British immigrants

2011-08-16 10:11:18

Significance: As one of the earliest immigrant groups to North America, the British were responsible for some basic American cultural features, including language, laws, religion, education, and administration. They were also responsible for developing forms of trade and for creating strong American political and cultural links with Great Britain that have survived into the twenty-first century.

British immigration to what is now the United States has run in an unbroken line from 1607 into the twenty-first century. However, it has gone through major transformations over the centuries: The earliest British settlers were the first major immigration group, imposing their culture on newly settled territory; modern British immigrants have become an almost invisible group, whose members assimilate quickly into American culture. Never been culturally homogeneous, British immigrants have been made up of several subgroups. Scotland remained a separate country for the first hundred years of British immigration, and Scottish immigrants developed their own distinctive patterns. In contrast, what is now the independent nation of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom until the early twentieth century, and its immigrants also developed their own immigration patterns, which should be considered separately. EvenWelsh immigration had somewhat different features, though statistically these are much more difficult to disentangle from the predominant English patterns.

Virginia Colonies

The first phase of British—mainly English — settlement in the North American colonies was centered on Virginia and New England, to be followed by Maryland, the Carolinas, and Pennsylvania. After the transfer of the Dutch colonies to British rule, British immigration developed in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware. Lastly came the Georgia settlement. British emigration was not confined to the colonies that would later become the United States, however. Scottish immigration to Nova Scotia (New Scotland) was attempted in the face of French opposition. Newfoundland was settled unsuccessfully by the second Lord Baltimore, who then moved on to Maryland in an attempt to found a Roman Catholic settlement. However, the majority of British emigrants preferred Bermuda and colonies in the West Indies, especially Barbados, and Providence Island, off the coast of Central America, followed by Jamaica, Antigua, and other small islands that the British had wrested from the Spanish.

The main colonies of Virginia and New England developed quite differently in that they attracted very different types of immigrants. The first settlement that became permanent was founded in 1607 in the Jamestown area of Virginia. This was overseen by the Virginia Company of London, and was largely a commercial venture. In the hope of earning quick profits, many settlers who had little experience in farming or building came to Virginia. To these were added convicts whose sentences were commuted to "transportation.” Had it not been for a few determined leaders, such as Captain John Smith, the Virginia colony would have foundered on several occasions because of rampant sickness, company inefficiency, and an Indian massacre. After the company finally went bankrupt in 1624, the English crown took over the running of the colony directly. Meanwhile, new immigrants kept coming. The indenture system was instituted in which young men and women effectively sold themselves into servitude for fixed periods, at the end of which their masters were to give them capital and, at first, some land. Tobacco became the colony’s dominant crop.

New England Colonies

In contrast, British colonies in New England were founded by more principled immigrants, many of whom left England for religious reasons. The "Pilgrim fathers,” landing under the aegis of the Plymouth Bay Company, were basically nonconformists, that is, believing in the separation of church (especially the Church of England) and state. The Puritans, who held for radical reform of the Church of England, settled to the north around Salem and then Boston, under the aegis of the Massachusetts Bay Company and the Council for New England.

In practical and organizational terms, these settlers were highly self-sufficient and quickly began making commercial profits through fishing and furs, then lumber products and even staple foodstuffs. As their settlements developed, they chose to sever as many ties with England as they could, at least until the 1640’s, when the Puritan Revolution launched the two-decade Commonwealth era in England. They created their own legal and electoral systems. They were fortunate to have a continuity of good leadership under men such as John Winthrop. Even so, the colonies’ growth was slow, with deaths through disease common and many settlers returning to England. In 1640, it is estimated that Massachusetts had only 14,000 English settlers; Virginia had 8,000, and Connecticut, Maryland, and New Hampshire each had fewer than 2,000. By 1660, Boston had no more than 3,000 inhabitants and Virginia’s towns even fewer. Backcountry settlements stretched barely one hundred miles inland from the coastal towns.

Immigration from the United Kingdom, 1820-2008

Immigration from the United Kingdom, 1820-2008 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.


It generally falls to the first inhabitants of a land to name its features. Place-names consequently provide valuable evidence about the identities of early inhabitants and particularly whence they originated. Most place-names adopted by English settlers fall into four categories:

names adapted from Native American forms

names symbolizing their hopes and beliefs

names honoring eminent persons,

names borrowed from places in their original homeland

Examples of place-names adapted from earlier Native American names include Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Susquehanna. Names expressing hopes and beliefs include Providence (divine guidance), Salem (peace), and Philadelphia (love). The many places honoring persons include Delaware and Baltimore (both aristocratic founders of colonies), Virginia (after the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I), and Charlotte, Charles Town, Charleston James Town, and Jamestown—all from British monarchs. New York was named after the duke of York, whose brother, King Charles II granted him the land taken from the original Dutch settlers.

However, the fourth category—names borrowed from homelands—is most informative about the origins of the earliest British settlers. Nearly all such names in the early British colonies were taken from names of English places. Indeed, the very name "New England” suggests that a number of these places had the prefix "New.” Other examples include New London, New Shoreham, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. The majority of such borrowings, however, were simply the names that were used in England.

The early settlers also brought their English county system with them and used distinctly English names for their new American counties. Many county names were borrowed from the names of counties in eastern England. These include Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridge, Haverhill, Boston, and Yarmouth. Such county names are especially evident in the New England colonies. Other borrowings come from southwestern England: Bristol, Gloucester, Somerset, and Barnstaple—the later a major port of exit, as were Plymouth and Weymouth. Another major grouping of names comes from London and southeastern England. Examples include Middlesex, Surrey, Guildford (or Guilford), Hertford (or Hartford), Newhaven, Kent, Isle of Wight, Portsmouth, and Southampton. Other parts of England are also represented by county names such as Chester, Cheshire, Lancaster, and Manchester from the northwest; Cumberland and Westmorland from the north; Litchfield, Birmingham, and Stafford fromEngland’sWest Midlands.

The absence of Scottish-derived place-names is significant. Welsh place-names are also rare, with only Bangor, Newport, and Swansea being well known. Welsh immigrants tended to prefer settling in colonies in the West Indies, and the Scots did not face the same religious pressures that drove the Puritans out of England. Only a few Scottish names in South Carolina suggest later immigration there. However, a cluster of Welsh names around Philadelphia suggests significant earlyWelsh settlement there. Examples of Welsh place-names in that region include Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Naberth, Berwyn, and Llanerch.

Colonial Period

The English Civil War (1642-1651) temporarily curtailed British emigration to North America. However, the Commonwealth period and the subsequent Restoration period produced large numbers of disaffected emigrants. One of the disaffected groups was the rapidly growing Quakers, who were fiercely persecuted in England. One of the leaders, William Penn, was the son of Admiral William Penn, a friend of Charles II, the restored British monarch. Penn was granted a large tract of land north of Maryland and south of New York and New Jersey. Large numbers of English and Welsh Quakers took the chance for religious freedom. Penn laid out Philadelphia as a city of toleration. His idealistic hopes were similar to those of the Puritans, but unlike them, he was willing to accept adherents of other faiths, especially persecuted Christians from Europe. For the first time, English immigrants mixed with people from Germany and mingled with previous immigrants from the Netherlands and Sweden.

English immigration continued to all existing twelve colonies, which were soon to be joined by a thirteenth, Georgia. Though some went to Boston and the newly founded Charleston in South Carolina, Philadelphia and its surrounding areas became the most popular. Indenture was still a main means of settling in the colonies, though as slavery grew in the southern plantations, the need for indentured servants lessened there. Transportation of felons still continued, but it was becoming unpopular. During the eighteenth century, one estimate suggests as many as 40,000 prisoners were transported, the growing majority to Maryland. A significant number of immigrants—especially children— were actually kidnapped in Britain and sold in the United States.

In 1689, the British population of New England was about 80,000. The middle colonies had some 40,000 immigrants, not all of whom were British; and the southern colonies more than 80,000. By 1760, immigrant numbers had increased to some 165,000 in Virginia alone, plus some 150,000 African slaves. Other colonies saw similar increases, but immigration into New York was hampered by the large estates owned by early Dutch and English grandees. However, in New England especially, the increase in population was mainly by natural increase, the flow of immigrants declining considerably. One estimate suggests that natural population increases doubled every twenty-five years.

Revolutionary War

The colonies all evolved forms of self-government some were more democratic than others. The growing demands of the British government for revenues, first confined to commerce through the Navigation Acts of the mid-seventeenth century, grew as the costs of wars against North America’s other main colonial power, France, escalated. In the end, the colonies revolted over these demands. An inept British government was unable to compromise and the Revolutionary War (1775- 1783) ensued, beginning in New England, and then working its way down all the British colonies. Voluntary immigration into British North America virtually stopped during this period; however, large numbers of British soldiers were sent there to fight.

At the cessation of hostilities, a number of settlers who remained loyal to Britain decided to go to Britain or to Canada, which remained under British rule since being wrested from the French in 1763. Estimates of the numbers of postwar emigrants range from 80,000 to 100,000. For a short period of time, therefore, there was a net outward flow of people from the former colonies. By the early nineteenth century, an inward flow had returned, though initially not on the same scale as before the war. Transportation of British felons was diverted from North America to the newly settled Australia, and indenture was ended in 1825.

Figures from the U.S. Census of 1790 suggest that people of English descent made up 60 percent of the total U.S. population, and the Scots some 8 percent. Massachusetts and Virginia each had more than 300,000 of English andWelsh residents, followed by North Carolina with 190,000.

As lands in Tennessee, Ohio, and the Midwest opened to settlers and lands even farther west enticed, more British settlers followed. The English poet John Keats’s brother George was one of the new immigrants. The poet’s correspondence documents his brother’s misfortunes. George Keats and his wife returned to England eventually, after losing most of their money to no less a trader than the famous naturalist John James Audubon. The early Industrial Revolution was also absorbing large numbers of landless British workers into growing British cities, restricting the flow of British emigrants.

Profile of British immigrants

Country of origin

United Kingdom

Primary language


Primary region of U.S. settlement

New England, East Coast, South

Earliest significant arrivals


Peak immigration period

1620-1760, 1850-1920

Twenty-first century legal residents*

124,917 (15,615 per year)

Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States, including people from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Nineteenth Century Surge

Precise U.S. immigration statistics began in 1830, making it easier to trace the pattern of British immigration from that date. Overall British immigration was not significant again until 1851. Figures for the years up to that date appear high only because they included Irish immigrants, who made up the bulk of the numbers. After midcentury, however, English immigration made up 10 percent of all European immigration into the United States, with Scottish immigration running at 9 percent of the English figures and Welsh at about 4 percent. Both figures conformwith the overall composition of Great Britain’s population. About 250,000 English immigrated to the United States during the 1850’s. That figure grew to 644,680 during the peak decade of the 1880’s, when English immigrants constituted 13.6 percent of all European immigrants.

No single destination attracted these new immigrants. The reasons behind the increased immigration rates lay in the huge growth of the British population, deteriorating urban conditions and a slowdown in Britain’s Industrial Revolution, which was being overtaken by those of Germany and France. Included in the figures for English immigrants were unknown numbers of Irish who moved on to the United States after first immigrating to England.

Scottish Immigration

The Scottish experience can be divided into two. The first arises out of the Scots being encouraged to emigrate to Ulster, in Northern Ireland, around 1611, to occupy land taken from the native Irish. These people became known as the Scotch- Irish, and their immigration to the Americas might best be regarded as part of Irish immigration.

The second Scottish group were mainly Presbyterians. During the seventeenth century they enjoyed freedom of religion until the Restoration period after 1660. After that, they endured severe restrictions. However, as Canada came under British control, most Scottish emigrants preferred to go there, perhaps partly because Canada’s terrain resembled that of Scotland. There was, however, Scottish emigration as far south as the Carolinas.

Extrapolations of data from the U.S. Census of 1790 suggest that overall Scottish immigration into the United States stood at 8 percent of the total population, with the heaviest groupings in Virginia, the Carolinas, and Pennsylvania. At the same time, Canada remained a popular destination for Scottish immigration, which was hastened by the Highland clearances during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, significant numbers continued to arrive in the United States. In fact, during the first decade of the twentieth century, when Scotland’s economy took a downturn, the 120,469 Scottish immigrants who entered the United States were represented almost one-third the 388,051 English immigrants who arrived during the same period. A peak period of Scottish immigration was during the 1920’s, when 159,781 Scots entered the United States; this number matched that of English immigrants during that decade.

Welsh Immigration

Welsh names can be found in early lists of British emigrants going to the West Indies, but not in lists of emigrants going to the North American colonies. However, significant numbers ofWelsh Quakers arrived in Philadelphia at the end of the seventeenth century, as place-name evidence testifies, and to a lesser extent in Rhode Island. OtherWelsh groups settled in the Carolinas and Virginia, according to data in the 1790 U.S. Census.

The rapid growth of the coal-mining industry, driven by the Industrial Revolution, absorbed thousands of landless Welsh. Welsh miners would also later be in demand during the California gold rush. The repression of Welsh culture and language by the English during the nineteenth century drove Welsh emigrants to countries such as Argentina, where their traditional sheep-farming could be practiced unhindered. However, smaller numbers came to the United States with other British immigrants throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Modern Trends

British immigration to the United States declined slowly during the early decades of the twentieth century at the same time immigration from southern and eastern Europe was increasing. More mindful of the needs of its own empire, Great Britain by then was sending large numbers of people to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. During the U.S. immigration-quota era that began during the 1920’s, the British quota was not always filled.

A sudden surge of British immigration after World War II can be partly explained by the number of war brides who came to the United States. These women had met and married American servicemen stationed in the United Kingdom during the war. However, the more significant reason for the increased immigration was the great disparity in standards of living in postwar Britain and the United States. After World War II, the British once again saw America as a land of opportunity. However, as Britain’s own standard of living improved, emigration dropped of. By the 1970’s, only 2.7 percent of all immigrants entering the United States legally came from Great Britain.

After the 1970’s, British immigration held steady at about 20,000 persons per year. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 824,239 residents of the United States had been born in the United Kingdom, a figure that made the British the ninth-largest immigrant group. Most modern British immigrants have been professionals and skilled workers, including students, teachers and medical personnel, multinational employees, skilled construction workers, and spouses of Americans. British immigrants are nearly invisible in the United States, where they have assimilated quickly. With the growing ease of transatlantic travel, many British immigrants prefer to go back and forth between the United States and Britain instead of opting for American citizenship. In 2004, 139,000 British people entered the United States to become residents, but only 15,000 sought naturalization.

David Barratt

Further Reading

Berthoff, Rowland T. British Immigrants in Industrial America, 1790-1950. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. Early study of the effects of the Industrial Revolution in both the United Kingdom and United States, and on British immigration. 

Coldham, Peter Wilson. The Complete Book of Emigrants, 1607-1660. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1987. One of the fullest available summaries of all documents relating to English emigration during the seventeenth century, and where they are to be found. Every family name mentioned is indexed. 

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Sets British immigration into a wider context and deals fully with pre- Revolutionary War British immigration. 

Erickson, Charlotte J. Invincible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth Century America. Leicester, England: Leicester University Press, 1972. Important survey of the second peak period of British immigration, with useful data and appendixes. 

Gerber, David. Authors of Their Lives: The Personal Correspondence of British Immigrants to North America in the Nineteenth Century. New York: New York University Press, 2006. Gerber analyzes letters to see what immigration meant to individuals. Gerber studies the letters as a literary form in which immigrants recorded their experiences. 

Waters, Mary C., and Reed Ueda, eds. The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. This volume’s chapter on the United Kingdom byWendy D. Roth is the most up-to-date account of the continuing British immigration. However, it makes only a limited attempt to separate out the various countries of Great Britain. 

Whyte, Donald. Dictionary of the Scottish Emigrants to the U.S.A. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing House, 1972. Fully catalogued list of Scottish immigration and analyses. 

See also: Canada vs. United States as immigrant destinations; European immigrants; History of immigration, 1620-1783; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Irish immigrants; Massachusetts; Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants; Virginia; War brides.