The Great Migration, 1620-1642

From 1620 until the English Civil War broke out in 1642, a wave of 20,000 people migrated from England to the northeastern United States. It started with the small Plymouth settlement of Pilgrims, who wanted to separate from the Church of England. It was followed by a much larger wave mostly made up of Puritans, who wanted to “purify” the church, and whose views were unwelcome in England during the reign of Charles I.

Driven primarily by religious conviction, these immigrants arrived in family groups or even as entire transplanted congregations – the highest proportion of families ever to arrive in American immigration history. As a result, New England immediately had a multi-age population with relatively equal numbers of men, women, and children. This contrasts sharply with the case of the southern colonies, which at the outset were populated primarily by single young men.

New Englanders had a high level of literacy, nearly twice that of England as a whole. The settlers were skilled; more than half were artisans or craftsmen. Only about 17 percent came as servants, mostly as members of a household. In contrast, 75 percent of Virginia’s population arrived as servants. And in much greater proportion than the English population as a whole, New England settlers came from urban areas.

Great Migration colonists were primarily middle class, few among them rich or poor. They had chosen a harsh region with no cash crop other than cod, and emigrants looking for money mostly went elsewhere. The result was a remarkably homogeneous population, sharing similar backgrounds and outlook.

In Massachusetts, anyone who interrupted a preacher during worship was reproved by the magistrate. If they did it again, they had to pay a fine of five pounds and stand on a block four feet high with a sign in capital letters, “WANTON GOSPELLER.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, having sought religious freedom for themselves, the Puritans were highly intolerant of other ideas and religions. We have large numbers of ancestors who were fined, excommunicated, persecuted, imprisoned, or fled the region for such sins as drinking, playing shuffleboard on Sunday, espousing unapproved ideas, or being Quaker [see this chart]. The Massachusetts Bay Colony and its younger sisters, the Connecticut River Colony, the Saybrook Colony, and the New Haven Colony, were the most puritanical (using the word for once with its original meaning). Roger Williams founded the Rhode Island Colony in 1636 in reaction to this intolerance, and some of our ancestors went there. Some also sought more breathing room north in New Hampshire and Maine (though it wasn’t Maine yet), and further south approaching the border with New Netherlands.

With the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, the Puritan migration slowed to a trickle.

Of the 228 immigrant ancestors I’ve identified among the Josephs, Wilson, Pearson, and Stott lines, 85% were part of the Great Migration.


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