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Image Virginia’s Great Migration: Regional Origins

Virginia’s immigrants came from every county of England, and from thousands of parishes. But a majority of Virginia’s indentured servants hailed from sixteen counties in the south and west of England—the same area that produced Virginia’s elite. A case in point was the population that settled in Virginia’s Isle of Wight County. A local historian found that “early Isle of Wight families seem to have come mostly from the southwest of England, that is the counties of Gloucester, Somerset, Devon, Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire … their names appear to be more numerous in the west country than in any other part of England. After the west country, London and its surrounding counties seem to be next.”1

Another example was the population of Berkeley Hundred in Virginia. Its historian found that “the majority … whether sponsors, tenants at labor or indentured servants, were … born and bred in Gloucester, where many of them were natives of the Berkeley vale, the Cotswold Edge, or the Winchcombe area.”2

In yet another group of 1,200 immigrants to all parts of Virginia, it was observed that “most of them [were] choice men, born and bred up to labor and husbandry. Out of Devonshire, about an hundred men, brought up to husbandry; out of Warwickshire and Staffordshire, above one hundred and ten; and out of Sussex about forty, all trained to ironworks; the rest dispersedly out of divers Shires of the realm.”3

These regional patterns changed a little during the mid-seventeenth century. One historian has reckoned that before 1650 as many as 80 or 90 percent of Virginia’s servants sailed from London, and the great majority came from “the southeastern part of the country, particularly London and the Home counties.” Roughly half (52%) of these servants who sailed from the River Thames identified their homes as London itself—mostly the suburbs. Only about 2 percent came from the inner city. The other half came mostly from counties to the west of London—Middlesex, Buckingham, Surrey, Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. Few came from East Anglia.4 After 1650, Bristol became more important in Virginia’s servant trade. The great majority of emigrants from Bristol (87% in one sample) came from the west of England and South Wales. The most important place of origin was the Severn Valley.5

In the mid-seventeenth century, Virginia’s recruiting ground in England might have been encompassed by two great circles around the cities of London and Bristol, each with a radius of roughly sixty miles.6 To this rule, however, there were important exceptions. Comparatively few of Virginia’s immigrants came from East Anglia, though parts of that region lay very near to London. Even fewer came from Cornwall, though that county lay


within easy reach of Bristol.7 The people of Cornwall, many of whom still spoke Gaelic in the seventeenth century, were culturally distinct from other counties of southwestern England. This pattern shows that for Virginia’s indentured servants, the location of the seaport did not determine the region. It was more nearly the other way around—the region determined the seaport.8

The regional origins and social purposes of Virginia’s English immigrants also appeared in the names that they gave to the new land—an important piece of evidence, for it is independent of registers and shipping lists. Altogether, twenty-five counties were created in Virginia by the year 1703. Two kept their Indian names—Accomac and Nansemond. Eight other names reflected the Royalist politics of the Virginians: James City County, Charles City County, Elizabeth City County, Henrico, Prince George, Princess Anne, King William, and King and Queen County. All the rest bore the names of British counties and towns. Only two names came from the east of England, and only four from the north. The remainder (8 of 14, or 57%) were drawn from the same region in southwestern England which also dominated the shipping lists, servant registers and genealogies of the ruling elite. In southern Maryland and southern Delaware, county names also were drawn entirely from the south and west of England.9

A similar pattern also appeared in the names of Virginia’s parishes. Of 54 parishes founded before 1726, most were given the names of Christian saints or Indian places. But fourteen parishes were named after English communities. All of them without exception were in the south and west of England—the same triangle of territory between Bristol, Warwick and Kent.10

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