To call the ramshackle collection of a dusty paths and homespun cottages here at Plymouth a colony is—frankly—a bit of a stretch. The kitchen gardens are humble at best. You can count their chickens and bills on one hand. Nevertheless, this fledgling community’s governor, William Bradford, sees big things ahead.
"We have had some setbacks and yet, much like God laid us low that he might lift us up earlier in our habitation here, I have no doubt and strong faith that God will carry us through this as well," Bradford said. "'Tis another mere testing, much like Gideon's Army."
Obviously, I did not travel back in time to Plymouth in 1624, nor was I speaking with the actual William Bradford. But the next best thing is the living recreation of the Pilgrims' new world home at Plimouth Plantation. Here, actors (they call themselves interpreters) inhabit a It's remarkably accurate, thanks in large part to a history, hand-written by the colony’s first governor, called "Of Plymouth Plantation."
"It’s one of the pillars of what we do," said Doug Blake, an interpreter at Plimouth Plantation, who was my William Bradford for the day. "Basically it’s like the bible of doing our job. I read it every year, probably multiple times."
In fact, it's hard to understate how much of what we know about the Pilgrims' experience, even the fact that we call them the Pilgrims, comes from Bradford’s account. It has everything in it, from the details of their journey to the new world to the text of the Mayflower Compact, to a year-by-year chronicling of Plymouth’s first few decades.
"This is the cornerstone of all scholarship on the Plymouth colony through the 1640s," said the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Peter Drummey.
He says without "Of Plymouth Plantation," we’d have much less of an idea about what the Native American-English contact was like, far less of a sense of what the first Thanksgiving looked like, and know almost nothing about the very dramatic events in the first year of their settlement. Not to mention we'd know precious little of the the details of the Pilgrims' next 20 years or so.
And it was nearly lost to history. In the years following Bradford’s death, his handwritten manuscript was occasionally loaned to historians who would cite portions in their own work, but it was never published.
By the 1770s, it was being stored in a library in the Old South Church when the Revolutionary war broke out. During the Seige of Boston, the British occupied many of the city’s churches, including The Old South Church, which they turned into a horse stable.
"By the end of the siege of Boston in 1776, it becomes clear that some of the materials in this collection have been liberated, have been looted," said Drummey.
Including Bradford’s manuscript. The only copy of the most important account of the Pilgrims' foundational new world experiment was gone.
"And that story essentially remains like that, a historical mystery of the first order, for about 75 years," Drummey said.
And then a curious thing happened. In the mid-1800s. out of nowhere, books on church history being published in England began including astounding details about the early years of Plymouth colony that no American scholar had ever seen.
"Somehow, people writing Ecclesiastical stories in England have access to a source that’s not available here," Drummey explained.
It is, of course, Bradford’s manuscript. To this day we still don’t know exactly how, but "Of Plymouth Plantation"—at some point—landed in the library of the Bishop of London.
"Which is wonderfully ironic because after all the Pilgrims, the separatists, had left England to get out from under the authority of the royal government but especially the Anglican church in England," Drummey said.
Despite the fact that the Anglican Church agreed to send a copy to America, an effort to reclaim the original, led by scholars and statesmen, pressed into action. It took decades, but on May 26, 1897, Bradford’s handwritten manuscript was finally returned, placed in the library of the Massachusetts statehouse, where it remains today.
"It’s a local treasure for Plymouth, it’s a state document of immense value, it’s also a nationally—and I would argue an internationally—important document," Drummey said. "To be in it’s presence is magical."
William Bradford’s "Of Plymouth Plantation," the first-hand account of the Pilgrim experience, returned to America 119 years ago this week.