The William Bradford Cup is full to overflowing with the Pilgrim history of the United States. The cup may be the only silver object still in existence to have felt the touch of the great 17th-century English settler in the New World's northern colonies.

"I felt a real glow when I first saw the Bradford cup," said Keith Melder, a curator at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.

After more than 350 years, the silver cup, shined so brightly it seems to glow, stands proudly in a case in the "We the People" section of the museum, near a copy of the Mayflower Compact, which Bradford signed.

Its owner, William Bradford, was a Yorkshire yeoman who as a young man joined the Dissenting (Separatist) church meeting at Scrooby Manor. The congregation opposed the establishment of the Church of England. They emigrated to the Netherlands, one jump ahead of the king's men.

The Pilgrims left England in search of freedom of religion. In 1620, in an effort to keep their congregational identity, they went back to Plymouth, England, to get letters of patent enabling them to establish a colony in the New World. They sailed on the Mayflower in August 1620. Bradford, as well regarded for his words as for his deeds, wrote in his 1620-1647 journal "Of Plymouth Plantation":

So they left the goodly and pleasant city, Leyden, Netherlands which had been their resting place near twelve years; they knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.

The voyage took 65 days, and in November, they landed at what is now Provincetown, in the Cape Cod Bay. Bradford described their landing:

Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their proper element.

As the trip came to an end, they signed the Mayflower Compact, the first agreement for self-government among the early European settlers of the northern colonies:

Haveing undertaken, for the glorie of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honour of our king & countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly & mutaly in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick; for our better ordering & preservation & furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute and frame such just & equall lawes, ordinances, Act, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for the generall good of the Colonie: unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.

As they were anchored off Cape Cod, Bradford's wife Dorothy was drowned, some say by choice, fearing the rigors of pioneer life. Four months later, John Carver, the group's leader, was dead, along with half the settlers. Bradford was elected governor of Plymouth Colony, and by his faith and his energies, kept the colony together.

After these hard and tragic times, life became easier for the governor. Fourteen years later, as the principal man of the colony, he was in such a position of affluence that he felt he could order himself a fine silver wine cup, made in the high Charles I style.

Such a silver piece, three-quarters of a pound of solid silver, was rare among the plainly-equipped pilgrims. Not much 17th-century silver can be found today outside early churches and museums, and almost nothing that can be identified with an early American leader. Bruton Parish church in Williamsburg has a 1680s salver that belonged to Sir Edmund Andros, governor of Virginia from 1692 to 1698. Colonial Williamsburg's new decorative arts museum has a 1610 sugar box, a silver beaker from the first decade of that century, and a 1660s Indian badge, said John Davies, silver and metals curator. The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore has no silver dated earlier than 1710.

"Marylanders were very fashionable," said silver curator Jennifer Goldsborough. "They would send silver back to England to be melted down and recast in the newest style."

As befitted the serious settlers of Cape Cod, Bradford's cup was plainly made, though of a pleasing form. The base has a reeded border, going up in rising to a baluster stem with a molded knop or ball above. Just below the top edge is the legend W*B*. In the traditional manner, the bowl and the foot are both marked with the lion passant, the ancient mark of sterling and its silversmith whose mark was HS.

On the governor's death, Alice Bradford, his second wife, received four great beer bowls, three wine cups, a salt, a trencher salt and small dram cup, 17 silver spoons and a silver dish. All except this wine cup have disappeared into the maelstrom of history.

The Smithsonian tried to buy the Bradford cup in 1981, when it was auctioned at Christie's by Bradford's descendant, Bernard Wiest of New Orleans, but the bid fell short. In March, the 100,000 member Pilgrim Society of Plymouth and the Smithsonian bought the cup for just under $100,000. More than half of the purchase price came from the Pilgrim Society and especially John G. Talcott Jr., a trustee, and the Bradford Compact, a 400-member group of descendants, said Mary Ellen Pogue of Washington, the group's historian.

The Bradford Cup will be exhibited alternately at the Smithsonian and the Pilgrim Hall Museum at Plymouth, along with Bradford's great chair. The cup will be here for the next three years.

The cup stands as a reminder of the man who led his people into the wilderness and made of it, if not a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land where they could worship God as they chose.