History of immigration, 1620-1783

Significance: Immigration from Europe and Africa to America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created the population that existed at the time the United States came into existence. The groups that made up this original population contributed greatly to the events and traditions that would shape the nation throughout its history.

Late nineteenth century depiction of Peter Minuit negotiating with Algonquian Indians to purchase the island of Manhattan in 1626

Late nineteenth century depiction of Peter Minuit negotiating with Algonquian Indians to purchase the island of Manhattan in 1626. (Francis R. Niglutsch)

The colonies that became the United States were founded as British outposts, and most of the European immigrants to those colonies were fromGreat Britain. However, the early British settlers came as distinct groups to different geographic areas. In addition, early American immigrants included people from other places in northern Europe, as well as involuntary immigrants from Africa.

Early English Immigration to New England, 1620-1642

Jamestown, in Virginia, was founded in 1607 and is generally regarded as the first permanent English settlement in North America. However, the 1620 establishment of Plymouth Bay Colony in Massachusetts by the religious immigrants known as the Pilgrims may be regarded as the beginning of large-scale migration from Europe to the territory that would eventually become the United States. The Pilgrims came from English dissenters against the Church of England, known as Separatists, who believed that they should separate themselves from the state Church entirely. In order to follow their separate faith without persecution from English authorities, communities of Separatists went into exile in Holland. However, it was difficult for the English religious refugees to find any work other than in the hardest and lowest-paying occupations, and their economic situations were often precarious. Also, the intensely religious exiles were suspicious of Dutch culture, and they worried about their children losing their English customs. Their leaders managed to get England’s King James I to agree to allow them to resettle in America, and they obtained support fromfinancial speculators in the London Virginia Company in return for granting the company a large portion of the crops to be produced in the New World.

On September 16, 1620, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, with 102 emigrants, forty-one of whom were Separatists. Two months later, they arrived at Cape Cod in modern Massachusetts. After tense encounters with Native Americans, they resettled at Plymouth Bay in December. They had a difficult struggle to establish themselves, but eventually, with new arrivals, the colony at Plymouth became one of the bases of the new American population.

An even greater contribution to the American population, in sheer numbers, began with the Puritans, who believed in purifying the established church, a decade after the voyage of the Mayflower. In 1630, seventeen ships left England for America. The most famous of these was the Arabella, on which the Puritan leader John Winthrop sailed. Mainly stemming from the area of East Anglia in England, the Puritans left during a time when ArchbishopWilliam Laud was attempting to eliminate Puritan influences from the Church of England and King Charles I was attempting to rule without calling Parliament into session. The decade of the 1630’s, leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1651), was a time of economic depression, as well as a period in which the Puritans were out of favor in the English church and state.

The Mayflower

The Mayflower. (R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The years 1630 to 1640 are known as the Great Migration. The largely Puritan immigrants from England settled in New England, north of the settlement at Plymouth Bay, in a stretch of land known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The major centers of the new colony were the eastern coastal Massachusetts towns of Boston and Salem. During the Great Migration, an estimated two hundred ships reportedly carrying approximately 20,000 people arrived in Massachusetts. Although migration to New England dropped dramatically after the Great Migration, the descendants of the people who entered Massachusetts in those years settled much of the northeastern region of the United States and later spread westward throughout the country.

English Settlement in Virginia, 1642-1675

In the South, the tiny Virginia colony that had barely maintained its existence during the years that Massachusetts became a center of European settlement began to expand rapidly just as the Great Migration ended in the North. In 1642, only 8,000 colonists lived in Virginia. At the beginning of that year, SirWilliam Berkeley became governor of Virginia, a post he would hold until 1676. Berkeley began a campaign to draw some of England’s elite to Virginia. This campaign was assisted by the rise of the Puritans to power and the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Many of the future leaders that Virginia provided to the United States and to the Confederacy were descendants of these aristocratic immigrants.

The largest portion of Virginia’s early immigration, though, came from the humblest section of the English population. About three-quarters of the new arrivals inVirginia during the middle to late seventeenth century came as indentured servants, people bound to serve masters without wages for specified periods of time for the price of their passage. The early immigration patterns of Virginia, then, made it a highly unequal society from the very beginning. By 1660,Virginia had a population of about 30,000 people. Neighboring Maryland, also populated largely by indentured servants, held about 4,000 in that year.

Quaker Immigration, 1675-1725

The Society of Friends, popularly known as the Quakers, is a Christian religious group that emphasizes the inward experience of faith and the equality of people. It was founded during the midseventeenth century, and the Quakers’ rejection of social hierarchy led to their persecution in England. Soon after the denomination was established, Quaker immigrants were arriving in America. In 1675, large-scale migration began when the first ship of Quaker passengers reached Salem in West Jersey. Other ships followed, docking in Delaware Bay.

The number of Quakers arriving in the Delaware Valley was so great that by 1750 they made up the third-largest religious denomination in the American colonies. Their growth had been assisted by Quaker leaderWilliam Penn’s efforts to create a Quaker region in America to which members of the faith in England would be encouraged to relocate. In 1681, he managed to obtain a charter from King Charles II for 45,000 square miles, which the king dubbed Pennsylvania. In 1682, Penn arrived in his colony on the shipWelcome. Under his leadership, Pennsylvania drew not only Quaker immigrants but also members of other persecuted religious groups attracted by the policy of religious toleration.

Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and English Immigration, 1715-1775

People from the north of England, Scotland, and northern Ireland made up much of the migration to the western frontier regions of the early American colonies, especially to the rugged mountainous areas. The northern Irish migrants were mainly Scotch-Irish, descendants of people from Scotland who had moved to Ireland in earlier centuries. Most of the Irish in America before the nineteenth century were actually Scotch-Irish.

Northern Irish migration peaked between the 1750’s and the early 1770’s, with an estimated 14,200 people from northern Ireland reaching America from 1750 to 1759, 21,200 from 1760 to 1769, and 13,200 in the half-decade leading up to the American Revolution. Most of the Scots migration took place from 1760 to 1775, when about 25,000 new arrivals came to the colonies. The counties of North England, bordering Scotland, experienced a series of crop failures that were especially severe in 1727, 1740, and 1770. Each of these crop failures resulted in famine that sent successive waves of immigrants to America. Together, the Scottish, Scotch-Irish, and North English immigrants probably made up 90 percent of the settlers in the back country of America. Arriving after the lands along the eastern coast had been taken, these hardy individuals made up the original American frontier folk.

Dutch, Swedish, and German Immigration, 1630-1783

The most significant groups of European immigrants to the colonies of North America before the revolution came from the northern lands of Holland, Germany, and Sweden. The Dutch attempted to found their first colony during the late 1620’s, when Dutch trading interests established the colony of New Netherland, with New Amsterdam as its capital. During the mid-seventeenth century, officials in Holland began actively encouraging migration to their colony, so that the population of New Netherland grew from about 2,000 people in 1648 to about 10,000 in 1660. Only about half of these were actually Dutch, though, and the rest consisted mainly of Belgians. In 1664, the British seized New Netherland and changed its name to New York. People with Dutch names and ancestry continued to make up a small but important part of the New York population, particularly among the elite of the area.

Swedes arrived on the northeastern coast in 1637 and founded a colony on Delaware Bay in 1638. Peter Minuit, a former director-general of the Dutch colony of New Netherland who had been born in the German state of Westphalia, led this initial Swedish settlement. New Sweden included areas of the modern states of New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware along the Delaware River. Tensions with New Netherland led to a Dutch takeover of New Sweden in 1654, but the Dutch continued to recognize the colony as a selfgoverning settlement of Swedes. In 1681, following the British takeover of all the northeastern lands, William Penn received a charter for Pennsylvania, ending the distinctly Swedish identity of the region.

By the time the United States won its independence, Germans made up the largest national origin group in the country, aside from the groups stemming from the British Isles. In the year 1683, Dutch and German people in religious minorities purchased land in Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia, and founded Germantown. One of the largest migration waves from the lands of Germany began when Protestants from the Palatine area of Germany fled political disorder and economic hardship in their homeland in 1709. After making their way to Holland and then England, about 2,100 Palatine Germans reached America in 1710, settling mainly in New York.

During the early eighteenth century, other German colonists settled in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Massachusetts. Pennsylvania, though, became the main center of German settlement, in part because the Quaker tradition of the state offered religious tolerance to German Lutherans, Mennonites, Amish, and other religious movements. Probably about half the Germans who arrived in Pennsylvania between 1725 and the American Revolution came as redemptioners, who paid for their passage by working for a certain number of years. In all, an estimated 84,500 Germans reached the thirteen American colonies between 1700 and 1775. After the revolution, an estimated 5,000 German mercenary soldiers, mostly from the state of Hesse, who had been fighting for the British and been taken prisoner by the Americans, remained in the new country.

African Involuntary Immigration, 1640-1783

African immigration to North America dates back to the time of the first European arrivals. During the entire period of American colonial history, involuntary immigrants arrived as slaves from Africa, mainly West Africa. Between 1700 and 1775, an estimated 278,400 Africans reached the original thirteen colonies that became the United States.

Slave importation to the coastal states of the South grew rapidly during the late seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century because of the growth of the tobacco and rice economies. Imports of slaves to tobacco-growing Virginia reached 7,000 per decade for the 1670’s through the 1720’s and then nearly doubled to 13,500 per decade until the 1750’s. South Carolina, where rice had become an important crop, began importing slaves at about the same level as Virginia during the early eighteenth century and then increased to more than 20,000 during the 1720’s. While slave importation began to slow in Virginia during the later eighteenth century, it continued at about 17,000 per decade in South Carolina from the 1750’s to the 1790’s. By the time of the first U.S. Census in 1790, as a result of involuntary immigration and the increase of native-born slaves, people of African ancestry made up one-fifth of the American population.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Intended to trace the cultural contributions of different segments of British society to America, this book is also one of the best general works on the places of origin and settlement of people from Britain in America during the colonial period. 

Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Excellent account of colonial German migration that divides its attention between the lands left behind in Europe, explaining why the Germans left, and the new world they found in America. It also contains informative tables on colonial immigration in general, as well as German immigration in particular. 

Moore, Susan Hardman. Pilgrims: New World Settlers and the Call of Home. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007. Through looking at the life histories of the approximately one-third of English immigrants to America from 1640 to 1660 who returned to England, this book looks at motives for both migration and return. 

Weaver, John C. The Great Land Rush and the Making of the ModernWorld, 1650-1900. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 2003. General work on how European colonization of other lands transformed world economy and society. 

See also: British immigrants; Canadian immigrants; Constitution, U.S.; German immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; History of immigration after 1891; Massachusetts; Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants; Slave trade; Virginia.

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