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Image Regional Origins of the Puritan Migration

Another important fact about the founders of Massachusetts was their region of origin in the mother country. When one examines the ship lists in these terms, the first impression is one of extreme diversity. One “sample” of 2,885 emigrants to New England came from no fewer than 1,194 English parishes. Every county was represented except Westmorland in the far north and Mon-mouth on the border of Wales.1

But closer study shows that some counties contributed more than others, and that one region in particular accounted for a majority of the founders of Massachusetts. It lay in the east of England. We may take its geographic center to be the market town of Haverhill, very near the point where the three counties of Suffolk, Essex and Cambridge come together. A circle drawn around the town of Haverhill with a radius of sixty miles will circumscribe the area from which most New England families came.2 That great circle (or semicircle, for much of it crosses the North Sea) reached east to Great Yarmouth on the coast of Norfolk, north to Boston in eastern Lincolnshire, west to Bedford and Hertfordshire, and south to the coast of East Kent. This area of approximately 7,000 square miles (about 8% of the land area of Britain today) roughly included the region that was defined in 1643 as the Eastern Association—Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Lincolnshire—plus parts of Bedfordshire and Kent.


Approximately 60 percent of immigrants to Massachusetts came from these nine eastern counties. Three of the largest contingents were from Suffolk, Essex and Norfolk. Also important was part of east Lincolnshire which lay near the English town of Boston, and a triangle of Kentish territory bounded by the towns of Dover, Sandwich and Canterbury. These areas were the core of the Puritan migration.3

On the periphery of New England’s primary recruiting ground lay the great city of London. Less than 10 percent of emigrants to Massachusetts came from the metropolis. London was an important meeting place and shipping point for the builders of the Bay Colony, but it was not their English home. Those who had lived in the capital tended not to be native Londoners, but transplanted East Anglians to whom London seemed a foreign place, more alien even than the American wilderness. An example was Lucy Winthrop Downing, a Puritan lady who had moved from East Anglia to London because of her husband’s business. In 1637, Lucy Downing was expecting the birth of a child. She wrote her brother in New England that she wanted to have her baby in Massachusetts rather than in London. “I confess could a wish transport me to you,” she declared, “I think, as big as I am, I should rather bring an Indian than a Cockney into the world.”4

The Puritan migration also drew from other parts of England, but often it did so through East Anglian connections. Throughout England, there were scattered parishes where charismatic ministers led their congregations to Massachusetts. But these leaders were themselves often East Anglians. A case in point was the parish of Rowley in Yorkshire, whence the Reverend Ezekiel Rogers brought a large part of his congregation to Massachusetts, where they founded another community called Rowley in the New World. Rogers was himself an East Anglian, born at Wethersfield in Essex, educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and for twelve years a chaplain at Hatfield Broad Oak. He had moved to Yorkshire as a Puritan missionary, “in the hope that his more lively ministry might be particularly successful in awakening those drowsy corners of the north.”5

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the role of the eastern counties in the peopling of New England. A large minority (40%) came from the remaining thirty-four counties of England. An important secondary center of migration existed in the west country, very near the area where the counties of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire came together.6 But many of these West Country Puritans did not long remain in the Bay Colony. They tended to move west to Connecticut, or south to Nantucket, or north to Maine. Diversity of regional origins became a major factor in the founding of other New England colonies.7

The concentration of Puritans from East Anglia, and from the county of Suffolk, was especially great in the Winthrop Fleet of 1630.8 In the New World, their hegemony became very strong in the present boundaries of Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex and Middlesex counties in Massachusetts. This area became the heartland of its region; its communities are called “seed towns” in New England because so many other communities were founded from them. Most families in these seed towns came from the east of England. The majority was highly concentrated in its regional origin while the minority was widely scattered. As a consequence, the East Anglian core of New England’s population had a cultural importance greater even than its numbers would suggest.9

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