there has been much violent dispute about furniture and other items - one thing at least is certain. There was not a drop of blue blood on board that vessel or any of the Pilgrim ships that followed.

In more important and vital respects the Pilgrims reflected their age, which, like our own, was one of great contention and confusion. All of Europe had been seething since 1517 when Martin Luther, "that stubborn monk," kicked over the traces and nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. His bold defiance of the Pope, still the King of Kings, both the temporal and spiritual overlord of Europe, had shaken Christendom to its foundations, fanning long-smoldering discontents into a bright blaze that soon swept the Continent in the great revolutionary movement known as the Reformation. In England the Pilgrims stood with their fellow-Separatists in the vanguard of that movement. England had broken with Rome in 1529 and established a national church of her own. Henry VllI's resolve to divorce Catherine of Aragon was the occasion rather than the cause of the conflict, and high politics rather than religion were involved. As envisaged by Henry, his new Anglican church was to be a "purified" Catholic church with litde change in doctrine or ritual. To quiet reformers and for purposes of his own, the King forbad the worship of "idols," ordering the destruction of shrines and images throughout the land. Also, it was ordered that every church should install a Bible for public use. And the Bible was not to be in Latin, but in English-a revolutionary innovation with consequences that have come thundering down the centuries. For the first time Englishmen could examine Holy Writ for themselves and come to their own conclusions about it, without benefit of clergy. Here was born the right to independence of judgment, to liberty of conscience, which the Pilgrims so vehemently demanded - if not for all, at least for themselves. Here was the birthplace of the Pilgrim tenet that no doctrine or ritual was "lawful" unless specific warrant could be found for it in Scripture. All else, in Bradford's phrase, was "human invention," or "priestcrafte.'

The English church first assumed a Protestant character under Edward VI, with the repeal of many of Henry's religious edicts and the publication of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) and the Edwardian Service Book (1552). But reform abruptly ceased when Edward died and was succeeded by Mary, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon.

A zealous Catholic, Mary reinstituted thc Roman rite throughout the realm. Again the Pope was recognized as the spiritual and temporal overlord of Europe. Hundreds of Protestants - men, women, and small childrem - were sent to the stake or hanged. But the days of "bloody" Mary were few, for she died of malignant inherited disease in the fourth year of her reign.

Under Queen Elizabeth, Anne Boleyn's spirited daughter, there was another sharp reversal of policy. Again England broke with Rome and proscribed its rites. But in all else Elizabeth pursued a wary and devious policy from the first. On the one hand, she had reason to fear the Papists in the land, for England was still largely Roman in sympathy and belief, as it was to remain down to the defeat of the Spanish Armada thirty years later, in 1588. On the other hand, she thoroughly disliked thc more zealous reformers, particularly the radicals of the Calvinist school, fearing that they might precipitate civil war. Under the circumstances, she adopted the tactic of now favoring one side and now the other, adroitly playing one against the other to keep both within bounds.

Elizabeth might swing back and forth in her official credo, but of her subjects she demanded absolute uniformity of belief. No one could preach without a license. Above all, there was to be no unlicensed printing, for that would surely lead to "seditious and hellish errours." Machinery to test and enforce orthodoxy already existed in the Court of High Commission, which, as has been well said, was merely the Court of the Holy Inquisition under another sky. Two "heretics" were burned in 1575. Hundreds of people were jailed at the order of the bishops, who derived their authority not from statutory law but the limitless royal prerogative. They could summon and examine anyone at all for his opinions. They could - and did - condemn suspects upon no other evidence than their own frightened and confused replies to some malicious bit of gossip. But in spite of everything they could do, Elizabeth and her bishops failed to silence the champions of the essentially democratic new order being so painfully born.

Reform centered at the University of Cambridge, where many distinguished scholars and earnest students were increasingly distressed by the state of the church. True radicals in seeking the root of things, they dug into Scripture to discover just where "disorder" had first crept in. The more they dug and explored, the less warrant they could find for much current belief and observance. The simplicity of the early Christian faith, they declared, had been corrupted by time and human inventran. The need of the hour was to restore that faith to its "ancient puritie" - or, as Bradford and his brethren later phrased it, "to its primarive order, libertie, & bewtie."

These views angered the orthodox and those holding them were denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, as "these precise men." It ,was a graphic phrase, and the reformers were soon known as the Precisians, somewhat later as the Puritans - so named, it should be noted, for their theological doctrine and not their moral code.

The Puritans had many sharp and well-founded criticisms of the church, anticipating Bradford's later remark that it was "a pache of popery, and a pudle of corruption.'' Certainly, the church stood badly in need of reform, as even some of the orthodox were willing to grant, but now was never the time for reform. All in all, critics made little progress and the authorities began more and more insistently to demand that all hold their tongues and strictly conform. Under increasing pressure many of the Puritans, especially those more comfortably situated, resigned themselves to a nominal conformity and fell silent from fear of jeopardizing their pleasant rations in life.

But some few were made of sterner stuff, and Robert Browne was their leader. A prosecuted and persecuted minister of the "forward" Puritan school, he had finally decided that it was impossible to reform the church from within. Abandoning the reformist Puritan position, he surveyed the ground and laid the foundations for a new and very different kind of church. So great was his influence that all religious radicals, regardless of creed, were soon known as Brownists.

The kingdom of God, said Browne, was "not to be begun by whole parishes, but rather by the worthiest (in each), were they ever so few." In every parish these people should withdraw from the church. They should secede, separate, as they had warrant to do by Scripture (Paul: "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing"). Having withdrawn, they should organize themselves under a covenant "to forsake & denie all ungodliness and wicked fellowship, and to refuse all ungodlie comnmnion with Wicked Persons." Every congregation so organizcd was to elect its pastor and other officers in a democratic manner, with all communicants having a vote. However many congregations were formed, each was to remain quite independent. They might cooperate in a purely voluntary fellowship, but there were to be no bishops, no archbishops, no central organization or authority of any kind, for there was no warrant for that in Scripture.

The "Holy Discipline," as Browne called his practice and credo, was well named. It was only for the holy, only for the devout, only for those who led unblemished lives. The "true" church, Calvin had declared, should embrace the entire baptized population. No, said Browne, that was too inclusive. His was to be a religious elite, a "priesthood of believers," a church of "saincts," from which the irreligious and even the passively religious were to be excluded, whether baptized or not.

In such a church, naturally, the lives of all were to be subject to the closest scrutiny and continuous review, for every act, every word, and even every thought had to be weighed in the balance. Sharp and constant criticism of oneself and others became a positive religions duty, which led to much fruitful searching of soul. It also led to that mean-spirited prying into the most intimate details of one another's lives which marked all the Separatist churches and caused many of them to founder - even that so hopefully established by Browne, who soon returned to live out a long life in the bosom of the Church of England, despised by Puritans and Separatists alike. But he had planted seeds that were to sprout and flourish, and one would grow into the Pilgrim church. Though they were Brownists in all essential respects, the Pilgrims always disliked being called so, and with good reason, for to be known as a Brownist in those days invited prosecution by the authorities and ruthless persecution on every hand.

With the death of Queen Elizaheth in 1603, the hope of reformers bounded up, for they expected great things of her successor, James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. Surely he would put the hated Anglican bishops in their place, for he had been raised among the doughty Scots who had already overthrown the episcopacy and established their own Presbyterian kirk. But hopes of reform were quickly dashed. "Away with all your snivelling!" cried the King when some Puritans approached him to advocate a few moderate reforms. Turning to his ministers, he announced his resolve to put down such "malicious spirits," even at the cost of his crown.

"I will make them conform," he thundered, "or I will harry them out of the land!" Drastic new decrees were issued to enforce conformity, and for their refusal or reluctance to obey these more than three hundred Anglican clergymen were deprived of offce within a year, including "that famous & worthie man," John Robinson, later the Pilgrims' beloved pastor during their pleasant years in Leyden.

But there was one small group in and around the hamlet of Scrooby, in the narrow northern tip of Nottinghamshire, who were not to be frightened or intimidated. For "sundrie years, with much patience" they had borne the silencing of "godly & zealous preachers." Now their patience was exhausted. The time for half measures had passed. Plainly, there was just one thing to do and this, as Bradford tells us, they did. Following Browne's lead, they shook off the "yoake of antichristian bondage, and as ye Lord's free people joyned themselves (by a covenant of the Lord) into a church estate, in ye felowship of ye gospell, to walke in all his wayes made known or to be made known unto them, according to their best endeavors, whatsoever it should cost them, the Lord assisting them."

Thus the Pilgrim church was born, and Bradford picks up the story of the "Lord's free people" here and carries it forward forty years through all the vicissitudes of fortune, persecution, poverty, death, hunger, disease, Indian alarms, misunderstandings with the merchant adventurers and among themselves, abysmal ignorance of the ways of the wilderness, costly miscalculations, and an almost incredible run of just plain bad luck-as epic a tale as has ever been told.

Bradford enjoyed two great advantages usually denied the historian. First, he had been an actor in all the scenes be described. Second, as chief of the inner council at Plymouth almost from the day of the landing, he knew what had been going on behind the scenes as well, and his pages reflect this. Bradford could be disingenuous at times, as will appear, not being above suppressing whole chapters in his brethren's history or distorting facts to place the fairest possible face upon some very dubious action, as in the liquidation of Wessagusset and the brutal killing of many Indians there, which drew a sharp rebuke from their pastor, the great John Robinson. And it should be said that he was always savage in his remarks about those who crossed him or his brethren in any way. There is nothing in the earlier or the later careers of Thomas Weston, John Oldham, or the Reverend John Lyford to bear out Bradford's unpleasant and often scandalous reports about them. And his characterization of Thomas Morton of Merry Mount must be taken with more than a grain of salt. It is simply not true, as Bradford declared, that Morton was locked up for months in Exeter Gaol on suspicion of murder. Even so, Bradford's history is usually a safe and always an informative guide in threading what would otherwise be a hopeless maze.

Bradford knew the Pilgrim story from the beginning, having lived their brave and hazardous adventure from the start. He was born in the hamlet of Austerfield, a few miles north of Scrooby, in 1589. Early left an orphan, he went to live with uncles "who devoted him, like his ancestors, unto the affairs of husbandry." He appears to have had a very unhappy childhood, perhaps the cause of the "soon mad long" sickness he suffered in early life, which seems to have been psychological in character, passing away as he grew older. In his amazingly active later life he came to regard his early sickness as a blessing in disguise, saying that it had kept him "from the vanities of youth." By the age of twelve he was deep in Scripture, consorting with the Puritans in the neighborhood, and had begun his "holy, prayerful, watchful, and fruitful Walk with God, wherein he was very exemplary."

All of his family violently opposed his course, warning him that if he went on associating with "heretics," he would lose everything he prized - his good name, the broad acres he had inherited from his father, even his very soul. But Bradford felt sure that he was on the right path, "nor could the wrath of his uncles, nor the scoff of his neighbors, now turned upon him as one of the Puritans, divert him from his pious inclinations."

Fortunately, the boy soon fell under the gentle and knowing hand of William Brewster, then bailiff of Scrooby manor and local postmaster, later the Pilgrims' respected ruling elder, the most lovable of all the Plymouth "Saincts," as the Pilgrims often called themselves. Brewster virtually adopted Bradford as his son and led him into Separation, for it was Brewster who organized the Scrooby congregation. It was not a large group, probably having some fifty to sixty members, who managed to meet secretly every Sabbath at Brewster's, in the rather imposing manor house, and all must have enjoyed the irony that their secret meeting house was the property of an arch-enemy, the Archbishop of York.

Harassed on all sides, the congregation decided to flee to Holland where they had heard there was "freedome of religion for all men." After several near disasters, about half the company managed to get across to Amsterdam and Bradford was among the first to arrive, with only the shirt on his back, quickly apprenticing himself to a French silk-maker to keep from starving. His brethren got what jobs they could in the least skilled and most miserably paid operations of the textile, metal, leather, and other handicraft trades, for all were simple country folk, skilled only as farmers. That training was of no use to them now in the city, and it was not long before they saw "ye grimme & grisly face of povertie coming upon them like an armed man."

It was a boon to the bewildered exiles to have friends to welcome them to Amsterdam - notably another group of Separatist exiles, largely from London, who had fled to Holland about ten years before and were now known is the Ancient Brethren. This congregation, then the largest and most renowned of the Separatist movement, had just built a new meeting house in the Bruinistengange (Brownists' Alley), as a narrow street in the heart of the old city is still known, and here Brewster and his brethren worshiped for more than a year before they thought of moving on again, because of doctrinal disputes among the Ancient Brethren and for "some other reasons," as Bradford reticently remarks in his history.

Bradford could be disingenuous at times, and he was here. His "some other reasons" included the always quarrelsome temper, the bitter spirit of contention, the petty personal animosities, and the many lurid scandals that soon united in a violent explosion to shatter the Ancient Brethren, once the pride of the Separation. The Ancient Brethren's antics brought shame to Separatists everywhere and when Bradford sat down to write his history, he simply dropped the Amsterdam chapter from his annals, failing even to note that in moving to Leyden he and his brethren lost their pastor, the Reverend Richard Clyfton, who chose to remain with the Ancient Brethren.

The small Scrooby group constituted only a minority in the exodus to Leyden. The majority consisted of Ancient Brethren who had resigned from their church in disgust, and many of these became prominent Pilgrims - notably, Deacon Sanreel Fuller and Deacon Robert Cushman, to both of whom Bradford pays high tribute. Within a few years the Scroobyites and their new allies acquired a permanent place of worship in Bell Alley, in an old quarter of the city, with the purchase of a "spacious'' old house known as the Groenepoort, or Green Gate. It served them both as a meeting house and a parsonage. Behind it lay a garden and a large lot where many smaller houses were built to shelter the poorer members of the congregation. Here, "under ye able ministrie and prudente governmente of Mr. John Robinson & Mr. William Brewster," now called upon to become their pastor and ruling elder respectively, the Saints were happy at last and lived together "in peace, & love, and holines; and many came unto them from diverse parts of England, so as they grew a great congregation," having perhaps some three hundred members.

Though the Saints were poor, suffering the disabilities and hardships of exiles in a strange land, these years at the Green Gate were the most contented and wholly satisfying of their lives, and they would never know any like them. Bradford had become a maker of fustian (corduroy, moleskin) and, with others, became a citizen of Leyden; only citizena could belong to the merchant guilds which controlled all business and skilled trades in thc city. Now in his early twenties, Bradford was married in 1613 to his first wife, Dorothy May, a young girl of sixteen, daughter of one of the Ancient Brethren's deacons, who was later tragically drowned, falling or jumping off the Mayflower as it lay anchored off the tip of Cape Cod.

As for Brewster, he first became a tutor, offering private instruction in English to university students and others. Later, he established a publishing house, the celebrated Pilgrim Press, as it is now known. For politic reasons Bradford tells us nothing about this though it forms one of the most significant and interesting chapters in Pilgrim history. The primary purpose of the press was the printing of "subversive" literature - what the English ambassador to Holland soon houdly denounced as "atrocious and seditious libels" - which were smuggled into England to aid the Separatist cause. The matter caine to the attention of King James himself, who commanded his ambassador at The Hague to "deal roundly" with the Dutch authorities and persuade them to arrest Brewster and smash his press. The press was seized and closed down, but Brewster took to his heels and escaped, going into hiding for more than a year, probably in the neighborhood of Scrooby, completely baffling the authorities who went on searching for him all over Holland.

By 1617 the Green Gate congregation was again restless and talking of moving on once more. As indicated by Bradford, there were two main reasons for this - first, their growing poverty in spite of hard and continual labor, even on the part of their children, who "bowed under ye weight of ye same, and became decreped in their early youth"; second, their fear of being absorbed by the Dutch, which, as things turned out, was not a groundless fear, for that was the ultimate fate of most of the congregation, not a third of whom ever reached the New World. They wished freedom of worship, of course, but they did not have to go seeking that in the wilderness� They enjoyed it to the full in Holland, without let or hindrance of any kind.

Then followed three years of tedious and involved negotiations in trying to find means of financing their migration to America. Agents were sent to England in 1617 to discuss possibilities with the merchant adventurers of the First (or London) Virginia Company, which had secured an English foothold in America at last with the founding of Jamestown ten years earlier. Like the Muscovy, East India, and other great joint stock corporations organized at this period to promote colonization and foreign commerce, the Virginia Company enjoyed a monopoly in the territory allotted it by the Crown under a royal charter defining the limits of the territory, the general pattern of government, and the authority of its officers. But it was the company, not the King, who appointed these officers, even the governor, and it also had the right to assess and collect taxes, maintain military forces, regulate trade, coin money, and dispose of its lands as it saw fit - being almost a sovereignty in itself, a state within a state, and its primary function was to pay the merchant adventurers as large a profit as possible on the money they had invested in company stock.

The agents from Leyden finally obtained a patent from the Virginia Company, but this was never used, for what the poor Leydeners most needed was free shipping, and this the Virginia Company was unable to provide, being already well on its way to the bankruptcy that overtook it in 1624.. The Green Gate congregation then turned to a friend, Thomas Weston, an ironmonger of London, who succeeded in organizing a merchant adventurer group of his own. Bradford tells us the terms of the contract drawn with them, a more or less typical document of the time. But he did not note the most important point about the entire arrangement.

Weston's company was small and relatively weak, and it was never incorporated. It had none of the vast powers bestowed upon the Virginia Company by royal charter. The agreement was simply a business contract. Weston and his partners had no authority to promulgate ordinances and decrees or to appoint the governor of the colony, so that at Plymouth the Pilgrims could more or less go their own way from the start. And they made the most of this, electing their own governor and setting their own pattern of government, with the annual town meeting at its base. The true distinction of John Carver is not that he was the first Pilgrim governor, but rather that he was the first colonial governor in the New World, probably the first in history, to be named by the colonists themselves and chosen by democratic means in a free election.

At last, all things were ready, or as ready as they ever would be, and a group of Saints left Leyden - "they knew they were pilgrimes," they said, and from this phrase in Bradford came their name, first applied to them in 1793 but not commonly used till many years later. Crossing to England, they suffered vexatious delays and several near disasters before they finally embarked on September 6, 1620, upon what they called their "waighty Vioage," with the Mayflower packed to the gunnels, carrying 102 passengers - men, women, and children. There was a simply preposterous number of children on board, more than a third of the company, thirty-four in all, down to babes in arms - not to speak of those in embryo, two of whom, Oeeanus Hopkins and Peregrine White, were born at sea.

Nothing is more deeply ingrained in the American mind than the notion that the Mayflower company was a homogeneous group, united by religious ties and the remembrance of hardships they had suffered together, all from Scrooby by way of Leyden. The fact is, only three were from Scrooby - William Bradford, William Brewster and his wife Mary - and little more than a third of the company were "Saincts" from Leyden. The majority on this ship, as on all the later Pilgrim ships, were "Strangers," in Bradford's phrase, who had been recruited at large in London and elsewhere by the merchant adventurers. So long as a man was willing to work hard and strive to turn a profit for the adventurers, the latter were not concerned how he prayed. In fact, as some of them soon complained, praying might interfere with more important business.

Far from being Separatists of any school, these "Strangers'' were members of the hated Church of England. What they were seeking in the New World, like the tens of millions who followed them across the Atlantic for three centuries, was not spiritual salvation but economic opportunity, a chance to better their worldly lot, and for a time they stoutly resisted all efforts by the Saints to convert them to the "true" church. This generated considerable friction from the start and several head-on conflicts that almost wrecked New Plimoth, for the smaller Leyden group was in command and determined to impose its religions views upon the majority, whether the latter wished to accept the Holy Discipline or not. It was their common hardships and their fight against adversity together that finally united the two groups, under Separatist doctrine. The fight for religious tolerance, for real "freedom of conscience," was not won at Plymouth but elsewhere - first, in Rhode Island under the great Roger Williams, who had been at Plymouth and left because the Saints disapproved of his broader views.

Bradford is at his best in describing those first few awful years at Plymouth when men staggered in the street from hunger, scarcely able to go to and from the corn fields upon which their very lives depended. The Pilgrims had many difficulties to contend with, the chief being their utter ignorance of the ways of the wilderness. They had to learn the hard way, by trial and frequent error. But they learned fast, and by 1623 had securely established themselves on the inhospitable New England coast. The victory was their own, for, as Bradford declared, they had never had any substantial aid from any quarter.

Five years later, in 1628, the great Puritan migration to New England began with the arrival of John Endicott and his company at Salem, followed in 1630 by Governor John Winthrop's much larger company, which soon founded Boston, some forty, miles north of Plymouth. Unlike the Pilgrims, this was a well-financed venture, with many rich and powerful sponsors having ample capital to equip and ship across a large number of colonists. In 1630 alone Puritan ships brought in more than 1,000 settlers, three times as many as Plymouth had received in ten years of settlement. Also richer in resources and better situated, the Massachusetts Bay Colony soon overshadowed the Old Colony, as Plymouth now began to call itself, finally absorbing the latter in 1692.

But the Pilgrims had their triumph, too, and with far-effects that are still felt today. On arrival these were still members of the Anglican church, of its liberal left wing. They desired reform but practiced a nominal conformity, partly because of objections to "schisme," chiefly because they were trimmers without the courage of their convictions, fearing the heavy hand of the bishops and civil authorities. Once beyond the reach of the latter, they changed their course. They had been advised "to take advice of them at Plymouth" - and they did, embracing the Separation and adopting the Holy Discipline, largely through the persuasions of Deacon Samuel Fuller. And so, for good and all, "the Pilgrim saddle was on the Bay horse," as the phrase went.

The day on which these former Puritans - confusingly, their original name still sticks to them - took over the Pilgrim meeting house was a momentous one in our history. For the individualistic doctrines and the essentially democratic procedures of the meeting house, their influence radiating far and wide from Massachusetts, have been basic in shaping the ideas, philosophy, manners, customs, ways of life, and moral values of millions of Americans.

Active to the last, Governor Bradford died in 1657. Largely self-taught and rather widely read, as is evident from his pages, he had been blessed with a sharp mind and retained an eager intellectual curiosity to the end of his life. In his later years he somehow found time amid all the onerous responsibilities of office to turn to the study of philosophy and the ancient languages, Latin and Greek. But he was especially interested in Hebrew, for he had a great desire to see with his own eyes, he said, the language of God and the angels and "how the words and phrases lye in the holy texte .... and what names were given to things from the creation."

Gifted and indefatigable, passionately devoted to the welfare of Plymouth, Bradford was unquestionably the greatest of the Pilgrims, one of the greatest figures of seventeenth century New England - indeed, of our entire colonial era - and went to his grave honored and "lamented by all of the colonies of New England, as a common blessing and father to them all."

Bradford died the richest man in the colony. But his greatest treasure - Of Plimoth Plantation -was little appreciated and almost lost, going on many strange pilgrimages of its own. As Bradford had not written for publication, but rather to satisfy some inner need or desire, his manuscript history was handed down from father to son for several generations, with little or no appreciation of its unique worth. A few passages were copied into the church records by Nathaniel Morton, Bradford's nephew and secretary, who also used it in compiling his sketchy annals of the Pilgrims, New England's Memorial, pubiished in 1669. Many years later the manuscript fell into the hands of another early New England chronicler, the Reverend Thomas Prince, who published a few excerpts from it and then placed it on the shelves of his library in the renowned Old South Church, Boston. Here it presumably remained until the American Revolution.

During the early years of that conflict the British occupied the Old South, using it as a riding rink and stable. When the Redcoats evacuated Boston, an inventory of Prince's library revealed that Bradford's history and other old documents were gone. A search was made for them, without success until 1793, when a manuscript volume of letters suddenly turned up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where its large folio pages were being used by a local grocer to wrap butter, cheese, and other small purchases. The letter book was rescued, and for a time there was lively hope that other missing treasures might turn up in the town. But as decade after decade passed without discovery of a single clue, that hope faded and died, and Of Plimoth Plantation was written off as a casualty of the Revolution.

Then, in 1855, a student of Massachusetts history happened to borrow a book from a friend, a dull ecclesiastical work on the Episcopal Church in America, published in London in I844. The work seems to have been rather widely studied and read, for it went into a second edition in 1849. But the startling clues it contained went unnoticed for eleven years, escaping detection until the Reverend John S. Barry, thumbing through his borrowed copy, suddenly came upon several long quoted passages attributed to an unsigned manuscript source and instantly recognized that they could have been written only by Bradford. This promising lead was quickly followed up, and the long-lost history was soon traced to its dusty hiding place, being found - and how the "Saincts" would have raged! - in the library of Fulham Palace, one of the episcopal seats of the bishops of London.

How this loot from the Old South came into their possession has never been explained. Nor was the manuscript immediately returned. But his then Lordship was gracious enough to allow a transcript to be made, and Of Plimoth Plantation was given to the world the next year. Its publication at Boston in 1856 marks, in a real sense, the beginning of Pilgrim history, which had largely been legend and myth before.

The question of returning the manuscript was raised in 1861 by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The legal authorities of the British government foresaw no difficulties in arranging this, but the Lord Bishop of London objected, saying that the "difficulty of alienating property of this kind could, I believe, only be got over by an act of Parliament." Seven years later, finding itself in possession of documents which did not properly belong to it, the Free Library of Philadelphia returned them to Britain, and it was tactfully suggested - but without result - that Of Plimoth Plantation might be sent back to us in exchange. The question was again raised in 1877 and once more in 1881. Finally, in 1896, many distinguished Americans petitioned our ambassador in Britain to explore every avenue that might possibly open a way for the return of Bradford's chronicle.

The church authorities, after much discussion, suggested a plea to the Consistory Court of the Diocese of London. One was drawn, with the usual legalistic abracadabra, and the chancellor of the court was much impressed.

"Had this mss. been solely of historical value," he would have found it very difficult indeed, he said, to see any reason for its removal. Fortunately, there was one sound argument for granting the plea - "the necessity of protecting the pecuniary interests of the descendants of the families named in it, in tracing and establishing their fights to succession of property."

And thus, as a mere title deed and not as a superlative historical document, a genuine American classic, Bradford's manuscript came back to our shores at last - but not , home to Mother Plymouth. It went to Boston instead, where it was presented to the governor of Massachusetts and then placed in a glass case, in the State House, where its beautifully inscribed and fascinating pages are still to be seen.

E-mail: Sean Richardson