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Image Social Origins of the Puritan Migration

The builders of the Bay Colony thought of themselves as a twice-chosen people: once by God, and again by the General Court of Massachusetts. Other English plantations eagerly welcomed any two-legged animal who could be dragged on board an emigrant ship. But Massachusetts chose its colonists with care. Not everyone was allowed to settle there. In doubtful cases, the founders of the colony actually demanded written proof of good character. This may have been the only English colony that required some of its immigrants to submit letters of recommendation.1

Further, after these immigrants arrived, the social chaff was speedily separated from Abraham’s seed. Those who did not fit in were banished to other colonies or sent back to England. This complex process of cultural winnowing created a very special population.2

To a remarkable degree, the founders of Massachusetts traveled in families—more so than any major ethnic group in American history. In one contingent of 700 who sailed from Great Yarmouth (Norfolk) and Sandwich (Kent), 94 percent consisted of family groups. Among another group of 680 emigrants, at least 88 percent traveled with relatives, and 73 percent arrived as members of complete nuclear families. These proportions were the highest in the history of American immigration.3

The nuclear families that moved to Massachusetts were in many instances related to one another before they left England. A ballad of the great migration commemorated these ties:

Stay not among the Wicked,

Lest that with them you perish,

But let us to New-England go,

And the Pagan people cherish …

For Company I fear not,

There goes my cousin Hannah,

And Reuben so persuades to go

My Cousin Joyce, Susanna.

With Abigail and Faith,

And Ruth, no doubt, comes after;

And Sarah kind, will not stay behind;

My cousin Constance daughter.4

From the start, this exceptionally high level of family integration set Massachusetts apart from other American colonies.

Equally extraordinary was the pattern of age distribution. America’s immigrants have typically been young people in their teens and twenties. A distribution which is “age-normal” in demographic terms is decidedly exceptional among immigrant populations. But more than 40 percent of immigrants to the Massachusetts Bay Colony were mature men and women over twenty-five, and nearly half were children under sixteen. Only a few migrants were past the age of sixty, but in every other way the distribution of ages was remarkably similar to England’s population in general.5

Also unusual was the distribution of sexes, which differed very much from most colonial populations. The gender ratio of European migrants to Virginia was four men for every woman. In New Spain it was ten men for every woman; in Brazil, one hundred men for every Portuguese woman. Only a small minority of immigrants in those colonies could hope to live in households such as they had left behind in Europe. But in the Puritan migration to Massachusetts, the gender ratio was approximately 150 males for every 100 females. From an early date, normal family life was not the exception but the rule. As early as 1635, the Congregational churches of New England had more female than male members. Our stereotypical image of the Puritan is a man; but the test of church membership tells us that most Puritans were women. One historian infers from the gender ratio that “many Puritans brought their wives along”; it would be statistically more correct to say that many Puritans led their husbands to America.6

In terms of social rank, most emigrants to Massachusetts came from the middling strata of English society. Only a few were of the aristocracy. Two sisters and a brother of the Earl of Lincoln settled in Massachusetts, but all were gone within a few years. The gentry were rather more numerous; as many as 11 percent of male heads of households in the Winthrop fleet were identified as gentlemen.7 Many New England towns attracted a few “armigerous” families whose coats of arms were on record at the College of Heralds in London. This elite, as we shall see, contributed much to the culture of Massachusetts, but comparatively little to its population.8

The great majority were yeomen, husbandmen, artisans, craftsmen, merchants and traders—the sturdy middle class of England. They were not poor. A case in point was Benjamin Cooper, an emigrant who died on the way to America in the Ship Mary Anne(1637). He had modestly described himself as “husbandman” in the passenger list. But when his estate was settled he was found to be worth £1,278. This was a large fortune in that era, much above the usual idea of a “husbandman’s” condition.9

Remarkably few of these migrants came from the bottom of English society, to the surprise of some immigrants themselves. “It is strange the meaner people should be so backward [in emigrating],” wrote Richard Saltonstall in 1632. But so they were. On three occupational lists, less than 5 percent were identified as laborers—a smaller proportion than in other colonies.10 Only a small minority came as servants—less than 25 percent, compared with 75 percent in Virginia. Most New England servants arrived as members of household, rather than as part of a labor draft as in the Chesapeake.11

The leaders of the great migration actively discouraged servants and emigrants of humble means. Thomas Dudley, for example, urged the Countess of Lincoln to recruit “honest men” and “godly men” who were “endowed with grace and furnished with means.” But he insisted that “they must not be of the poorer sort.” When John Winthrop’s son asked permission to send a servant named Pease, the governor replied: “people must come well provided, and not too many at once. Pease may come if he will, and such other as you shall think fit, but not many and let those be good, and but few servants and those useful ones.”12

As a result of this policy, nearly three-quarters of adult Massachusetts immigrants paid their own passage—no small sum in 1630. The cost of outfitting and moving a family of six across the ocean was reckoned at £50 for the poorest accommodation, or £60 to £80 for those who wished a few minimal comforts. A typical English yeoman had an annual income of perhaps £40 to £60. A husbandman counted himself lucky to earn a gross income of £20 a year, of which only about £3 or £4 cleared his expenses. Most ordinary families in England could not afford to come to Massachusetts.13

The social status of these people also appeared in their high levels of literacy. Two-thirds of New England’s adult male immigrants


Dr. John Clark was a Puritan physician in the Great Migration. Trained in England as a specialist in “cutting for the stone,” he sailed to Massachusetts in 1638 and became more generally employed as a physician, surgeon, apothecary, merchant, landowner, distiller, inventor, magistrate in Essex County, and representative in the General Court. His left hand holds a crown saw which was used to trepan skulls, an operation he may have been the first to perform in New England. Behind the skull is a Hey’s saw, another tool of his trade. Clark’s wealth was subtly displayed by a small finger ring which was painted with actual gold dust. His Puritan faith appears in his physiognomy, dress and demeanor. This drawing follows a portrait (1664), the earliest dated in New England, which hangs in the Countway Library of the Harvard Medical School.

were able to sign their own names. In old England before 1640, only about one-third could do so. By this very rough “signature-mark test,” literacy was nearly twice as common in Massachusetts as in the mother country.14

These colonists were also extraordinary in their occupations. A solid majority (between 50 and 60%) had been engaged in some skilled craft or trade before leaving England. Less than one-third had been employed primarily in agriculture—a small proportion for a seventeenth-century population. The ballads of the great migration remarked upon this fact:

Tom Taylor is prepared,

And th’ Smith as black as a coal;

Ralph Cobler too with us will go.

For he regards his soul;

The Weaver, honest Simon …

Professeth to come after.

That lyrical impression was solidly founded in statistical fact.15

This was mainly an urban migration. Approximately one-third of the founders of Massachusetts came from small market towns in England. Another third came from large towns—a much greater proportion than in the English population as a whole. Less than 30 percent had lived in manorial villages, and a very small proportion had dwelled on separate farms.16

In summary, by comparison with other emigrant groups in American history, the great migration to Massachusetts was a remarkably homogeneous movement of English Puritans who came from the middle ranks of their society, and traveled in family groups. The heads of these families tended to be exceptionally literate, highly skilled, and heavily urban in their English origins. They were a people of substance, character, and deep personal piety. The special quality of New England’s regional culture would owe much to these facts.

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