Tragic story of the woman who fell from the Mayflower

Nov 18, 2020

Dorothy Bradford had the world at her feet.

Born into a rich family, she later married William Bradford, a man who would serve as Governor of Plymouth Colony for many years.

Dorothy also had a three-year-old boy while living in the Netherlands and boarded the Mayflower in 1620 ready to sail towards a new life.

However, she would sadly never set foot in America.

All her hopes and dreams for a bright future were snatched away in one tragic moment that would leave her husband, William, a widower and her son without a mother.

Who was Dorothy Bradford?

Dorothy was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, in about 1597 to Henry and Katherine May.

New research by Sue Allan and Caleb Johnson has shown that Dorothy certainly moved to Amsterdam around 1608 with her non-conformist father, who was a leading church elder in the Henry Ainsworth church congregation in the city. 

Five years later, 16-year-old Dorothy married William Bradford, then 23, before returning with her husband to take up residence in Leiden.

The couple had a child, John, who was probably born in 1617, though he was left behind when Dorothy and William sailed for North America – presumably with the intention of sending for him when Plymouth Colony was built and more suitable for a young child.

The Mayflower voyage and time in Plymouth Colony

Dorothy and William Bradford left their son with her parents in Amsterdam and boarded the Speedwell in 1620, before transferring across to the Mayflower when the Speedwell was deemed unseaworthy.

After surviving the treacherous transatlantic crossing, William was one of the 41 “true” Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact.

Shortly afterwards, though, tragedy struck.

The Mayflower anchored off Provincetown Harbour on 11 November 1620, before the group sent out several men to explore the region to seek out the best place to build their Colony.

Less than a month later, while her husband was ashore exploring, Dorothy accidentally drowned in the freezing waters of the Harbour after falling from the Mayflower.

In June 1869, a fictional story was published in Harper's Weekly, in which Dorothy's fall from the Mayflower was portrayed as a depression-induced suicide, involving an affair with the ship's captain, Christopher Jones.

Although this story had no historical proof, it has nevertheless made it into some popular accounts of the Pilgrims and gets regularly debated in television documentaries about the Mayflower.

What happened to William Bradford?

After overcoming illness himself, and the death of first Governor John Carver, William Bradford was elected to lead Plymouth Colony and was subsequently re-elected 31 times before his death, missing only five years.

In 1623 he remarried to Alice Southworth (nee Carpenter) and the couple had three children, William, Mercy and Joseph, all of whom survived to adulthood and married.

Later in his life Bradford acted as Plymouth commissioner for the United Colonies and was President in 1652 and 1656.

William was generally sick throughout the winter of 1656/57 and predicted to his family and friends on 8 May 1657 that he would die. He passed away the next day at the age of 68.

Read more about William Bradford here.

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