Grave of Governor William Bradford


I’ve been on hiatus from posting on this site for quite some time as I pursue other studies. In the interest of preventing the dust from accumulating, I thought I would post at least a short bit on one of my favorite historical sites—Plymouth’s Burial Hill and the monument to Governor William Bradford.

The eight-and-a-half foot obelisk in memory of Gov. William Bradford (1590-1657) on Burial Hill was placed by a group of his descendants—the effort coordinated by Hon. Alden Bradford (1765-1843). He was a historian, clergyman, and Secretary of the Commonwealth, born in Duxbury but later residing in Boston. The granite was taken from the ruins of the 1633 John Cotton house in Boston (later owned by Sir Henry Vane and Judge Samuel Sewell and located on southern end of today’s Pemberton Square in front of the Adams Courthouse).[1] The choice of the stone was meant to represent the symbolic ties between these leaders and theologians of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies.

There is some disagreement as to where Gov. Bradford was in fact buried. Plymouth historian Dr. James Thacher stated in his 1835 History of the Town of Plymouth that Bradford’s son, Major William Bradford, was buried next to his father’s resting place. Thacher also included in his history an emotional plea to Bradford descendants hoping they would rectify the “melancholy” fact that the Governor’s grave bore no marker or memorial. And so, this obelisk was erected (the same year Thacher published his history) next to the marked grave of Major Bradford.

The obelisk bears inscriptions in English, Latin and Hebrew. The English inscription on the south side: “H I [abbreviation for hic iacet or “here lies”] William Bradford of Austerfield Yorkshire England. Was the son of William and Alice Bradford He was Governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 to 1633, 1635, 1637, 1639 to 1643, 1645 to 1657.” The English inscription on the north side: “Under this stone rest the ashes of William Bradford a zealous Puritan & sincere Christian Gov. of Ply. Col. from 1621 to 1657, (the year he died) aged 69, except 5 yrs. which he declined.” The Latin inscription: “Qua patres difficillime adepti sunt nolite turpiter relinquere.” Translation: “What our fathers achieved with such difficulty, do not carelessly abandon.” The Hebrew inscription (reflecting the fact that Bradford learned Hebrew in order to read religious texts including older transcriptions of the Old Testament) reads, “Jehovah is our help.”

If you haven’t seen the view from Burial Hill, do put it on your list.

[1] Boston Daily Advertiser, June 16, 1835

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

7 responses to “Grave of Governor William Bradford

  • Ray Duffy

    Great that you are back!
    I enjoyed reading the article.
    Met you this summer on Clarke’s Island.
    Looking forward to more.
    Ray D

  • Mike Maxwell

    I found your discussion of Governor Bradford’s monument (and whether or not the Governor is actually buried there) of interest, because it highlights our fascination with “the actual, physical spot” where something significant supposedly occurred. Being particularly interested in the History of the Civil War, (200 years after the death of Governor Bradford) it came as a shock to learn that a large percentage of soldiers, North and South, lie in unmarked graves (and graves with headstones marked, “Unknown.”) During the 20th Century, there was a major leap forward with dogtags, and then DNA identification (which seemed to foreshadow a day when ALL burials were properly marked as “Known”) …but the increasing popularity of cremation may actually lead to a day when “marked burial sites,” such as Governor Bradford’s, are the exception, instead of the rule.

    Just an observation
    Mike Maxwell

    • Patrick Browne

      Interesting observations, Mike. Thanks. On the subject of unmarked Civil War burials, I highly recommed “Republic of Suffering” by Drew Gilpin Faust if you haven’t read it already. A great deal in there about efforts to identify soldiers’ battlefield graves after the war and return them home. I learned much about a seldom discussed topic.

  • Sally Spires

    I’m a direct descendant of the Governor and just this week got to see this site. I’m glad you gave a translation of the Latin inscription as my rendition via google translator left me confused. Thank you.

  • Doug long

    I just returned from Plymouth and enjoyed the history of the town but was over whelmed by all the tourist activity, I had hoped it would be preserved more like Jamestown, that being said do you know why there are ashes instead of bones beneath William Bradford’s marker? Thank you

    • Patrick Browne

      Hi Doug. Thanks for commenting and glad you enjoyed your visit. The main difference between Plymouth and Jamestown is the fact that Jamestown was abandoned as a settlement when Williamsburg was established. And so it is now an archaeological site. Plymouth has been inhabited since its establishment and so it has grown and changed as a living town. As for “ashes,” I believe that is simply a metaphor. “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.” Cremation was not a burial practice at that time among the English settlers.

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