European Migrations to American Colonies, 1492–1820

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European Migrations to American Colonies, 1492–1820

In the three centuries following the voyages of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) to the Americas, the world was transformed by a massive transoceanic movement of peoples, the largest in human history up to that time. The migration of several million Europeans to the Americas during this period was fundamental to the formation of New World society. European settlement and diseases devastated indigenous populations and led to a scramble for lands on a continental scale that resulted in a checkerboard of Euro-American societies from the Hudson Bay in northern Canada to Tierra del Fuego, an island group off the southern tip of South America. From the Atlantic ports of Europe—principally of Britain, Spain, and Portugal—wave after wave of settlers, rich and poor, took ship seeking their fortune "beyond the seas."


Between 1492 and 1820, approximately 2.6 million Europeans immigrated to the Americas (compared to at least 8.8 million enslaved Africans). Across the period, slightly less than half of all migrants were British, 40 percent were Spanish and Portuguese, 6 percent were from Swiss and German states, and 5 percent were French. In terms of sheer numbers, other nationalities—Dutch, Swedish, Danish, and Finnish, for example—although contributing to the heterogeneity of Euro-American society, were negligible.

Annual rates of emigration climbed steadily across the three centuries, from 2,000 annually before 1580, to 8,000 per year in the second half of the seventeenth century, and between 13,000 and 14,000 per year in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Three principal phases of movement can be identified. The first century and a half was dominated by Spanish and Portuguese emigrants, who made up 87 percent of the 446,000 settlers leaving Europe between 1492 and 1640.

The second phase, lasting from 1640 to 1760, saw a three-fold increase in numbers of emigrants. During this period, 1.3 million settlers left Europe for the New World. Many of the British, French, Swiss, and German settlers who immigrated during this period arrived under labor contracts that typically obliged them to work between four and seven years in return for the cost of their passage, board, and lodging, and certain payments called "freedom dues." Freedom dues were made by the master to the servant on completion of the term of service, which typically took the form of provisions, clothing, tools, rights to land, money, or a small share of the crop (tobacco or sugar).

The final phase of early modern immigration, from 1760 to 1820, was once again dominated by free settlers and witnessed an enormous surge of British migrants to North America and the United States. These British migrants made up more than 70 percent of all emigrants who crossed the Atlantic in these years.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the decision by Spanish and Portuguese monarchs to take possession of the New World and establish colonies governed by the crown required the transfer of large settler populations. Besides the plunder of American Indian societies, Spanish discoveries of silver mines at Potosí in Peru and Zacatecas in Mexico during the 1540s provided a significant stimulus to immigration throughout the remainder of the century. In the long run, however, the most important development that encouraged large-scale immigration of settlers from western Europe was not so much the pillage of Indian civilizations and the discovery of precious minerals as the production of consumables in high demand in Europe, notably sugar and to a lesser extent tobacco.

Sugar plantations had been established on the Atlantic islands of the Canaries, Madeira, and São Tomé by the Spanish and Portuguese in the second half of the fifteenth century. In the Americas, Portuguese Brazil (specifically the northeastern provinces of Pernambuco and Bahia) emerged as the epicenter of the world's sugar production by 1600, followed a half century later by a new sugar plantation complex founded by the English and French (supported by Dutch merchants and planters) on the islands of Barbados, Saint Christopher, Martinique, and Guadeloupe in the West Indies. Meanwhile in Chesapeake, the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland had begun to rapidly expand output of tobacco during the 1620s and 1630s.

In Spanish and British America alike, plantation colonies absorbed the great majority of white (and black enslaved) immigrants. Most of the 350,000 English migrants who crossed the Atlantic during the seventeenth century, for example, ended up in the West Indies (180,000) and Chesapeake (120,000). Only about 23,000 settlers made their way to the American Middle Colonies and 21,000 to New England. English immigration represented the transfer of a massive labor force to America, which was essential for the development of staple agriculture—sugar and tobacco—in the West Indies and Chesapeake.


Gentlemen (hildagos in Spanish), government officials, merchants, servants, filles du roy (French maids), artisans, soldiers, planters, and farmers were among the tide of Europeans who embarked for the Americas in the early modern period. One vital distinction between them was whether they arrived free or were under some form of contractual labor obligation. Of the latter, the great majority were indentured servants (British), engagés (French), and redemptioners (German) who made up about half a million migrants between 1500 and 1800 and who worked under specific terms of service. Convicts and political prisoners contributed another 129,000 bound immigrants. In addition, an indeterminate number of men and women who were servants (for example, Spanish criados) in the service of an official, priest, or gentleman, and who might themselves be of relatively high social rank, made their way to the New World.

It is impossible to be precise about the proportion of those who arrived in America as unfree laborers. Across the entire period, certainly no less than 25 percent were servants, convicts, and prisoners. During the peak years of servant emigration in the second half of the seventeenth century, the figure was closer to 50 percent. Indentured servants made up between 70 and 85 percent of settlers who emigrated to the Chesapeake and British West Indies between 1620 and 1700. In British and French North America, cheap white labor was crucial to the early development of colonial economies and predated the adoption of enslaved African labor by several generations.

Servants came from a broad cross section of lower-class society, embracing child paupers and vagrants, unskilled laborers, those employed in low-grade service trades, domestic and agricultural servants, and poor textile workers. The great majority were young (between sixteen and twenty-five years of age), male, and single. Among sixteenth-century Spanish emigrants, women never made up more than 30 percent of the total. More than three-quarters of servants who left England in the seventeenth century were men and boys, rising to over 90 percent between 1718 and 1775. Of French engagés departing from Nantes and Bordeaux in the early eighteenth century, over 90 percent were male and between 67 and 70 percent were nineteen years of age or less.

Servant emigration was generally a two-stage process shaped by the same social and economic forces that influenced broader patterns of lower-class movement. Indentured servants were a subset of a much larger group of young, single, and poor men and women who moved from village to village and town to city in search of greater opportunities than were to be had at home. Cities and ports throughout Europe attracted the surplus labor of the surrounding countryside and market towns, as well as from further afield. London, for example, was a magnet for the poor, who poured into the capital and took up residence in the burgeoning slums outside the ancient city walls. According to a contemporary, they included "soldiers wanting wars to employ them,… serving-men whose lords and masters are dead,… masterless men whose masters have cast them off, [and] idle people, as lusty rogues and common beggars." They came, he observed, "hearing of the great liberality of London,"(Beier 1985, pp. 40-41).

Free emigrants—those able to fund their own transportation to America—were an equally diverse group. Hundreds of thousands of independent farmers and tenants emigrated to set up farms and plantations. Alongside them from all parts of Europe was a steady flow of lesser gentry, professional men, and artisans—merchants, factors, teachers, doctors, priests, clergymen, accountants, ministers, weavers, smiths, carpenters, and others—in continual demand as the colonies expanded and matured. What distinguished them from servants was not only the possession of some capital to set themselves up in America but also personal or political connections.

Free migrants tended to be older than those who arrived under labor contracts, and they were more likely to arrive with their families, kin, or friends. Such family or kinship connections were of paramount importance in stimulating movement from Extremadura in Spain to the New World, for example, and also influenced (to a lesser degree) free emigration from Britain and parts of Germany.

As mentioned above, free migration was the dominant form of white movement during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and in the period after 1750. A key characteristic of the second half of the eighteenth century was the increasing numbers of skilled and independent migrants opting to leave Europe against a background of growing prosperity and trade. As American commerce flourished and channels of communication were strengthened, the cost of passage fell and colonies became increasingly attractive and accessible.

Whether free or unfree, emigration from Europe to America was intensely regional. During the sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries, the origins of Spanish emigrants were heavily skewed toward the southwest. Andalusia alone contributed between one-third and one-half of all migrants from Spain. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the character of Spanish emigration changed dramatically, with far higher numbers of people moving from the poorer provinces of the north coast, the east, and from the Balearic and Canary Islands.

French migrants came chiefly from northern and western provinces and the Atlantic port towns of Rouen, Saint-Malo, Nantes, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux. Most migrants leaving England for America in the seventeenth century came from London, the Southeast, East Anglia, and the West Country. The eighteenth century, by contrast, saw large-scale movements from northern England, Ulster, southern Ireland, the western districts of the Scottish Borders and Lowlands, the Highlands, and Hebrides. German emigration embraced a wide variety of regions in the Protestant areas of the Palatinate, Nassau, Hesse, Baden-Durlach, and Wurttemberg, as well as the Swiss cantons of Basel, Berne, and Zurich.

European immigrants to America, 1500–1820
Source: Adapted from James Horn and Philip D. Morgan (2005, 21-22).

Motives for leaving Europe—religious, political, or social—were as diverse as migrants' social backgrounds, but economic opportunity in the broadest sense was the single most important reason that people boarded ships for the colonies. Roderick Gordon, a Scot who immigrated to Virginia, confided to his brother in 1734, a "pity it is that thousands of my country people should stay starving att [sic] home when they may live here in peace and plenty, as a great many who have been transported for a punishment have found pleasure, profit and ease and would rather undergo any hardship than be forced back to their own country" (Horn 1998, p.51). America was described by one settler as a "paradise" where newcomers "had nought to do but pluck and eat," (Horn 1998, p.51). If not paradise, the New World offered the possibility of a better future for those who risked moving to America and, if they survived, a lifestyle that would have been impossible at home.

see also Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Empire, British; Empire, French; European Explorations in North America.


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European Migrations to American Colonies, 1492–1820

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European Migrations to American Colonies, 1492–1820