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Image The Exodus of the English Puritans, 1629-1641

You talk of New England; I truly believe

Old England’s grown new and doth us deceive.

I’ll ask you a question or two, by your leave:

And is not old England grown new?

New fashions in houses, new fashions at table,

The old servants discharged, the new are more able;

And every old custome is but an old fable!

And is not old England grown new? …

Then talk you no more of New England!

New England is where old England did stand,

New furnished, new fashioned, new womaned, new manned

And is not old England grown new?

—Anonymous verse, c. 16301

ON A BLUSTERY MARCH MORNING in the year 1630, a great ship was riding restlessly at anchor in the Solent, near the Isle of Wight. As the tide began to ebb, running outward past the Needles toward the open sea, a landsman watching idly from the shore might have seen a cloud of white smoke billow from the ship’s side. A few seconds later, he would have heard the sharp report of a cannon, echoing across the anchorage. Another cannon answered from the shore, and on board the ship the flag of England fluttered up its halyard—the scarlet cross of Saint George showing bravely on its field of white. Gray sails blossomed below the great ship’s yards, and slowly she began to move toward the sea. The landsman might have observed that she lay deep in the water, and that her decks were crowded with passengers. He would have noticed her distinctive figurehead—a great prophetic eagle projecting from her bow. And he might have made out her name, gleaming in newly painted letters on her hull. She was the ship Arbella, outward bound with families and freight for the new colony of Massachusetts Bay.2

Arbella was no ordinary emigrant vessel. She carried twenty-eight great guns and was the “admiral” or flagship of an entire fleet of English ships that sailed for Massachusetts in the same year. The men and women who embarked in her were also far from being ordinary passengers. Traveling in the comfort of a cabin was Lady Arbella Fiennes, sister of the Earl of Lincoln, in whose honor the ship had received her name. Also on board was her husband, Isaac Johnson, a rich landowner in the county of Rutland; her brother Charles Fiennes; and her friend the future poet Anne Dudley Bradstreet, who had grown up in the household of the Earl of Lincoln. Other berths were occupied by the Earl’s high stewards Simon Bradstreet and Thomas Dudley; by an English gentleman called Sir Richard Saltonstall; and by a Suffolk lawyer named John Winthrop who was destined to become the leader of the colony.3

Most of Arbella’s passengers were families of lesser rank, but very few of them came from the bottom of English society. Their dress and demeanor marked them as yeomen and artisans of middling status. Their gravity of manner and austerity of appearance also said much about their religion and moral character.

Below decks, the great ship was a veritable ark. Its main hold teemed with horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, cats and dunghill fowl. Every nautical nook and cranny was crowded with provisions. In the cabin were chests of treasure which would have made a rich haul for the Dunkirkers who preyed upon Protestant shipping in the English Channel.4

The ship Arbella was one of seventeen vessels that sailed to Massachusetts in the year 1630. She led a great migration which for size and wealth and organization was without precedent in


These Puritan leaders personified the spiritual striving that brought the Bay colonists to America. John Winthrop (center front) was a pious East Anglian lawyer who became governor of Massachusetts. His son John Winthrop, Jr. (center rear) was governor of Connecticut, entrepreneur, and scientist, much respected for what Cotton Mather called his “Christian qualities … studious, humble, patient, reserved and mortified.” Sir Harry Vane (right rear) was briefly governor of Massachusetts at the age of 24. He was reprimanded for long hair and elegant dress, but was so rigorous in his Puritanism that he believed only the thrice-born to be truly saved. Sir Richard Saltonstall (right front) founded Watertown and colonized Connecticut, but dissented on toleration and returned to England. William Pynchon (left front) founded Springfield and wrote a book on atonement that was ordered burned in Boston. Hugh Peter (left rear) was minister in Salem, a founder of Harvard and an English Parliamentary leader who was executed in 1660. The original portraits are in the Am. Antiq. Soc., Essex Institute, Mass. Hist. Soc., Queens College (Cambridge) and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

England’s colonization of North America. Within a period of eleven years, some 80,000 English men, women and children swarmed outward from their island home. This exodus was not a movement of attraction. The great migration was a great flight from conditions which had grown intolerable at home. It continued from 1629 to 1640, precisely the period that Whig historians called the “eleven years’ tyranny,” when Charles I tried to rule England without a Parliament, and Archbishop William Laud purged the Anglican church of its Puritan members. These eleven years were also an era of economic depression, epidemic disease, and so many sufferings that to John Winthrop it seemed as if the land itself had grown “weary of her Inhabitants, so as man which is most precious of all the Creatures, is here more vile and base than the earth they tread upon.”5

In this time of troubles there were many reasons for leaving England, and many places to go. Perhaps 20,000 English people moved to Ireland. Others in equal number left for the Netherlands and the Rhineland. Another 20,000 sailed to the West Indian islands of Barbados, Nevis, St. Kitts, and the forgotten Puritan colony of Old Providence Island (now a haven for drug-smugglers off the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua). A fourth contingent chose to settle in Massachusetts, and contributed far beyond its numbers to the culture of North America.6

The seventeen vessels that sailed to Massachusetts in 1630 were the vanguard of nearly 200 ships altogether, each carrying about a hundred English souls. A leader of the colony reckoned that there were about 21,000 emigrants in all. This exodus continued from 1630 to the year 1641. While it went on, the North Atlantic Ocean was a busy place. In the year 1638, one immigrant sighted no fewer than thirteen other vessels in midpassage between England and Massachusetts.7

After the year 1640, New England’s great migration ended as abruptly as it began. The westward flow of population across the Atlantic suddenly stopped and ran in reverse, as many Massachusetts Puritans sailed home to serve in the Civil War. Migration to New England did not resume on a large scale for many years—not until Irish Catholics began to arrive nearly two centuries later.8

The emigrants who came to Massachusetts in the great migration became the breeding stock for America’s Yankee population. They multiplied at a rapid rate, doubling every generation for two centuries. Their numbers increased to 100,000 by 1700, to at least one million by 1800, six million by 1900, and more than sixteen million by 1988—all descended from 21,000 English emigrants who came to Massachusetts in the period from 1629 to 1640.

The children of the great migration moved rapidly beyond the borders of Massachusetts. They occupied much of southern New England, eastern New Jersey and northern New York. In the nineteenth century, their descendants migrated east to Maine and Nova Scotia, north to Canada, and west to the Pacific. Along the way, they founded the future cities of Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Paul, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco and Salt Lake City. Today, throughout this vast area, most families of Yankee descent trace their American beginnings to an English ancestor who came ashore in Massachusetts Bay within five years of the year 1635.

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