I’ve reached a milestone in my Bradford biography – I’ve finished a draft of the first chapter. I still have a tremendous amount of research and writing to do, but I thought I’d publish here something that I’ve already had to edit out – a deep dive into a detail on a small but important fact of Bradford’s life.

The Truth

There’s a good deal of confusion around a very basic fact of the life of William Bradford – the year in which he was born. This should not be the case, as although much isn’t known about his early life, this is something that is quite well documented in his first appearance in the historical record – the note of his baptism in the parish register. The record itself is quite clear. The original survives to the present, and as far as I know has always been accessible to visitors to Austerfield, his hometown. Even today you can see a replica of it in the Austerfield church. It reads:

William sone of Willia’ Bradfourth baptized the xixth day of March Anno dm. 1589 1

So then Bradford was born in 1589, right? It’s not as simple as it might seem. Despite the register reading 1589, he was actually born in 1590. At this point in English history the year began on March 25th, not January 1st. This was confusing even in Bradford’s time, as their way of tracking the years was different from continental Europe’s. Strangely enough they still celebrated January 1st as New Years’s Day.2 In the Austerfield register, William’s baptism is the last one noted before the year changed to 1590, since that took place just a few days later. To clear things up, many historians reference dates in the first months of the year as 1589/90.

Bradford’s baptism record


This is an issue that has tripped up several historians, and his birth year has been variously reported as 1588, 1589 and 1590. Cotton Mather in 1702 wrote that Bradford was born in 1588.3 Since he remains the original source for much of what we know about his early life, many authors followed his error. We can give him some grace, since he likely got his information from the Bradford family and did not have the opportunity to consult records in England. Henry Dexter at the turn of the 20th century quoted the parish record correctly, but then misunderstood it as referring to 1588/1589.4


This mistakes of historians get even more troubling than this. Some, instead of just misunderstanding the year, actually falsely quote from the parish register. Let’s focus on the most thorough biography of William Bradford to date – Bradford of Plymouth written by his descendant, Bradford Smith, in 1951.5 On the first page of the first chapter, he quotes the register as saying:

19 March 1589   William Bradford6

If you compare it with what the actual register says above, you’ll see that while the information is correct, it is in no way a direct quote. It is very unfortunate to have an error this blatant on the first page of the book, and it must call into question the thoroughness of the research throughout. Unfortunately, Smith chose not to footnote his book, or even give a complete bibliography, so it is hard whether this was his own error, or whether he trusted someone else without consulting the original. Either way, it serves as a minor point in the case that a new biography of Bradford is needed.

Replica of the parish register on display in Austerfield

1. The Registers of the Chapel of Austerfield, edt. George Lumb, (Leeds, UK: Yorkshire Parish Register Society: 1910) p. 4, though when compared with the original you can see the year was edited out in the published version.

2. Daily Life in Elizabethan England by Jeffery Singman (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995) p. 59.

3. Magnalia Christi Americana: Or the Ecclesiastical History of New-England, from its First Planting in the Year 1620 unto the Year of our Lord, 1698 by Cotton Mather, (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1702) book 2, p. 5.

4. The England and Holland of the Pilgrims by Henry Dexter, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905) p. 389.

5. The other misquote of the register I’ve found is as “1589 March 19th. William, son of William Bradfourth” in “The Original Home of the Pilgrim Fathers” by Bryan Dale in The Bradford Antiquary: The Journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society. series 1, vol. 2, Bradford, UK: Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society, 1905, p. 34-55.

6. Bradford of Plymouth by Bradford Smith, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1951) p. 23