When the Pilgrims landed in Plimoth Plantation in 1620, they began what was called the Great Migration – great not because of the numbers of people who arrived, but because of the Puritans’ purpose.
They came to America to live righteous and spiritual lives, rather than to get rich. And they didn’t let just anyone join their movement.
Most of the Puritans who came to New England came from prosperous middle-class families. They differed from the poor, single male immigrants who dominated immigration to other regions of America. They had skills and they could read, unlike the immigrants to Virginia, 75 percent of whom were servants.
The Puritans actually left stable economic lives in a corrupt England for a land where they could build a City Upon a Hill. And yet their future was far from certain.
‘Great Giddiness’ To Leave England
The Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to populate New England, not by a long shot. Fishermen and fur traders from France, the Netherlands and Spain set up summer settlements along the coast since the early 16th century.
Anglican English, too, tried to settle New England. Many worked for the Council of New England, a joint stock company set up by Sir Fernando Gorges and 40 friends. Gorges intended to create an aristocratic Anglican colony living off fish and furs. It failed, and the Massachusetts Bay Company took over the charter.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony had the most extreme beliefs of the Puritan sect. They wanted complete separation from the corrupt Anglican church. More moderate Puritans only sought to purify and reform the Church of England.
King Charles I gave the Great Migration an impetus when he dissolved Parliament in 1629 and began the Eleven Years’ Tyranny. Charles, a high Anglican, embraced religious spectacle and persecuted Puritans.
The Puritans knew the Plymouth Colony experiment worked, and decided to replicate it. The Great Migration began to take off in 1630 when John Winthrop led a fleet of 11 ships to Massachusetts. Winthrop brought 800 people with him to New England; 20,000 followed him over the next 10 years.
The Massachusetts Bay Company found willing recruits. Marcus Lee Hansen in The Atlantic Migration 1607-1860 wrote that the company had no trouble finding congregational groups willing to make the Great Migration. Nor did the groups have any trouble recruiting members.
A rage of emigration swept through the eastern and midland counties of England, arousing in the authorities an apprehension which was to be shared by many other local officials of Europe during the next two and a half centuries. The popular interest anticipated most of the features appearing in later periods. The ballad, “Summons to New England,” was sung on the streets; a “great giddiness” to depart prevailed; “incredible numbers’ sold their lands; and debtors attempted to get away under the pretext of religion.
Emigration fever spread beyond southern England. When John Winthrop, Jr., in 1635 traveled through Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, he found that the contagion preceded him.
“Everywhere he stopped, eager inquirers sought him out,” Hansen wrote.
The Puritans discriminated against people who wanted to settle with them. Magistrates scrutinized each arriving immigrant. They sent some back to England as “persons unmeete to inhabit here.” The governor could put anyone on a month’s probation who wasn’t fit ‘to sit down among us without some trial of them.’
In 1633 and 1634, the Puritans declared thanksgiving for the harvest and for the ships that brought “persons of spetial use and quality.”
The Second Wave
Immigrants who had less property and weaker religious convictions than the early wave began to arrive.
The Massachusetts Puritans passed a law forbidding a person or town to entertain guests for more than three weeks without special permission. In Rhode Island, Providence and Portsmouth required a town vote to let a newcomer stay. New Haven appointed a committee to evaluate landless strangers — and a whipping before it sent them out of town.
Once the immigrants arrived, they’d spend a few weeks or the winter in their port of entry. Then they typically fanned out to new towns. If they arrived early enough in a new town to become proprietors, they would share in the distribution of land. Towns limited the number of proprietors to make sure their children had viable economic futures.
When a town reached its limit, the proprietors closed it. Within the first 10 years of settlement, the Puritans closed 22 towns from Maine to Rhode Island. But plenty of frontier land beckoned from the interior.
All that ended when the English Civil War broke out in 1640. The great migration stopped. Some settlers had already returned because life was too harsh in the howling wilderness, and some settlers returned to England to fight the war. In fact, more Puritans left New England that year than arrived.
But the population of New England grew anyway. The Puritans lived long lives and formed large, healthy families. When the first U.S. census was taken in 1790, New England had a population of 1,009,522.
With thanks to GreatMigration.org and The Atlantic Migration 1607-1860 by Marcus Lee Hansen. This story about the Great Migration was updated in 2023.