Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Immigrant Ancestors:
Who Came and Why: Setting Sail to New England

By Leslie Albrecht Huber

Between 1620 and 1640, about twenty thousand people crossed the Atlantic to arrive in New England. Framed by the departure of the Mayflower and increased unrest leading to civil war in England, the years formed the heart of immigration to the New England colonies.

These twenty thousands immigrants left behind families, friends, towns, and daily comforts to come to an unknown and undeveloped land. Now known as the Great Migration, this movement became one of the most influential events to occur in North America. The people of the Great Migration in many ways formed the basis of what would become American society. Their voyage has become one of the defining moments in U.S. history.

Not surprisingly, the story is familiar – taught to us from the time we entered elementary school. Without much effort, most of us can conjure up a picture of these stern and pious Puritans boarding their ships, dressed in their black hats and white bonnets. It’s a story of religious persecution, careful preparations, and an inspiring voyage across the ocean.

Or is it? This simplified account of the immigration to New England leaves out some parts of the story, and some historians claim, perhaps even distorts the facts. To truly understand this monumental event in history, we have to go back to the basic questions. Who were these people that came together to form the Great Migration? What really propelled them to leave their homes and all they knew behind? And, what was the migration experience like for the seventeenth century immigrants?

The Situation in England

England in the early seventeenth century was a country in turmoil, with the issue of religion causing the most disruption. The Puritan movement had been growing within England for some time. Believing that the Anglican Church had drifted astray (and too close to Roman Catholicism), Puritans sought to “purify” the church from within. Their actions conflicted with King Charles I and his supporters. Still, Puritan ideas grew in popularity. Believers eventually obtained the majority in Parliament - only to have the king dismiss Parliament to rule alone.

The situation worsened for the Puritans with the appointment of William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. Laud was a staunch supporter of the king and the Anglican Church, and therefore determined to get control of the Puritan “problem.” He banished hundreds of Puritan ministers and enforced much-hated rituals and formality on their congregations. When people protested, he had them arrested – and even ordered several protestors to have their ears cut off.

Yet, religion wasn’t the only cause of friction and discontent in England. Widespread unemployment, bad harvests, and political turmoil also existed. The relationship between Charles and Parliament and between England and Scotland further increased tensions. These deep splits in society eventually led to the outbreak of civil war in 1642, which brought emigration to a halt.

Who Made the Trip

Against this backdrop, thousands of English citizens left their homeland to travel to New England. New England wasn’t the only destination available to those who wanted to escape the problems of their motherland. Many also chose Virginia or one of the island colonies such as Providence Island, Bermuda, Barbados, or St. Kitts.

Immigrants who chose New England shared some distinctive characteristics. Much more than those setting sail to other colonies, immigrants to New England reflected the population of England. While groups going to Virginia and the island colonies were filled with young, single men, those traveling to New England tended to make the trip in family units. For example, in 1635, sixty percent of people traveling to New England had family members with them. Many who didn’t travel with family were joining family members or preparing the way for family members to follow them. Fathers often went first, sending for their families later. Similarly, young families sometimes established themselves before inviting elderly parents to join them.

The immigrants often shared a similar level of economic well-being. The voyage to New England was not an undertaking for the poor of society. The trip was expensive and the vast poor of England simply didn’t have the funds to make the journey. On the other side of the spectrum, relatively few of the most prosperous citizens made the trip. Instead, middle-class artisans and farmers constituted the bulk of the migrants. Many servants also came – comprising somewhere between twenty to forty percent of the total group immigrating.

Historians have determined the economic well-being and family make-up of the immigrants relatively easily. However, they have struggled to draw conclusions on other less straight-forward characteristics. One, in particular, has been the cause of much debate and research: the religious beliefs of this group. Some of the people who would become leaders in the Massachusetts Bay colony can be definitively assigned the title of “Puritan.” Clergy leaders such as John Winthrop, John Cotton, Richard Mather, and others fall into this category. But what about the masses of average travelers? Were they Puritans in England also? Finding an answer to this question has proved difficult.

This question lies at the base of perhaps the most disagreed upon aspect of the Great Migration. What motivated these immigrants to set sail to New England?

Deciding to Leave

Historians have long been divided in their views of the decision-making process undertaken by those who left England in the Great Migration. While all agree that religion played a role, they disagree on exactly what that role was. Some historians claim that the stories many of us grew up with of zealous Puritans sacrificing to establish a haven to worship freely are correct. Other historians assert that we have been misled by idealized myths.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson summed up the view of those who confirmed the Puritan traditions when she stated, “Religious motivation is the only factor with sufficient power to explain the departure of so many otherwise ordinary families.” And indeed, there is evidence to support this view. The immigration pattern alone lends credibility to it – with numbers seeming to be linked to the religious climate in England. The appointment of Laud in 1633 coincides with a steep rise in immigration. In fact, only fifteen percent of the settlers that came to New England during the Great Migration came prior to Laud assuming his position. The other eighty-five percent migrated in the seven years of 1634-1640.

The words of the immigrants themselves also show the importance of religion as a motivating factor. Reverend John White asserted, “the most eminent and desirable end of planting Colonies, is the propagation of Religion.” Thomas Dudley, deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony warned that if a person came there for worldly ends, “he comits an errour of which he will soon repent him.” But, he explained, if a person came “for spiritual [ends]…, he may finde here what may well content him.”

Yet, other historians have another view of the story. They argue that to only say that the Great Migration was a religious movement of Puritans would be an oversimplification. David Cressy, one of these historians, claims that although many of the leaders certainly came because of religious motivations, a significant portion of the others weren’t nearly so committed. Instead, economic considerations, a desire for adventure, or other factors shaped their choice. According to him, the emphasis on religious motivations grew in the generations following the original settlers. Cressy goes so far as to declare that “…terms like ‘Puritan migration’…should be dropped from discussions of seventeenth-century Anglo-American history.”

To support this view, historians also turn to the accounts of the migrants themselves. William Bradford, one of the organizers of the Mayflower voyage, explained that “a mixed multitude came into the wilderness with the people of God.” Although the leaders maintained a vision of a religious settlement, they saw that not everyone shared their vision. Bradford went further when he said, “It may be demanded how came it to pass that so many wicked persons and profane people should so quickly come over into this land…” Another early settler admitted, “As it were absurd to conceive they all have one motive, so were it more ridiculous to imagine they have all one scope…” He went on to list other factors that would have influenced the decisions of immigrants such as necessity, novelty, and “hopes of gain.”

While we can be certain that religion had a place in the Great Migration, exactly how “Puritan” the movement was may continue to be a point of disagreement.


No matter how their motivations may have differed, once they had made their decision to leave England behind, immigrants shared many experiences. And, most found these experiences trying. The process of preparing to go to Massachusetts and then the voyage itself was often tedious, frustrating, terrifying, and miserably uncomfortable.

The technicalities of leaving England were bewildering. Emigrants needed licenses and passports (then a document that allowed one to “pass the port”). After 1634, they also had to have certificates of good conduct from their local minister and agree to take a loyalty oath. Then, the emigrant had to locate a ship. Since transatlantic voyages were still uncommon, finding one could involve a lot of searching and negotiations. For religious dissidents trying to escape unnoticed, these layers of red tape could be particularly distressing.

Besides steering through these bureaucratic issues, emigrants invested considerable time in gathering provisions. Leaders emphasized again and again the importance of arriving prepared. The Reverend Francis Higginson reminded them, “For when you are once parted with England, you shall meete neither with taverns nor alehouse, not butchers, not grosers, no apothecaries shops to help what things you need, in the midst of the great ocean, nor when you are come to land here are yet neither markets nor fayres to buy what you want.” By far, the most important provision to bring was food – and lots of it. John Winthrop instructed his wife, who sailed after him, to only bring with her those who “shall have full Provision for a yeare and a halfe for though the earth here be very fertile yet there must be tyme and meanes to rayse it.”

For many, technical matters and required provisions didn’t provide the greatest deterrent to travel – fear did. Some feared life in New England and the frontiers conditions in which they would live. However, more feared the voyage itself. Fear prevented many from undertaking the journey at all. It even led to the separation of family units. One wife refused to follow her husband, preferring to be “a living wife in England than a dead one in the sea.” Others shared her feelings.

Passengers who feared the voyage probably felt little reassurance at the sight of the ship. Most of the ships were shockingly small by today’s standards. The smallest known ship, the Bachelor, weighed in at twenty-five tons. The Sparrowhawk measured only forty feet in length. Others were not much larger, with lengths of eighty feet and weights under two hundred tons the norm. It wasn’t unusual for a ship to set sail with only several dozen passengers on board. Ships of this size left passengers cramped and sometimes irritable, with extremely limited personal space. But larger ships didn’t necessarily mean more personal space. After all, ships carried more than their human cargo. One ship, for example, had 450 sheep and 40 goats aboard.

Setting Sail

The voyage across the ocean made a deep impression on those who undertook it. To many Puritans, it came to symbolize their relationship with God. The vastness and power of the ocean compared to the fragile and insignificant ships represented God’s supremacy over them. Filled with trepidation, they had to rely on God’s mercy as they set off to the new land.

The most trying part of the entire journey often took place before the ship ever left the port. Delays could last weeks. During those weeks, passengers had no choice but to eat the food and spend the money they had so carefully saved for the trip and for their first year in New England. Lengthy inspections of the passengers’ paperwork sometimes held things up. But more likely, weather served as the main culprit. Passengers occasionally waited weeks for the wind to blow in the right direction. Once it did, the captain wasted no time in taking off – sometimes leaving in such haste that passengers who had disembarked briefly were left behind.

The voyage presented dangers of its own. Shipwreck, though greatly feared, wasn’t the most notable danger. Of the nearly two hundred voyages to New England in the 1630s, only one ended in disaster. Even then, most of the passenger survived. More threatening in reality was sickness. Severe seasickness or dysentery plagued some passengers. Fatal diseases were sometimes brought on board and spread quickly through the passengers in the small, confined spaces. One ship, for example, arrived with smallpox distributed among the passengers.

The longer the trip the lasted, the more problems its passengers faced. Supplies were depleted and physical endurances tested. And, the length of the voyage was entirely unpredictable. The average passage took about ten and a half weeks. However, some made much faster time, arriving in only five and a half weeks. For others, it seemed as if they ocean would stretch out forever. One voyage lasted a total of twenty-six weeks, leaving its passengers weak and nearly starved to death.

Yet, overall the trip to New England, although frightening and uncomfortable, was relatively safe – safer than immigration to the New World would be during the mass migration of the 1800s.

Their Legacy

Numerically, the Great Migration was nearly insignificant, dwarfed by immigration in the 1800s. Yet, this movement has kept its place of importance in our history books. These immigrants are some of the most well-researched, thoroughly analyzed, and most frequently written about people to have ever lived. And while those researchers and writers haven’t yet agreed and probably never will agree on the reasons for the migration, they do agree that this migration played a large role in shaping the culture and beliefs of what would become the United States. Whether the stories are completely factual or contain some exaggerated legends mixed in, they have continued to hold a place in our collective identity.

Further Reading:

Anderson, Virginia DeJohn. New England’s Generation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

Cressy, David. Coming Over: Migration and Communication Between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Games, Alison. Migration and the Origins of the English Atlantic World. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999).