Migration to the Americas in the 17th and 18th Century

Migration to the Americas / New World began in the 16th century. Early attempts at colonisation were made by the English at Roanoke. Though this colony failed, it paved the way for colonies at Jamestown in the early 17th century. English migration to America continued throughout the 17th century. People migrated for a number of reasons. Some, like the Pilgrim Fathers, for religious reasons. Others saw the opportunity for riches in a new world. Explorers and prospectors sought a passage to the far east which also fuelled colonisation.

Eighteenth century migration from Ireland and Scotland to North America

Early colonisation of the Americas

Early colonisation was often due to economic pressures in England. Push factors led to the decision to migrate. As the English took hold of the Eastern seaboard of North America the English moving there were not all rich, expectant prospectors. Many were escaping a wretched life.

English migrants in Virginia had good reason not to feel grateful. Most came unfree, pushed out of England by economic forces that privatized shared pastures and farmlands and pushed up the prices of basic necessities. By the 17th century, more than half of the English peasantry was landless. The price of food shot up 600 percent, and firewood by 1,500 percent.
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Migration to the Americas

To escape from the economic conditions in England many opted to sign up to Indenture agreements. This was a contract that gave free passage to America in return for a fixed period of time working for the master or company paying for the transportation. Roughly 80% of English migrants to America before 1700 were transported under such a contract. They were usually tied to the master for 5 to 7 years.

Headright System

After the Glorious Revolution there was a change in migration patterns. The Headright System was introduced by the Virginia Company. This system promised 50 acres of land to anybody who paid for their transport or for that of another person. In England it was virtually impossible for ordinary people to own any land. This presented a huge opportunity to farm and prosper. It led to an increase in migration to the Americas.

Migrants return to England to fight in the Civil Wars

Some migrants returned to England as the Civil Wars broke out. There was a lot of support for the Parliamentarians from Puritans in the colonies. The support was such that there was actually some fighting of the English Civil Wars in Colonial America.

Following the Glorious Revolution and failure of Jacobite Rebellions Irish and Scots began to migrate to North America in greater numbers. The migration was in part in hope of religious tolerance in the colonies; partly in hope of better prospects and partly because of the plantation of Ireland and clearances of the Highlands. Schemes such as the Darien Scheme were established to encourage migration from both areas. Migration also continued to take place from England. In the colonial period and up to 1900, the majority of people living in the colonies and later United States self identified as English.

Expansion of Northern American Migration

The 1700’s saw migration continue as colonisation expanded into America. Victories in the wars against Native American’s paved the way two much more land being available. Exploration in the north had led to additional trading options. Hudson Bay was taken from the French for the British. Towns and colonies had become established and the stability that this created plus the proximity of new lands increased the lure of migrating to America.

Migration to the US Data

The first census of the United States was of 12 colonies in 1790. It counted just over 3.9 million people. 66% of these were of English origin. 5.6% Scottish. 4.5% German. 2% Dutch. Roughly 20% ‘Other’ which included some 697624 slaves.

Recommended Links on Migration to America and the New World

National Archives – Emigration and Emigrants

Liverpool Museums – Child Migrants

Migration Museum – Departures podcast: 400 years of emigration from Britain

Further Reading on the British Empire

Making of the United Kingdom

Making of the United Kingdom unit homepage – Glorious Revolution – The British in Ireland, 1688-1691 – Settlement of Ireland – Jacobite Opposition – Glencoe Massacre – Darien Scheme – Act of Union – Migration to the Americas

Economic Consequences of Empire

Economic Consequences of Empire – Unit homepage – Royal African Company – Triangular Trade – Lifting of the RAC monopoly – Plantations – The Slave Economy – Opposition to the Slave Trade in North America – Slave Resistance – East India Company – Expansion of trade in East India – Bank of England – South Sea Bubble Bursts

How did the Empire affect working lives and consumer habits in Britain?

Empire and consumerism – Involvement of the British population in the slave trade and the ‘slave ports’ – Emergence of consumerism

How did the Empire affect British politics and changing ideas?

Politics and changing ideas – Coffee houses and developing political activism – growth of ideas of a racial hierarchy and the impact on settled minority communities

Common questions about the British Empire

Questions about the British Empire – When did the British Empire start? – When did the British Empire end? – What countries were in the British Empire? – Why did Britain want an empire? – What was life like in the British Empire? – Was the British Empire a force for good or bad? – What is Is perfidious Albion? – How was the British Empire controlled?

The British Empire – Making of the United Kingdom – Economic Consequences of the British Empire– How did the Empire affect Great Britain? – Society changes: Political Thought and the British Empire – Questions about the British Empire – British Empire Teaching Resources

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