1897 was an exciting year for those interested in the history of Plymouth Colony and, further, for a broad spectrum of the population across the country interested in the origins of the United States. For Thomas Bradford Drew (1834-1898), a dentist turned historian and curator, the year 1897 was truly a momentous one–for reasons having mostly to do with honoring his ancestor, Governor William Bradford.
Over the course of the winter and spring of 1897, Thomas F. Bayard, United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s (and former U.S. Secretary of State under Grover Cleveland), had been busily petitioning the Lord Bishop of London, and working through various legal channels with the British government, for the return of the Bradford manuscript Of Plimoth Plantation. Written by the long-time governor of Plymouth Colony between 1630 and 1650, Bradford’s manuscript is a priceless piece of American history, offering the most comprehensive account of the travails of the Pilgrims and their settlement in the New World.
The volume descended through three generations of the Bradford family. It was periodically loaned out to various learned men, theologians and historians for use in writing their own histories of New England. By 1728, the manuscript was in the hands of Rev. Thomas Prince, minister of the Old South Church in Boston. An early antiquarian, Prince amassed in the steeple room of the Old South Church what he called “The New England Library.” He visited Major John Bradford of Kingston, the rightful owner of the book, and offered to purchase it. Major Bradford declined, stating that he could never part with it, but agreed to loan it to Prince’s library. Prince noted in the volume that the manuscript was the property of Major Bradford and his heirs…but also added a New England Library book plate.
Bradford’s history disappeared from the New England Library at some time shortly before, or during, the American Revolution. Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson used it as a reference for his History of Massachusetts Bay, published in 1767. Hutchinson has often been blamed for taking the manuscript when he departed Boston in 1774, having been removed as Royal Governor of the province in the midst of turmoil. However, many volumes were pilfered from the library during the British occupation of Boston and the true culprit will likely never be known.
The subsequent whereabouts of the manuscript were unknown to Americans, and its loss much bemoaned, until 1855 when antiquarian John T. Thornton of Boston discovered a passage he believed was quoted from Bradford’s work in A History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in America, written by Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, in 1844. Senator George F. Hoar of Massachusetts, who would become a key player in the return of the manuscript, called Wilberforce’s work, “one of the dullest and stupidest of books.” Dull it may have been, but it was the key to tracking down the location of Bradford’s manuscript at Fulham Palace in the library of the Bishop of London.
A number of requests were made over the next 42 years for the manuscript’s return. None were successful until Senator Hoar and Ambassador Bayard began negotiations with the Right Reverend Mandell Creighton, Bishop of London, in the fall of 1896. By April 1897, the Bishop consented and issued a decree stating, in part, “That the said Manuscript Book be delivered over to the said Honorable Thomas Francis Bayard…on his giving his undertaking in writing that he will with all due care and diligence on his arrival from England in the United States convey and deliver in person the said Manuscript Book to the Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
Bayard fulfilled his obligation, personally conveying the manuscript to Massachusetts where it was presented to Governor Roger Wolcott during a formal ceremony in the State House on May 26, 1897. “The honorable and most gratifying duty with which I am charged,” Bayard stated, “is about to receive its final act of execution, for I have the book here, and here I produce it as it was placed in my hands by the Lord Bishop of London on April 29, intact then and now….I am deeply grateful for the part that I have been enabled to take in this act of just and natural restitution…And here, sir [addressing Governor Wolcott], I fulfill my trust in presenting to you the manuscript.”
Among the many who were keenly interested in these proceedings was a Renaissance man from Kingston, Massachusetts, then 62 years old. Thomas Bradford Drew, a descendant of Governor Bradford, received basic schooling in Kingston, then trained in dentistry under Henry M. Miller of Plymouth. His first effort in dentistry was the extraction of four of his father’s teeth at age 18. As a young man, before the Civil War, he was actively involved in the antislavery movement and befriended William Lloyd Garrison, among other famed abolitionists. He was interested in astronomy, history, mathematics, industry, genealogy, cooking, music, sang tenor in a choir and regularly attended numerous lyceum lectures.
Having conducted extensive research on the history of Plymouth Colony and the genealogy of its early families, in 1887 Drew was appointed curator and librarian of Pilgrim Hall in Plymouth, which is to this day the foremost repository of Pilgrim artifacts and documents. The Bradford manuscript would have come under Drew’s care at Pilgrim Hall if Bayard’s recommendations had been followed. However, the Bishop of London decreed that the volume should be kept at the State Library of Massachusetts.
At the same time negotiations were taking place on an international stage for the return of the Bradford manuscript, Drew was working on an acquisition of his own, also part of Governor William Bradford’s legacy, and a matter Drew felt passionate about. In 1896, Drew sought to purchase a seven acre portion of Governor William Bradford’s estate in Kingston to preserve it as a memorial.
During the land division of 1627, when grants were made to the freemen of the colony and lands along the coast from Plymouth to present day Marshfield were parceled out, Governor William Bradford received land in what is now Kingston along the Jones River. Within a few years, many colonists had settled permanently on their land grants, moving away from the village of Plymouth, a phenomenon which distressed Bradford. He would reflect in his history, “…They were scattered all over the Bay quickly and the town in which they lived compactly till now was left very thin and in a short time almost desolate.” And as the dispersal continued he later wrote, “Thus was this poor church left, like an ancient mother, grown old and foresaken of her children.”
Despite Bradford’s lamentations, he too chose to establish a homestead on his land grant. Bradford’s estate at the Jones River is first mentioned in colonial records in 1636 and a house on the grant was referenced in May 1637. It is not clear exactly when or how long Governor Bradford resided on his Jones River grant. Drew suggests he took up residence there before 1637 and until about 1647, perhaps even later. It seems likely that, during these years, Bradford divided his time between his houses at Jones River and in Plymouth. This notwithstanding, Drew postulates, reasonably so, that much of Bradford’s famed manuscript was written while residing on his farm in what is now Kingston. This notion adds considerable historical significance to the Bradford homestead at Jones River.
What is now Kingston remained a part of Plymouth until it was established as a separate town in 1726. The portion of Governor Bradford’s estate in which Drew was keenly interested was a known landmark in Kingston during the 19th century. On a small knoll just north of Maple Street and just east of Summer Street, a depression in the ground marked the site of the home of Major William Bradford, the Governor’s son. The identity of the site was asserted by strong family tradition and is supported by the title history of the land itself.
In 1876, during the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the town’s incorporation, a large procession marched out to the site to honor Governor and Major William Bradford. “Since the celebration at Kingston,” Drew wrote in 1897, “the desire has been repeatedly expressed that some memorial be placed on the old estate so that it may be kept in remembrance by the future generations, and, at last, the opportunity has come.”
The seven acre site which Drew purchased in 1896 was but a tiny portion of the original Bradford estate (which may have encompassed as much as 300 acres), but it was a crucial portion in that it contained the site of Major William Bradford’s house. In 1897, Drew entered negotiations with the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, proposing to sell to them a half-acre lot encompassing the cellar hole. Gamaliel Bradford of Boston, Governor of the Society, offered to contribute one quarter of the cost. The rest would be raised from sources far and wide. Drew noted that interest in the project was immediate and widespread, with donations coming from unexpected sources. The concurrent return of the Bradford manuscript to Massachusetts may well have played a role in this enthusiasm.
A ceremony took place on September 30, 1897 to mark the formal transfer of the property to the Massachusetts Mayflower Society. 125 people gathered on the half-acre lot. The day, Drew wrote, was beautiful, “the weather being everything that could be desired.”
Opening remarks were given by William T. Davis (1822-1907) then the preeminent historian of Plymouth. Davis commented on the historical importance of the site, boldly stating what many had speculated–that the site of Major William Bradford’s house was indeed the same spot where Governor William Bradford’s 1630s house had stood. “Though not a matter of absolute record,” Davis said, “there can be no doubt that on this quarter of an acre the house of Gov. Bradford stood. It is known with certainty that his son, Major William Bradford, deputy-governor of Plymouth Colony, lived here; and the depression in the ground near where I stand marks the site of his house.”
It would, of course, greatly amplify the historical importance of that half-acre lot if it could be definitively proven that Governor Bradford’s house stood there, and that it was the spot where much of Bradford’s history was written. While Davis’s sentiments of “no doubt” seem somewhat extreme, the possibility certainly exists that Major William Bradford simply took over his father’s existing house or built a new one in its place.
Either way, an important part of the Bradford legacy had been preserved thanks to the efforts of Thomas Bradford Drew. But Drew was not finished. He wanted a fitting monument placed on the site. Drew wrote:
Some would be satisfied to have the ground left ungraded so to show the depressions in the surface where the buildings once stood…with perhaps a heap of large bowlders in the centre, on one of which to have a bronze tablet placed having a suitable inscription upon it. A better suggestion has been made, and that is to build a structure like a castle tower of rough stone…Such a structure would need to be made high enough to be above any buildings…commanding a very pleasant prospect of the lands bordering on the bay…and what would be more appropriate than that the ancient estate of its illustrious Governor, in those early days, should be [so] marked.
The town of Duxbury had its great tower dedicated to Myles Standish who settled there. Plymouth had its stunning Monument to the Forefathers, the largest free-standing granite monument in the world. Why should not Kingston, located between these two towns, have its own tower, located on a historically significant piece of land–a Bradford Monument?
Drew was a respected and influential local figure with good connections. He might have been able to bring this vision to fruition. Sadly, just months after the ceremony and shortly after the publication of his short book, The Ancient Estate of Governor William Bradford, Drew was forced to resign from his position at Pilgrim Hall due to poor health. He died on May 5, 1898 of cancer.
A boulder was placed on the site with a suitable bronze tablet which is still there today. The location, although in the center of Kingston, is hidden, land-locked by private property and not accessible to the public. It may not be exactly what Drew envisioned, but this site of great historical significance is nonetheless preserved.
 Samuel Eliot Morison, Introduction to Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, (1952), p. xxix
 Morison, p. xxx
 The Bradford Manuscript: Account of the Part Taken by the American Antiquarian Society in the Return of the Bradford Manuscript to America, (1898), p. 85
 The Bradford Manuscript, p. 80
 The Bradford Manuscript, p. 96 and 102
 Kingston Public Library, “Thomas B. Drew, II” biographical sketch; William T. Davis, Plymouth Memories of an Octogenarian, (1906), p. 377
 Bradford, ed. Morison, Of Plymouth Plantation, (1952), p. 253 and 334
 Thomas Bradford Drew, The Ancient Estate of Governor William Bradford, (1897), p. 5-6
 Drew, p. 6-7
 Drew, p. 10
 Drew, p. 27
 Drew, p. 28
 Davis, quoted by Drew, p. 36
August 6th, 2015 at 4:32 pm
Patrick: anyone who wants to see the digitized version of the Bradford manuscript, including the added notes and the bookplate mentioned above, can see it here: http://archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/208249.
August 6th, 2015 at 4:33 pm
Beth, thanks so much for the link. It is a wonderful resource.
August 6th, 2015 at 4:53 pm
The State Library now has two bound copies of a facsimile of the Bradford Manuscript made from images taken during the recent conservation and digitization project. One copy is in the main library (State House, Room 341) and the other is in the Special Collections Department (State House, Room 55). The Library is open to the public and anyone who wants to consult the volumes is welcome to come in.
Read about the project here: http://mastatelibrary.blogspot.com/2015/03/william-bradfords-manuscript-volume-of.html
Record from the State Library’s online catalog describing the two facsimile volumes mentioned above:
State Library home page:
August 7th, 2015 at 8:07 am
Beth, the work that has been done in preserving and digitizing the manuscript is truly amazing. It’s wonderful that it can be seen in all its detail online. I know it’s been a massive project. Thank you for sharing these links.
August 8th, 2015 at 12:04 pm
Great article! Fascinating to learn how the manuscript was tracked down and brought back to America.