The year 1620 is well known as the date the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, but 1640 is less well-known as the year they left New England for old England.
Some couldn’t stand the harsh winters. Some saw more opportunity in England – perhaps an inheritance waiting for them or a job that opened up after Oliver Cromwell took power. And some were just homesick.
Edward Winslow, the Pilgrim who wrote the history of the first Thanksgiving, returned to England and never came back to his home in Marshfield in Massachusetts. During the 1640s, in fact, more Puritans left New England than arrived.
In 1689, the Puritan minister Increase Mather observed the phenomenon. 'More people have gone from New England than have come hither,’ he wrote.
When most Puritans arrived during the Great Migration of 1620-40, they left behind an England they viewed as increasingly hostile to their beliefs. King James I, who died in 1625, took a fairly tolerant approach to the Puritans, but his son, Charles I, did not.
Charles married a Catholic princess and sent dissident Puritans to prison. Some even had their ears cut off. Charles also ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to suspend Puritan ministers who defied him. Then Charles suspended Parliament.
Unsurprisingly, Puritan migration to New England peaked during Charles I’s reign. Up until 1640, an average of 2,000 English immigrants arrived in New England every year.
Then the Great Migration suddenly stopped and the Great-ish Return began. Puritan immigrants who sought a safe haven in the New World left New England as soon as things got better for them back home.
An Increase and a Return
In 1639, the Puritan minister Richard Mather of Dorchester in Massachusetts named his son 'Increase' as a symbol of the increase with which God favored New England. Two years later, in a sign of the changing times, he baptized an infant 'Return.' Ironically, Increase temporarily left New England for old England, while Return stayed in his native land.
What changed? In a word, news from England. The Long Parliament in 1640 impeached Charles’ hated archbishop, William Laud. Laud had suspended many of the Puritan ministers, including Mather, who ended up in New England.
Then the English Civil War broke out in 1642. Some Puritans left New England to join Oliver Cromwell's forces to fight the king. Some of those, like John Winthrop’s nephew George Downing, stayed in England when the war ended. (Downing Street is named after him.)
Close to half of all Harvard graduates left New England for England. So did a third of the Puritan ministers. The Rev. John Davenport, a co-founder of New Haven colony, wanted to go back, he said, because he feared the New England winters would kill him. (He stayed.)
Others couldn’t take the harsh cold and rocky soil. The poem New England's Annoyances, circulated in the 1640s, complained of bitter winters, failed crops and an endless diet of pumpkin. It also recognized people who left New England threatened the colonies’ survival: “Now while some are going let others be coming.”
At the same time the English Civil War encouraged emigration from New England, it all but halted immigration to New England. Only a few hundred Scots-Irish arrived to settle the frontiers in the 1640s.
Then the war ended in 1646, with Cromwell and his Puritans victorious. "A great surge of settlers, earlier deterred by the hostilities back home, now set off for England," wrote Susan Hardman Moore in Pilgrims: New World settlers and the call of home.
After They Left New England
Thomas Bell, a merchant from Roxbury in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had arrived during the Great Migration. He imported from England such items as shovels, bellows, lead shot, shoes, rugs, soap, canvas and cotton. He had to return to England several times on business. When the English Civil War ended, he left New England, taking his wife and children back to London for good.
David Yale, another merchant, left Boston for England in 1652. He brought his three-year-old son, Elihu, who never set foot in New England again, but made a fortune in diamonds and endowed a college in New Haven.
Still others who had left the turmoil in England returned to their careers as surgeons, shoemakers and shopkeepers. Some got jobs in Cromwell's government as accountants, customs commissioners or state-supported ministers. Wives, widows, children, servants and apprentices followed them home.
Leaving wasn't always easy. Many Puritans had entered into a covenant to support the town. If too many people left, a town might not survive.
A healthy fear of God’s wrath also kept some of the Puritans from returning to England. They came to the New World to build a shining city on a hill, and feared retribution if they left New England.
Those who did leave sometimes left empty houses to crumble. For those who remained in New England, the value of their homes plummeted.
Puritan leader John Winthrop had no use for the settlers who returned, and he criticized them severely. If those who left encountered pirates or storms, Winthrop viewed the calamity as God's punishment.
The exact number of Puritans who left New England will probably never be known. Estimates range from one in four to one in 12.
According to one estimate, 21,000 English immigrants arrived in New England during the Great Migration, but by 1640 the region's population fell somewhere between 13,500 and 17,600.
By 1650, the total population of New England rebounded to about 22,800, in large part because of a high birthrate. New Englanders married young, and typically had seven to eight children, with six or seven living to adulthood. And despite hardship and bad weather, the Puritan baby boomers tended to live for a long time.
From then on, depopulation no longer threatened New England’s existence (though King Philip’s War did).
As for Edward Winslow, he intended to return to his home in Marshfield. A portrait of him – the only portrait of a Mayflower Pilgrim – shows him holding a letter from his wife. It reads, "From yr loving wife Susanna."
But Oliver Cromwell named him a commissioner to the West Indies, where he caught fever and died in 1655, never to return to New England.
This story was updated in 2019.