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 were prosperous middle-class families. They were different from the poor, single male immigrants who predominated immigration to other regions of America. They were highly literate and skilled, unlike the immigrants to Virginia, 75 percent of whom were servants.
The Puritans were actually leaving stable economic lives in a corrupt England for an uncertain future in a land where they could build a City Upon a Hill.
'Great Giddiness' To Leave England
The Pilgrams weren’t the first white people to populate New England. Anglican fishermen and fur traders set up temporary settlements along the coast. They were employees of 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 charter was taken over by the Massachusetts Bay Company.
The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony were the most extreme of the Puritan sect. They believed in 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 were picky about who they let 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 Puitans declared thanksgiving for the harvest and for the ships that brought “persons of spetial use and quality.”
The Second Wave
Immigrants with less property and weaker religious conviction 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 vote of the town to let a newcomer stay. New Haven appointed a committee to evaluate strangers who got no land -- and a whipping before it sent them out of town.
Once the immigrants arrived, they typically fanned out to new towns after spending a few weeks or through the winter season in their port of entry. 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 farther into the interior.
All that ended when the English Civil War broke out in 1640. The great migration stopped, and some settlers returned to England to fight the war. But the population of New England grew anyway. The Puritans lived longer and healthier 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 2018.