Of Plymouth Plantation was written over a period of years by William Bradford, the leader of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. It is regarded as the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims and the early years of the colony which they founded.
The journal was written between 1630 and 1651 and describes the story of the Pilgrims from 1608, when they settled in the Dutch Republic on the European mainland through the 1620 Mayflower voyage to the New World, until the year 1647. The book ends with a list of Mayflower passengers and what happened to them which was written in 1651.
The document has carried many names. At the top of the original text is Of Plim̃oth Plantation,[a] but newer prints of the text often use the modern spelling, "Plymouth." The text of Bradford's journal is often called the History of Plymouth Plantation. In Wilberforce's text it is cited as History of the Plantation of Plymouth. It is also sometimes called William Bradford's Journal. A version published by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (after the return of the manuscript from England in 1897) is titled Bradford's History "Of Plimoth Plantation" while labeled The Bradford History on the spine. It has also been called The Mayflower, although it is not a ship's log and was written after the events.
Bradford, Edward Winslow, and others contributed material to George Morton, who merged everything into a letter which he published as Mourt's Relation in London in 1622. It was primarily a journal of the colonists' first years at Plymouth.
The Bradford journal records the events of the first 30 years of Plymouth Colony, as well as the reactions of the colonists to those events, and it is regarded by historians as the preeminent work of 17th century America. It is Bradford’s simple yet vivid account that has made the Pilgrims what Samuel Eliot Morison called the "spiritual ancestors of all Americans".
Bradford apparently never made an effort to publish the manuscript during his lifetime, but he did intend it to be preserved and read by others. He wrote at the end of chapter 6:
I have been the larger in these things, and so shall crave leave in some like passages following, (though in other things I shall labour to be more contract) that their children may see with what difficulties their fathers wrestled in going through these things in their first beginnings, and how God brought them along notwithstanding all their weaknesses and infirmities. As also that some use may be made hereof in after times by others in such like weighty employments; and herewith I will end this chapter.
Bradford's original manuscript was left in the tower of the Old South Meeting House in Boston during the American Revolutionary War. British troops occupied the church during the war, and the manuscript disappeared—and remained lost for the next century. Some scholars noted that Samuel Wilberforce quoted Bradford's work in A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America in 1844, and the missing manuscript was finally discovered in the Bishop of London's library at Fulham Palace; it was brought back into print in 1856. Americans made many formal proposals that the manuscript should be returned to its home in New England, but to no avail. Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar started an initiative in 1897, supported by the Pilgrim Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the New England Society of New York.
Bishop of London Frederick Temple learned of the importance of the book, and he thought that it should be returned to America. But it was being held by the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury needed to approve such a move—and the Archbishop was Frederick Temple by the time that Hoar's request reached England. The bishop's Consistorial and Episcopal Court of London observed that nobody could say for certain exactly how the book arrived in London, but he argued that the marriage and birth registry which it contained should have been deposited with the Church in the first place, and thus the book was a church document and the Diocese of London had proper control of it. The court, however, observed that the Diocese of London was not the proper repository for that information at the time when the Thirteen Colonies declared independence in 1776. So the bishop's court ordered that a photographic copy of the records be made for the court, and that the original be delivered to the Governor of Massachusetts.
The Bradford journal was presented to the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts during a joint session of the legislature on May 26, 1897. It is on deposit in the State Library of Massachusetts in the State House in Boston. In June 1897, the state legislature ordered publication of the history with copies of the documents associated with the return. In 1912, the Massachusetts Historical Society published a final authorized version of the text.
William Bradford's manuscript journal is a vellum-bound volume measuring 11 1⁄2 by 7 3⁄4 inches (292 × 197 mm). There are 270 pages numbered (sometimes inaccurately) by Bradford. The ink is slightly faded and has turned brown with age, but it is still completely legible. The pages are somewhat foxed, but otherwise the 400 year-old document is in remarkably good condition. Page 243 is missing, with a note from Prence that it was missing when he got the document.
(Describing the Pilgrims' safe arrival at Cape Cod aboard the Mayflower)
Being thus arived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees & blessed ye God of heaven, who had brought them over ye vast & furious ocean, and delivered them from all ye periles & miseries therof, againe to set their feete on ye firme and stable earth, their proper elemente. And no marvell if they were thus joyefull, seeing wise Seneca was so affected with sailing a few miles on ye coast of his owne Italy; as he affirmed, that he had rather remaine[d] twentie years on his way by land, then pass by sea to any place in a short time; so tedious & dreadfull was ye same unto him.
But hear I cannot but stay and make a pause, and stand half amased at this poore peoples presente condition; and so I thinke will the reader too, when he well considers ye same. Being thus passed ye vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before in their preparation (as may be remembered by yt which wente before), they had now no friends to wellcome them, nor inns to entertaine or refresh their weatherbeaten bodys, no houses or much less townes to repaire too, to seeke for succoure ...
Let it also be considered what weake hopes of supply & succoure they left behinde them, yt might bear up their minds in this sade condition and trialls they were under; and they could not but be very smale. It is true, indeed, ye affections & love of their brethren at Leyden was cordiall & entire towards them, but they had little power to help them, or them selves; and how ye case stode betweene them & ye marchants at their coming away, hath already been declared. What could not sustaine them but ye spirite of God & his grace? May not & ought not the children of these fathers rightly say : Our faithers were Englishmen which came over this great ocean, and were ready to perish in this willdernes; but they cried unto ye Lord, and he heard their voyce, and looked on their adversitie, &c. Let them therfore praise ye Lord, because he is good, & his mercies endure for ever. ...
Bradford described the destruction by fire (pp. 425-426) of the Pequot's tribe's major village, in which at least 300 were burned to death:
[...] those that scaped the fire were slain with the sword, some hewed to pieces, others run through with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatched and very few escaped. It was conceived that they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof, but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and they gave the prayers thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them.