Of Plimouth Plantation
While Governor William Bradford was writing his journal on the early years of the Pilgrims, little did he realize the travels his journal would take, or the mystery which would later surround it. He mentions the book in his will, dated 9 May 1657:
"…I commend unto youer Wisdome and Descretions some smale bookes written by my owne hand to bee Inproved as you shall see meet; In speciall I Comend to you a little booke with a blacke cover wherin there is a word to Plymouth a word to Boston and a word to New England with sundry usefull verses."
Bradford did not specify who was to receive his little booke (or books), but his journal shows up in the 1704 will of his son, Major William2 Bradford, who bequeaths to his eldest son, Major John3 Bradford, "my fathers manuscript viz a Narrative of the beginning of New Plimouth". The 1732 will of Major John3 Bradford does not mention the book, probably because he had already given it to his son, Samuel4 Bradford who, on 20 Mar. 1705, recorded in the book the names of the owners, from Governor Bradford to himself. (Although Samuel stated he owned the book in 1705, it was to Major John3 Bradford that Rev. Thomas Prince wrote in 1728, offering to buy it.)
During the four generations the journal was in the possession of the Bradford family, it was seldom left sitting in a desk drawer. Nathaniel Morton, nephew of Governor Bradford and Secretary of Plymouth Colony, was the first to utilize Bradford’s history when he freely referred to it in his history, New England’s Memoriall, published in 1669, after which he copied the first part of the journal (through to Chapter IX) into the Plymouth church records. William Hubbard used it for his History of New England, published in 1683. It was also used by Increase Mather of Boston when writing his history of the Indian wars and by his son, Cotton Mather, for his book, Magnalia Christi Americana, published in 1702. By 1728, the book was in the possession of Judge Samuel Sewall when it was then loaned to the Rev. Thomas Prince of the Old South Church in Boston, who referred to the journal in writing his Chronological History of New England, published in 1736. A collector of books, Prince kept Bradford’s journal in his "New England Library", where it still remained at his death in 1758, the entire library being then left to the Old South Church where it was housed. The last known person to use the book was Governor Thomas Hutchinson for the second volume of his History of Massachusetts Bay, published in 1767. In 1780, at the close of the Revolutionary War, the library in the Old South Church was found to be in a state of disarray – many books were missing, among them Bradford’s journal.
For seventy five years it was not known what became of Bradford’s journal, or if it still existed at all. Clues finally arose – unnoticed – with the publication of two books in 1844 and 1848; the first made "an unmistakable quotation" from Bradford’s journal citing "Fulham Ms. History" while the second expressly cited Governor Bradford’s manuscript as one of its’ sources. It wasn’t until 1855 that the references were finally noticed, with the realization that the journal was alive and well in the library of the Bishop of London at Fulham Palace. It is not hard to imagine how the journal got there, but by whom? There are those who feel Governor Thomas Hutchinson removed books from Prince’s library when he returned to England in 1774 and others who feel they were taken by one of the British who were garrisoned at the Old South Church during the war. (Two other books bearing the "New England Library" bookplate were also found in Fulham Palace.) There was however, a paper trail – the discovery of part of a Letter Book (written by Governor Bradford) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which was returned to Massachusetts in 1793. This Letter Book was also believed to have been in Prince’s library in Boston. The trail – Boston to Halifax to England matches that of the British troops after the war.
Although the location of the journal was discovered in 1855, it took forty-two years of negotiations and political red tape before it was finally returned to Massachusetts. Fortunately the public did not have to wait this long to read Bradford’s words as the Bishop of London agreed to have a copy transcribed which was published in 1856. (Several falsehoods were now corrected, among them that John Howland’s wife Elizabeth was not the daughter of John Carver.) Bradford’s history was returned in 1897.