If you’ve ever heard that Dorothy Bradford, the wife of Plymouth colony governor William Bradford, suicided by jumping off the decks of the Mayflower, then you are already familiar with some of Jane Goodwin Austin’s work. The tragedy is at the center of her story “William Bradford’s Love Life,” which she first published in Harper’s in 1869 and then later reprinted in David Alden’s Daughter, a collection of her earlier Pilgrim stories, in 1892.
“William Bradford’s Love Life” opens in England with a young William Bradford pleading with the beautiful Alice Carpenter to agree to marry him. She refuses, but almost instantly regrets her coquettish decision. William leaves for Leyden, Holland, and in her dismay, Alice agrees to marry Edward Southworth. When William hears of the nuptials, he seeks solace with sixteen-year-old Dorothy May, who makes no secret of her love for him. They soon marry, and several years pass, during which Dorothy bears a son.
William is thinking of leaving Leyden to sail for the new world and hears that Alice has recently been widowed. William immediately informs Dorothy that he plans to sail on the Mayflower, and she should stay behind with their young son. Shocked at this sudden decision, Dorothy is determined to accompany her husband, but also learns that Alice has been widowed. Believing William wants to leave because he is still in love with Alice, Dorothy “began to die,” but accompanies William on the Mayflower, leaving her family and young son behind. Her depression deepens on board the ship, as she has nightmares about her son’s death, and her fears about William are only intensified as he whispers Alice’s name in his sleep. One day, as the Pilgrim men are exploring on land, Dorothy Bradford falls overboard and is drowned.
William discovers Dorothy’s diary and learns of her anguish. Two years later, he writes to Alice, including the diary fragments, proposing that she emigrate to the new world with her sons. His letter to her, and her response to him, are both included in the story. Alice soon arrives in Plymouth on the Anne, and two weeks later, is married to William.
While the Mayflower was anchored in Plymouth harbor in December of 1620, several of the men, including William Bradford, went on an exploratory mission on land to find a good place to settle. While they were gone, Dorothy Bradford went missing. Several decades later, in Of Plimoth Plantation, his history of the Plymouth colony, William wrote that “his wife died soon after their arrival.” Much later, in 1702, Cotton Mather recorded in his Magnalia Christi Americana that “At their first landing, [Bradford’s] dearest consort accidentally falling overboard, was drowned in the harbor.”
The earliest account does not even mention how Dorothy died, and the second account clearly states that it was an accident. There is nothing to suggest a suicide. Back in 2010, when I was at Plimoth Plantation (now Plimoth Patuxet Museums), I asked Richard Pickering, then the deputy director, about the rumor of suicide. He was familiar with the story, but he had a much more practical explanation for Dorothy’s death. If she had gone to the decks, possibly to dump out a bucket, she might have easily slipped on the icy decks of the Mayflower. Perhaps someone saw and tried to help, but most of the men were not on board the Mayflower that day. Even if someone had seen her fall, her heavy skirts and the frigid winter water would have meant there was a very short window of time to rescue her.
William and Dorothy had left their young son John behind in Leyden, a common practice for parents of children too young to make such an arduous voyage. John eventually emigrated to the new world as well, but he later died without having any children.
Alice Carpenter Southworth was widowed with two young children, and she emigrated to Plymouth on the Anne in 1623, where she married William Bradford two weeks later. Together, William and Alice had three children: William, Mercy, and Joseph.
With so few facts known, there was plenty of opportunity for rumors and misunderstandings, especially since William provides no detail about Dorothy’s death, which has raised some questions. The likely answer is less salacious than you might think. Not only did he start writing ten years after her death, he was writing a history of the colony and not a private journal. He didn’t record many personal details at all, and he doesn’t give much attention to the Pilgrim women in general.
As a result, family traditions and oral histories played an enormous role in the development of misconceptions. The story of William and Alice had appeared in a history book by W.H. Bartlett, The Pilgrim Fathers; or Founders of New England:
So the historians were not always repeating facts, but often speculating themselves.
The fiction writers also contributed. Martha Whiting published Faith White’s Letter Book in 1866. The fictional narrator, the young Faith White, journals her experiences traveling to the new world. She describes Dorothy Bradford’s increasingly despondent mental state, as she longed for her son and for her home. One day the Mayflower’s occupants see Dorothy’s fall from the decks and try unsuccessfully to rescue her. White writes that, Dorothy’s “face as she lies in the sleep of death, has on it a brighter smile than I ever saw there before; gone the look of home-sickness and wistful yearning for ‘my boy’ because she has at last reached home.”
It’s worth noting here that Faith White’s Letter Book is often catalogued as a history book, not a fictional novel, and that I’ve seen it on reading lists for homeschooling families as a good way to learn more about the Pilgrims.
Austin’s Version of the Story
“William Bradford’s Love Life” is one of Austin’s first attempts at historical fiction about the Pilgrims, well before she became more interested in doing research and being more faithful to the historical record. When the story was first published in 1869, Austin, along with her friend Louisa May Alcott, was still trying to establish her reputation as a writer and earn money for her work. And like Alcott, she found a ready audience for thrilling stories in the Gothic style.
The story’s themes of despondency and despair, unrequited love, and death by suicide are all evocative of the Gothic thrillers that she was able to sell to publishers so easily. And more importantly, so was the trope of the “missing manuscript” and “secret letters” that reveal the truth. After all, Faith White’s Letter Book was also supposedly a journal that had been recovered.
The Pilgrims were becoming more popular as subject matter, too. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Courtship of Miles Standish had been published to widespread acclaim in 1858—two years after Bradford’s journal was published for the first time—and also featured a Pilgrim love triangle, albeit one with a much happier ending.
And Faith White’s Letter Book was published only three years before Austin’s story. It seems that Austin may have taken various elements of the story already published elsewhere—such as the idea that William and Alice knew each other in England and that Dorothy suffered from depression in the new world—and wove them together into a tragedy using her skills writing thrillers.
Austin was descended from William and Alice Southworth Bradford, so it’s impossible to know how much of her version of events was inspired by family tradition or history. In her later years, she would write to a relative that she was always very fond of Alice.
That may explain why, when she republished the story in David Alden’s Daughter in 1892, she made no changes to the text. Other stories in the collection, especially “Barbara Standish,” were revised to be more accurate and reflect new scholarship. By then she was deeply involved in research, reading primary sources and discussing Pilgrim history with other famed Pilgrim scholars.
But instead of revising “William Bradford’s Love Life,” Austin wrote in her preface that she was “in the first flush of delight and surprise at discovering the wealth of romance imbedded in that ‘Forefather’s Rock’” and that “may have induced a certain fermentation of fancy.” She also acknowledges—in a very roundabout way—that the documents provided in the story that supposedly supply the truth were in fact fiction.
In other words, she does not question the story of Dorothy Bradford dying by suicide over her despondency for William. She simply clarifies that the letters and diaries claiming such are not real.
But the damage was done.
Unfortunately, the story is likely one of the reasons Austin’s name is forgotten today. She received a fair amount of criticism for her fiction and was later vilified by historians seeking to correct the “facts.” As the Pilgrims continued to gain fame for their role in shaping America, Pilgrim historians became increasingly more concerned with separating fact from fiction. Jane’s brother, John A. Goodwin, had already seen a need for that in his 1879 history, A Pilgrim Republic, which also addresses the myths about William, Alice, and Dorothy.
Azel Ames and George Ernest Bowman are just two of the historians who took particular aim at Austin’s inaccuracies, long after her death. By 1950, Austin’s Pilgrim novels were no longer in print, although they were still occasionally included in recommended high school reading lists. That year, the story of Dorothy Bradford’s death by suicide gained new life when Ernest Gebler published The Voyage of the Mayflower, in which he twists the love triangle idea by having Dorothy fall in love with Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower.
The 1952 movie version, The Plymouth Adventure, starring Gene Tierney as Dorothy and Spencer Tracy as Christopher Jones, leaves little doubt about Dorothy’s fate, which of course would have reinvigorated the story for an entirely new generation (Miles, Priscilla, and John all play supporting roles).
I don’t know whether Gebler drew on Jane’s work specifically, but he seems to have done a fair amount of research, and the story had taken hold everywhere. Even in the 1920 The Women of the Mayflower and Women of Plymouth Colony, which is sometimes still recommended as a history despite the fact that it is just as romanticized and sentimentalized as anything Austin ever wrote, includes a hint of it: “That no further comment or record was made of this tragedy seems remarkable. Out of the silences conjectures arise, as will in such conditions, without form or foundation in truth as far as can ever be known” (78). Samuel Eliot Morison’s edition of Of Plymouth Plantation, also published in 1952, speculates on it as well.
To this day, the idea that Dorothy Bradford might have died by suicide is still mentioned as a possibility in all the recent Pilgrim histories, like Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower and Eugene Stratton’s Plymouth Colony. I even found it in the Making of America: A History of the United States, the American history textbook used in the survey courses my students take.
For More Information
My colleague Dr. Stacey Dearing is currently researching the various ways Dorothy Bradford’s story has been presented and imagined, including in contemporary film sources. I highly recommend her article, “Remembering Dorothy Bradford’s Death and Reframing “Depression” in Colonial New England, which was published in volume 56 of Early American Literature in November of 2021. We collaborated on a virtual presentation for Pilgrim Hall and the Plymouth Antiquarian Society in the spring of 2022, a recording of which is available below:
Remembering Dorothy Bradford: How literature and film impact our understanding of 17th-century women’s history from Pilgrim Hall Museum on Vimeo.