The Great Migration

Between 1620 and 1640, as many as 21,000 people left England to start a new life in North America. They faced a hazardous sea voyage in small ships, which if successful was likely followed by starvation and disease in a wilderness populated by hostile natives. And yet, in a movement now termed “The Great Migration,” our New England ancestors left the settled lives they knew in Europe to start over in the New World.

What sort of people were the founders of New England? The vast majority of emigrants were families – father, mother, and children. In other North American colonies and the Caribbean, however, most emigrants were single men looking for economic opportunities. In the case of New England, unmarried people were the glaring exceptions, not the rule.

Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock
Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock

Why did so many families set sail for the colonies, knowing the hardships they faced? For many, the answer was religion. In 1538, King Henry VIII created a new church, the Church of England. Henry’s reasons for bringing Protestantism to England did not include an abiding belief in the religious ideas proposed by Martin Luther and other Protestant pioneers; Henry’s wish to dissolve his marriage to Katherine of Aragon prompted his break with the Church. Over the next century, England was beset by religious controversy brought about by this change – some welcomed the Protestant faith, some longed for a return to Catholicism, and some, who later fled to America, were convinced that the Church of England had not gone nearly far enough. These people, among them Separatists, Calvinists, and Puritans, wanted significant changes in religious practices and beliefs. Some traveled initially to the Netherlands, but eventually focused on North America as a place where they could worship in peace. The first group of 102 people set sail for the New World in August 1620. They made landfall in November and finally chose Plymouth as the home of their small colony in December 1620. We now know this first group of settlers as the Pilgrims.

Thousands followed these first frightened immigrants. They settled first along the Atlantic coast, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony or the Connecticut Colony, later spreading north into what would become Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and south towards the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (we call it New York City).

SLPL owns numerous books on immigration, naturalization, and citizenship. For more books about the Pilgrims, search our Online Catalog using these terms:

new england immigration 17th century

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