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William Bradford's journal
The Bradford Manuscript is so called for its writer, William Bradford, who was the governor of the Plymouth Colony generally from 1621 to 1657. The journal includes the original Mayflower Compact, a list of Mayflower passengers, and the most authoritative account of life in the early years of the colony. Most famously, it includes an account of the first Thanksgiving between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags led by Massasoit. After the death of William Bradford, the manuscript was kept by his descendants and lent to historians throughout the 17th and 18th centuries such as Cotton Mather, Samuel Sewall, and Thomas Hutchinson. Thomas Prince, a clergyman, historian, and collector, eventually obtained the manuscript from the Bradford family and deposited it, along with the rest of his historical collection, at the Old South Meeting House in the mid-1750s. However, from there, the manuscript appears to have disappeared during the American Revolution. For almost a century, the Bradford Manuscript was lost.
Did a British soldier or statesman steal the volume during the tumultuous period in Boston leading to the American Revolutionary War? Was it in the possession of a Loyalist historian or clergyman for research purposes when they decided to return to England, perhaps Thomas Hutchinson? We do not know how the Bradford Manuscript arrived in London, but some antiquarians with an eye for detail noticed that several histories published in London in the 19th century included passages that had been attributed to Bradford’s manuscript by American historians before the manuscript’s disappearance. Eventually word of these theories made its way to Charles Deane, chairman of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s publishing committee. Deane reached out to Reverend Joseph Hunter, vice president of the Society of Antiquaries of London and correspondent of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and asked that he examine the manuscript cited in these histories to verify if it was the long-lost On Plimoth Plantation. Not only did the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) want to recover the manuscript, but they also wished to produce the first publication of the document in American history.
Hunter obtained the manuscript from its keeper, Bishop of Oxford Samuel Wilberforce, and verified that its identity using attached documents from the Bradford family and Thomas Prince. Deane commissioned a copy of the manuscript, which arrived in Boston on August 3, 1855. While the MHS did publish the manuscript, its members were not satisfied and wanted the manuscript to be restored to the United States. So began a struggle that would persist for almost half a century. In 1860, MHS President John Charles Winthrop attempted to secure the return of the Bradford manuscript during an upcoming visit to the United States from the Prince of Wales as a “conciliatory act,” but this plan was foiled by an inability to push legislation allowing this transfer through Parliament. After the Civil War, Justin Winsor, librarian at the Boston Public Library, met with John Lothrop Motley, newly appointed minister to the Court of St. James, to organize an act of reciprocity by returning the Bradford Manuscript in a similar manner to the return of several British manuscripts by the Library Company of Philadelphia in the 1860s, but again the transfer was considered out of the question without an act of Parliament. Further appeals were made to various church officials in England by Winsor and other members of the Massachusetts Historical Society throughout the 1860s and 1870s to no avail. Finally in 1896, MHS member and U.S. Senator George Frisbie Hoar visited the manuscript and petitioned the Bishop once again for its return: “Why, if there were in existence in England a history of King Alfred’s reign for thirty years, written by his own hand, it would not be more precious in the eyes of Englishmen than this manuscript is to us” (The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, pages 212-213). The Bishop responded that he thought “myself that it ought to go back, and if it depended on me it would have gone back before this” and that he would petition Queen Victoria directly about the manuscript’s transfer.
But who would the manuscript be transferred to? Those involved considered the manuscript Massachusetts property and therefore did not want to deposit it in a federal institution such as the Library of Congress. The Boston Public Library, the Plymouth Registry of Deeds, and other organizations were considered before it was decided that the manuscript would be presented to Governor Wolcott. On May 26, 1897, the delegates of the General Court presented to the governor the Bradford Manuscript in a public ceremony. While the governor had the option to deposit the document with the state government or the Massachusetts Historical Society, Wolcott decided to keep the manuscript in the State House’s collection. Hence, the Bradford Manuscript was finally recovered and returned to the Commonwealth and has been part of the State Library’s collections since the turn of the century. Today, this precious manuscript is kept in secure storage in the library’s Special Collections department, with high-quality facsimile reproduction for anyone who wishes to view or research the manuscript both in person or online.
• The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History (1791-1991) by Louis Leonard Tucker (1996)
• The Surrender of the Bradford Manuscript by Justin Winsor (1897)