Of Plimoth Plantation- Part 1

This year sees the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower and founding of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts. Much of what is known of the early years of the colony, which would become the second successful English colony in America and the first permanent European settlement in New England, comes from a history of the colony written by one of its founders, and second governor, William Bradford. His manuscript, titled Of Plim̃oth Plantation, details the voyages of the Pilgrims from England to Holland and then onwards to the new world, as well as the key events in the formative years of the colony.

The manuscript, the property of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is currently deposited at the State Library of Massachusetts, but for many years was held in the library at Fulham Palace, formerly the residence of the Bishop of London.[1] A great deal of information on the history of the manuscript can be found in the Fulham Papers – the archives of the Bishops of London, dating from the 18th-19th centuries, and including correspondence on the administration of the diocese of London and on the churches abroad which came under the bishop’s jurisdiction before the founding of separate episcopates in those countries. Originally stored at Fulham Palace, the Church Commissioners removed the bulk of this collection during the 1950s and 1960s, and eventually transferred the records to Lambeth Palace Library.[2]

First page of Bradford's Of_Plimoth_Plantation
First page of Bradford’s Of_Plimoth_Plantation, once held at Fulham Palace and now at the State Library of Massachusetts. [Image public domain]

History of the Manuscript

The journey of the manuscript is an interesting tale. Charles Reuben Hale states it was given to the Revd T. Prince in 1728 to deposit in the ‘New England Library’ (Old South Church, Boston), and subsequently presumed lost for many years.[3] In February 1855 the Revd J.S. Barry spotted similarities in passages between Wilberforce’s History of the Church in America and citations by Prince from the manuscript, which were enough to discern that it could be found in the collections at Fulham Palace.[4] Following this the Revd J. Hunter, Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries, made enquiries resulting in the Bishop of London, Charles James Blomfield, permitting a transcription be made, paid for by Massachusetts Historical Society, and published 1856.[5]

Quite how the manuscript ended up in the possession of the Bishop of London is unclear. Hale suggests that it may have been taken by a soldier during the revolution – perhaps a soldier serving under Sir William Howe when Boston was evacuated in March 1776 – then later falling into the hands of someone who sent it to Fulham Palace for safekeeping.[6] Alternatively it was proposed that Thomas Hutchison, the last Royal Governor or Massachusetts, may have brought it to England prior to outbreak of the Revolutionary War.[7] Bishop of London Archibald Campbell Tait, writing to the Earl of Derby in 1867, states it is difficult to say how the manuscript came into the possession of Bishop Porteus, but that he probably purchased it from a close friend along with other volumes.[8]

In any case, the discovery that the manuscript survived and could be found at Fulham Palace, as well as the subsequent publication of a transcription, began a near 50-year quest on the part of various American scholars, dignitaries and societies to have it returned the USA.

Early attempts to secure repatriation

It is noted that as early as 1855 John Waddington had proposed that the manuscript should be returned to the USA, and in April 1867 the Earl of Derby (Edward Geoffrey Smith-Stanley, Prime Minister) wrote to Tait regarding a letter he received from Waddington querying the ownership of it.[9] As noted, Tait was unsure of the manuscript’s history, and wrote that ‘I do not know what would be the right course to pursue if it were decreed desirable to present [the manuscript] to the American Nation.’.[10] On 15 December 1867 Lord Stanley at the Foreign Office wrote to Tait regarding a letter from Benjamin Scott, Chamberlain of the City of London, proposing the return of the manuscript – a proposal which Lord Stanley thought worthy of consideration as the UK government was keen to garner positive public opinion in the USA, but that any objections from Tait would be considered final.[11] It seems clear Tait did object, as later in the same month Lord Stanley stated he would ‘allow the matter to drop’.[12]

The next attempt to secure the manuscript’s repatriation came in 1877, when William George Tozer (formerly Bishop of Nyasaland and later Bishop of Jamaica) wrote to John Jackson, then Bishop of London, enclosing an ‘Extract from an American letter, respecting the Fulham MSS’ of unidentified author and date. Tozer states a facsimile would ‘more than make good, for English readers, the loss of the original document’, and attempts to convince the Bishop: ‘Do try and say ‘yes’, and delight the souls of all Americans’.[13] The writer of the extract details the gratitude that would follow from the return of the manuscript and argues that ‘You English people have so much more ‘connected with your past’ than we have, that, I doubt, if you can fully appreciate how we care for all that concerns our past. This MSS would be a most interesting relic to us. No one would think of claiming it, as a matter of right or blaming the bishop for keeping it.’, continuing that ‘if he could return it to America, it would excite a degree of enthusiasm, of which, I do not think, even you have an idea.’[14]

In support of their case, the writer argues that the manuscript is not a church document and would be more fitting held in an archives where it would be viewed as ‘precious treasure’, states the return of manuscript would have effect of uniting two nations which ought to be friends, and cites the return of Arctic discovery vessel HMS Resolute (from which the Resolute Desk was subsequently made and gifted to the US president) as an example of an ‘act of kind courtesy’ to which the return the manuscript would be similar.[15] The letter finishes: ‘It would be appreciated, not only by Massachusetts people only, but all over the continent, – for Massachusetts has been, as it were, the cradle of the United States.’[16] It’s not clear how Jackson responded to this plea, but certainly the manuscript remained at Fulham Palace for the time being.

Next week, in part 2, we look at how the manuscript finally returned to Massachusetts.


[1] State Library of Massachusetts, ‘Of Plimoth Plantation: manuscript, 1630-1650’, https://archives.lib.state.ma.us/handle/2452/208249, accessed 31/01/2020.

[2] Lambeth Palace Library , ‘Fulham Papers (Papers of the Bishops of London) (FP)’, https://www.lambethpalacelibrary.org/content/fulhampapers, accessed 31/01/2020.

[3] FP Jackson 33, f.6.

[4] FP Jackson 33, f.6.

[5] Tait 83, f.105.

[6] FP Jackson 33, f.6.

[7] FP Creighton 8, ff. 259-262.

[8] Tait 83, f.105.

[9] Waddington’s role is noted in Samuel Eliot Morison’s Introduction to William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647, Samuel Eliot Morison (ed.), New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2002, p.xxxiv; Tait 83, ff.99-100.

[10] Tait 83, f.105.

[11] Tait 83, ff.295-296.

[12] Tait 83, f.306.

[13] FP Jackson 33, ff.4-5.

[14] FP Jackson 33, f.7.

[15] FP Jackson 33, f.7.

[16] FP Jackson 33, f.7.

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