Anchored and first explorations at Plymouth Colony
Bradford had yet to assume any significant leadership role in the colony by the time that he was 30. The Mayflower anchored in Provincetown Harborand he volunteered to be a member of the exploration parties searching for a place for settlement. In November and December, these parties made three separate ventures from the Mayflower on foot and by boat, finally locating Plymouth Harbor in mid-December and selecting that site for settlement.
During the first expedition on foot, Bradford got caught in a deer trap made by Indians and hauled nearly upside down. The third exploration departed from the Mayflower on 6 December 1620 when a group of men (including Bradford) located Plymouth Bay. A winter storm nearly sank their boat as they approached the bay, but they managed to land on Clark's Island, suffering from severe exposure to the cold and waves. During the ensuing days, they explored the bay and found a suitable place for settlement, now the site of downtown Plymouth, Massachusetts. The location featured a prominent hill ideal for a defensive fort. There were numerous brooks providing fresh water, and it had been the location of an Indian village known as Patuxet; therefore, much of the area had already been cleared for planting crops. The Patuxet tribe had been wiped out by plagues between 1616 and 1619, possibly as a result of contact with English fishermen or from contact with the French to the north. Bradford wrote that bones of the dead were clearly evident in many places.
Loss of first wife
See also: List of Mayflower passengers who died at sea November/December 1620
When the exploring party made their way back on board, he learned of the death of his wife Dorothy. Dorothy (May) Bradford from Wisbech, Cambridgeshire fell overboard off the deck of the Mayflower during his absence and drowned. William Bradford recorded her death in his journal. Some historians speculate that she may have committed suicide.
The Mayflower arrived in Plymouth Bay on 20 December 1620. The settlers began building the colony's first house on 25 December (Christmas). Their efforts were slowed, however, when a widespread sickness struck the settlers. The sickness had begun on the ship. On 11 January 1621, Bradford was helping to build houses when he was suddenly struck with great pain in his hipbone and collapsed. He was taken to the "common house" (the only finished house built then) and it was feared that he would not last the night.
Bradford recovered, but many of the other settlers were not so fortunate. During the months of February and March 1621, sometimes two or three people died a day. By the end of the winter, half of the 100 settlers had died. In an attempt to hide their weakness from Native Americans who might be watching them, the settlers buried their dead in unmarked graves on Cole's Hill, often at night, and made efforts to conceal the burials.
During the epidemic, there were only a small number of men who remained healthy and bore the responsibility of caring for the sick. One of these was Captain Myles Standish, a soldier who had been hired by the settlers to coordinate the defense of the colony. Standish cared for Bradford during his illness and this was the beginning of a bond of friendship between the two men. Bradford was elected governor soon after Carver's death and, in that capacity, he worked closely with Standish. Bradford had no military experience and therefore came to rely on and trust the advice of Captain Myles Standish concerning military matters.
Relationship with the Massasoit
Bradford recorded the language of the brief treaty in his journal. He soon became governor and the clause of the treaty that occupied much of his attention as governor pertained to mutual aid. It read, "If any did unjustly war against [Massasoit], we would aid him; if any did war against us, Massasoit should aid us." This agreement secured the colonists with a faithful ally in New England, though it resulted in tensions between the colonists and Massasoit's rivals, such as the Narragansetts and the Massachusetts.
The origins of thanksgiving
The Plymouth settlers, known as Pilgrims, had settled in land abandoned when all but one of the Patuxet Indians died in a disease outbreak. After a harsh winter killed half of the Plymouth settlers, the last surviving Patuxet, Tisquantum, more commonly known by the diminutive variant Squanto (who had learned English and avoided the plague as a slave in Europe), came in at the request of Samoset, the first Native American to encounter the Pilgrims. Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to catch eel and grow corn and served as an interpreter for them until he too succumbed to the disease a year later. The Wampanoag leader Massasoit also gave food to the colonists during the first winter when supplies brought from England were insufficient.