William Bradford (March 19, 1590 – May 9, 1657) was an English leader of the settlers of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, and was elected thirty times to be the Governor after John Carver died. His journal (1620–1647) was published as Of Plymouth Plantation. Bradford is credited as the first civil authority to designate what popular American culture now views as Thanksgiving in the United States.
William Bradford was born to William and Alice Bradford in Austerfield, Yorkshire, England in 1590. Austerfield was a small town of approximately 200, most of them farmers of modest means. The Bradford family, owning a large farm, was considered comparatively wealthy and influential among the citizens of Austerfield. As a child, Bradford experienced the loss of numerous family members. Some historians, such as Nathaniel Philbrick, noted that Bradford’s lack of family bonds was a significant factor in his joining the dissident religious congregation that would one day be known as the Pilgrims. When Bradford was just over a year old, his father died. He was raised by his mother until the age of four when his mother re-married and Bradford was sent to live with his grandfather. Two years later, his grandfather died and he returned to live with his mother and stepfather. A year later, in 1597, Bradford became an orphan at age 7 when his mother died. He was sent to live with two uncles. His uncles intended for young Bradford to help them on their farm, however Bradford (he later claimed in his journal) suffered at this time from a "long sickness" and was unable to do much work. He instead turned to reading, becoming familiar with the Bible and classic works of literature. This, too, was a key factor in his intellectual curiosity and his eventual attraction to the Separatists.  Separatist congregationWhen Bradford was 12 years old, a young friend invited him to hear the Rev. Richard Clyfton preach 8 miles away in Babworth. Clyfton was a Puritan minister who believed that the Church of England required strict reforms to eliminate all vestiges of Catholic practices. This would, proponents believed, result in a more "pure" Christian church. Bradford was immediately inspired by Clyfton’s preachings. Although he was forbidden to do so by his uncles, Bradford continued to attend Clyfton’s sermons. During one of these meetings he met and befriended William Brewster, bailiff and postmaster for the Archbishop of York. Brewster, 24 years older than Bradford, became a father figure to the young man. He resided at Scrooby Manor, just four miles from Austerfield. During frequent visits, Bradford borrowed books from Brewster and Brewster told the young man about church reform efforts taking place throughout England. King James I took the English throne in 1603 and declared that he would put an end to church reform and deal harshly with radical critics of the Church of England. By 1607, a group of about 50 reform-minded individuals began meeting secretly at Scrooby Manor to celebrate the Sabbath, led by Richard Clyfton and also Rev. John Robinson. This group soon decided that reform of the Church of England was hopeless and that they would separate all ties with it. Thus they became known as Separatists. The weekly meetings of the Separatists soon attracted the attention of the Archbishop of York and many members of the congregation were arrested in 1607. Brewster was found guilty of being "disobedient in matters of religion" and fined. Some members were imprisoned and others were watched, according to Bradford, "night and day" by those loyal to the archbishop. Adding to their concerns, members of the Scrooby congregation learned that other Separatists in London had been imprisoned and left to starve. When the Scrooby congregation decided in 1607 to leave England illegally for the Dutch Republic (where religious freedom was permitted), William Bradford determined to go with them. The group encountered several major setbacks in trying to leave England, most notably their betrayal by an English sea captain who had agreed to bring the congregation to the Netherlands but instead turned them over to authorities. Most of the congregation, including Bradford, were imprisoned for a short time after this failed attempt. By the summer of 1608, however, the Scrooby congregation, including 18 year old William Bradford, had managed to escape England in small groups and relocated in Amsterdam.