The Great Puritan Migration

The Great Puritan Migration was a period in the 17th century during which English puritans migrated to New England, the Chesapeake and the West Indies.

English migration to Massachusetts consisted of a few hundred pilgrims who went to Plymouth Colony in the 1620s and between 13,000 and 21,000 emigrants who went to the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1630 and 1642.

Why Did Puritans Leave England for the New World?

The Puritans left England primarily due to religious persecution but also for economic reasons as well. England was in religious turmoil in the early 17th century, the religious climate was hostile and threatening, especially towards religious nonconformists like the puritans.

The puritans were a sect of religious dissidents who felt the Church of England was too closely associated with the Catholic religion and needed to be reformed.

There were two different types of Puritans at the time: separatists and non-separatists. The non-separatist Puritans wanted to remain in the church and reform it from within. The separatist Puritans felt the church was too corrupt to reform and instead wanted to separate from it.

This was problematic for the separatists because, at that time, the church and state were one in England and the act of separating from the Church of England was considered treasonous.

This prompted the separatists to leave England for the New World in order to escape potential punishment for their beliefs and to be able to worship more freely.

In 1607, a sect of separatists from Yorkshire left England and moved to Leiden, Holland in search of religious freedom. Although they found freedom there, they eventually tired of their grueling jobs in Holland’s cloth industry.

In 1619, after living in Holland for 12 years, these separatists sought out investors in England who would be willing to finance their journey to the New World.

The group made a deal with the Plymouth Company who promised to finance their trip to North America to establish a colony. In return, the colony would repay the company by harvesting supplies, such as fur, timber and fish, to send back to England.

The Great Puritan Migration in the 1620s:

In September of 1620, the separatists traveled to the New World on a rented cargo ship called the Mayflower and landed off the coast of Massachusetts in November, where they established Plymouth Colony, the first colony in New England. This event marks the beginning of the Great Puritan Migration.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims, oil painting by Robert W. Weir, circa 1844

In 1623, the Dorchester Company founded a fishing settlement at Gloucester, Massachusetts in Cape Ann. This was the first of many “Old Planter” colonies in New England that were not a part of either the Plymouth Colony or the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were established by Puritans purely for financial reasons, mainly to catch fish to send to England and Spain for profit.

The Gloucester settlement later failed in 1626 and the colonists migrated to the Salem area where they started a new settlement without obtaining permission from the king to do so.

Although the Old Planter colonies were established as a business venture, one of the founders of the Cape Ann settlement, Reverend John White, also wanted the settlement to be a place of refuge for Puritans escaping religious persecution in England.

In 1625, the religious climate in England worsened when King Charles I ascended the throne. Since King Charles had a catholic wife and favored the catholic religion, hostility towards the puritans and protestants alike greatly increased. This prompted many of the more moderate Puritans in England, such as the non-separatists, to finally leave the country.

In 1628, the New England Company, the original name of the Massachusetts Bay Company, obtained a patent to settle Salem and took over the illegal settlement established there by the colonists from the failed Gloucester settlement in 1626.

In 1629, the Puritans leaders of New England Company renamed their company the Massachusetts Bay Company and obtained a charter from King Charles I to engage in trade in New England.

The charter neglected to say that the company had to remain in England to conduct the business so the company took a vote in August of that year and decided to move the entire company to New England.

The Great Puritan Migration in the 1630s:

Led by Puritan lawyer, John Winthrop, the company left England in April of 1630 and arrived in New England in June where they settled in what is now modern day Boston and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony became the largest colony in New England and was hugely successful.

Arrival of the Winthrop Fleet, painting by William F. Halsall

Some sources state that the reasons for the Massachusetts Bay colonist’s migration were far more complicated than just the quest for religious freedom.

According to the book The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards, the Massachusetts Bay puritans felt a moral obligation to live the way God commanded and felt that by doing so they could serve as a religious example to others which, in turn, would help reform England and Christianity:

“But they [the puritans] did believe that they had a responsibility to lead exemplary lives both individually and collectively and that by doing so they too were cooperating with God’s plan and serving a redemptive function. They believed, in the words of John Winthrop, that ‘we shall be as a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.’ In coming to the New World, according to Winthrop, the colonists were accepting the terms of a covenant with God. If they lived properly, maintained a true faith, and upheld God’s ways, they would be blessed and their example would inspire others….Winthrop was not alone in explaining that the purpose of the new England was to re-form the old. Other Puritans who recorded their reasons for settling Massachusetts emphasized the redemptive function they hoped to perform. Edward Johnson, who was not one of the colony’s leaders, wrote in his Wonder-Working Providence of Sion’s Savior in New England that the purpose of the colony was to ‘be set as lights upon a hill more obvious of New England as ‘holding forth a pregnant demonstration of the consistency of Civil-Government with a Congregational-way.'”

When the old planter colonies in New England began to fail, the Massachusetts Bay Colonists believed it to be a punishment from God for establishing a colony for financial reasons rather than religious ones, according to Cotton Mather in his book Magnalia:

“There were more than a few attempts of the English to people and improve the parts of New England which were to the northward of New Plimouth. But the designs of those attempts being aimed no higher than the advancement of some worldly interest, a constant series of disasters has confounded them, until there was a plantation erected upon the nobler designs of Christianity; and that plantation, though it has had more adversaries than perhaps any one upon earth, yet, having obtained help from God, it continues to this day.”

The Massachusetts Bay Colony took over the Dorchester Company’s failed planter settlements, such as Gloucester, as well as some of the Plymouth Company’s failed settlements, such as Hull and Weymouth, in the 1630s and 40s.

In the 1630s, droves of Puritans soon began to flock to New England, particularly after 1633, when King Charles appointed William Laud as the new Archbishop of Canterbury and he began rooting out nonconformity in the church.

Laud launched a widespread crackdown on dissidents like the Puritans which led to a surge in Puritan migration to the colonies, according to the book Library of World History: Containing a Record of the Human Race:

“Charles I also attempted to establish the Episcopal Church on a firmer basis, and to suppress Puritanism in England and Presbyterianism in Scotland, with the view of checking the rapid growth of republican principles among the English people. For the purpose of accomplishing this end, the king appointed the zealous William Laud, Bishop of London, to the dignity of Archbishop of Canterbury…Archbishop Laud, who thus became the chief agent in a religious tyranny which almost drove both England and Scotland to revolt, improved every opportunity to preach submission to the ‘Lord’s Anointed’ in the payment of taxes; and he demanded from English Puritans and Scotch Presbyterians a strict conformity to his own rules for public worship…Archbishop Laud’s ecclesiastical tyranny led to a large Puritan emigration to New England. Patents were secured and companies organized for that purpose. The Puritans proceeded reluctantly to the place of embarkation, with their eyes looking longingly toward the distant refuge of the Pilgrim Fathers across the billowy deep, yet moist with tears as they turned their backs upon their native land and upon scenes that were dear to them: their hearts swelling with grief as the shores of ‘Dear Old Mother England’ faded from their sight, yet rising to lofty purposes and sublime resignation as they abandoned home and country to enjoy the blessings of religious freedom in a strange land. They fully counted the cost of their forced migration – the peril, poverty and hardships, of their new homes in the American wilderness.”

Yet another source, the book Exile and Journey in Seventeenth-Century Literature, states that the Massachusetts Bay colonist’s reasons for migrating were even more varied than that and were also based on economic reasons:

“It should be noted that the reasons for leaving England were various, and involve economics as well as religious factors; often the decision to migrate to New England came not out of a specifically Puritan alienation from Laudian reforms, but rather from local influences, such as the decision of a neighbor, a minister, or, more immediately, a patron or employer to depart across the Atlantic. Yet the leaders deep sense of difference can be seen in their successful attempt to transport the charter of the colony with them to Massachusetts, effectively cutting off any administrative interference from the homeland. The decision by Winthrop and others to lead a migration westward certainly came from a sense that the Puritan cause in England had faltered, but its faltering, in many ways, may have been effected by the Puritans own conservatism and ‘assimilation into the fabric of English society.’ Winthrop and Thomas Dudley, the Earl of Lincoln’s steward, for example, represented important propertied interests in New England, and went with the Crown’s permission to the New World, not only to found a godly community, but also, according to their own representations, to further the cause of England in the burgeoning Atlantic commercial world. The Massachusetts Bay Colonists, a rather different set of migrants from those who left Leiden for Plymouth a decade earlier, often included prominent gentlemen and ministers or their servants leaving the mainstream of English society.”

Who Were The Puritan Migrants?

Massachusetts Bay Colonists tended to be middle-class and usually migrated in family units, according to an article on the New England Historical Society website:

“Most of the Puritans who came to New England were prosperous middle-class families. They were different from the poor, single male immigrants who predominated immigration to other regions of America. They were highly literate and skilled, unlike the immigrants to Virginia, 75 percent of whom were servants.”

Although Puritan migrants came from almost every county in England, the greatest groups of these migrants came from Eastern and Southern England, particularly the East Anglian counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex; London, Hertfordshire and Kent; and the southwestern counties of Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset, and Devon.

According to the book, British Atlantic, American Frontier, two specific groups of migrants came from these areas:

“From this considerable area, two major migrant streams can be identified: first, a migration of families, drawn mainly from East Anglia, the Home Counties, and the West Country, who had Puritan sympathies; second, a migration of single, young men, drawn from London and Devon, who were attracted by prospects of employment in agriculture, trades, and the fishery. The migration from East Anglia – approximately 38 percent of total migrants in one study – comprised mainly of families, focused on the Boston area. During the early seventeenth century, East Anglia was a center of religious nonconformism. Many of the migrants from the area were Puritans, who feared religious oppression in England, and wished to join Puritan leader John Winthrop in building a ‘holy city upon the hill’ in the New World. Similar Puritan congregations existed in the Home Counties and the West Country. As the migration got underway, migrants frequently recruited other family members as well as friends to join them, creating a chain of migration across the Atlantic. Particular towns and villages in England became linked to specific townships in New England. Hingham, Massachusetts, drew 40 percent of its families from East Anglia, most of them from the Hingham area in Norfolk. Other family migrations most likely linked eastern Kent to the South Shore of Boston (Scituate, Plymouth, Sandwich), the Wiltshire/Berkshire area to the Merrimack Valley (Salisbury, Newbury, Amesbury), and southwest Dorset to the South Shore (Dorchester) and the Connecticut Valley (Windsor.) The migrations from London and Devon were much different. Although both sent families to New England, the migrations appear to have been weighted toward single, young men, comprising perhaps a third of total male migrants.”

Migrants who went to the Chesapeake and the West Indies tended to be indentured servants from London. A small fraction of indentured servants were also sent to New England too though, probably contracted to merchants and tradesman who themselves had emigrated from London and Boston, England.

In fact, many of the migrants sent to the fishing settlements in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine were indentured servants contracted by merchants in Barnstable, Plymouth, and Dartmouth.

What Brought the Great Puritan Migration to an End?

A couple of factors brought the Great Puritan Migration to an end around 1640-1642. These factors were the establishment of the Long Parliament in 1640 and the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642.

The Long Parliament, which was an English Parliament held from 1640 to 1660, restructured the government, limited the power of the king and punished King Charles’ advisers, such as Archbishop Laud, for their actions, according to the book Early European Civilizations:

“The Long Parliament met in no uncertain temper. It proceeded to attack Charles’ chief advisers and finally beheaded the Earl of Strafford and Laud. Parliament protected itself against the king. It provided for meetings of Parliament at least every three years. It abolished the Courts of the Star Chamber and High Commission.”

According to the introduction of a 1908 edition of John Winthrop’s Journal, History of New England, 1630-1649, this had a big impact on Puritan migration to New England, and “immigration suddenly ceased; with the opening of the Long Parliament the grievances which had driven into exile so many of the non-conformists no longer pressed heavily.”

Up to the time of the Long Parliament in 1640, the average number of emigrants to New England had been about 2,000 a year.

This new power struggle within the English government then led to the English Civil War in 1642. Not only did the war also halt any further emigration to the colonies, but it is estimated that between 7 to 11 percent of colonists returned to England after the outbreak of the war, including nearly one-third of clergymen, to assist in the war effort.

According to the book British Atlantic, American Frontier, English emigration stopped for the rest of the colonial period:

“The outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 brought the migration to a close; for the rest of the colonial period, only a few hundred settlers trickled in, mostly Scots-Irish who settled at Londonderry, New Hampshire.”

Even though English migration to the area was nonexistent for nearly two hundred years, the population of the New England colonies grew rapidly during that time.

This was due to an equal balance of males and females in New England, a healthy environment that led to longer life spans and the trend of couples marrying at a young age and having large families of typically seven to eight children, with at least six or seven of those children surviving to adulthood.

In 1650, the total population of New England was about 22,800 and by the middle of the next century it had grown to 360,000 and by 1770 it was about 581,000.

Gardner, Frank. “The Old Planters at Salem.” Putnam’s Monthly Historical Magazine and Magazine of New England History. The Research Publication Company, 1902, pp: 3-18.
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Ashley, Roscoe Lewis. Early European Civilization: A Textbook for Secondary Schools. The Macmillan Company, 1920.
Hornsby, Stephen and Michael Hermann. British Atlantic, American Frontier: Spaces of Power in Early Modern British America. UPNE, 2005.
D’Addario, Christopher. Exile and Journey in Seventeenth-Century Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Axelrod, Alan. Charles Phillips. What Every American Should Know About American History. Adams Media Corporation, 1992.
Byington, Ezra Hoyt. The Puritan in England and New England. Boston, Roberts Brothers, 1897.
Kennedy, David M., et al, The Brief American Pageant: A History of the Republic. Cenage Learning, 2017.
Library of World History: Containing a Record of the Human Race. Vol. 6, World Publishing Company, 1914.
Bremer, Francis J. The Puritan Experiment: New England Society from Bradford to Edwards. University Press of New England, 1995.
Betlock, Lynn. “New England’ Great Migration.” The Great Migration Study Project, New England Historic Genealogical Society,
“Great Migration of Picky Puritans, 1620-40.” New England Historical Society,
Anderson, Virginia Dejohn. “Migrants and Motives: Religion and the Settlement of New England, 1630-1640.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 3, Sept. 1985, pp. 339-383,

History of the Great Puritan Migration

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

9 thoughts on “The Great Puritan Migration

  1. Ken Hynes

    Rebecca: I totally loved your website. Have you done any writing on what the Puritans who left England for Religious reasons and economic reasons did to those who they thought were practicing a nonconformist religion,such as Quakers/Seekers. By putting them in fear for their lives and making them leave the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony for areas like,NH.,Maine,Penn., Nantucket,Ma., and Rhode Island.

    1. C. Burgess

      YES! Thank you so much for this comment!
      My ancestor who emigrated was treated like a leper by the puritans, he was forced to move to RI specifically because of relations with a Quaker and refusing to accept puritanical beliefs.

  2. kat

    I want to know what it was like for the PIilgrims/Puritans when they were on the Mayflower ship on their way to America

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Hi Kat, there is a link to my article about the Mayflower in this article.

  3. Jim Ellinthorpe

    Don’t have the numbers to back it up, but pretty sure there was another bump in Puritan immigration to New England following the restoration of Charles II in 1660, which certainly created an unfriendly environment for Puritans in the old country. This later wave even included two of the regicides that had signed the death warrant for Charles I (Edmund Whalley and William Goffe), who were hidden in Massachusetts and Connecticut from the king’s agents who were searching for them.

  4. C. Burgess

    It wasn’t just puritans who migrated. My catholic Cornish ancestor emigrated during the great migration WITH puritans but he was no Puritan. In fact he was later ostracized from the Salem colony because of his relations with a Quaker woman whom he left his wife for, and became a Quaker. I just dislike the fact that everyone refers to it solely as a group of puritans, not everyone in the original colonies were puritans. Not all of us were living under the tyranny of fire and brimstone. Although his mother in law WAS incarcerated by those lunatics after being accused of witchcraft.

  5. Michael Elihu Meador

    My 12th level Grandfather Ambrose Meador with his wife and son Thomas (11th level) arrived in Jamestown in 1629-1633. Where indentured moved immediately to Isle of Wight County Virginia now Smithfield. This is where many of the Puritans lived . Unfriendly relations with Loyalist in Jamestown. In 1649 Cromwell gave land grants to the Puritans in Va. They migrated to he Rappohnek River area near now the town of Tappohneck. Both Ambrose and son Thomas received 1000acres of land which they called Accokeek Sold half of land to George Mason. Thomas Meador started the first Militia to defend against Indian attacks. Same militia that was used for Bacons Rebellion in 1676. Due to economics family moved to Meador Va Bedford County in 1720’s

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