Immigration and Immigrants: England and Wales

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Immigration and Immigrants: England and Wales

The English and Welsh immigrants who crossed the Atlantic did so for a variety of optimistic reasons. Yorkshire farmers, London merchants, Monmouth tradesmen, and Brecon miners who embarked from ports in London, Liverpool, and Bristol were vital to the shaping of American identity.

English and Welsh emigration reached its peak during the last half of the eighteenth century, when it appeared as though all able-bodied young men were headed for port cities, intent on departure. Overcrowding and a weakened economy, particularly in the northern agrarian sections, caused many to look for relief in the American colonies. The population of the typical English village was already mobile, as a majority of young men had left home by the age of nineteen; this itinerant attitude made the prospect of an Atlantic move less daunting than for other European emigrants.

Middlemen on both sides of the Atlantic helped the process along, with promises of overseas fortune hung in notices in pubs and on shop windows. In some cases unscrupulous "crimps" encouraged seamen and laborers to run up large debts of ale, food, and clothes, and then called in the debt by presenting the choice of debtors' prison or indentured service across the Atlantic.

London was by far the most popular departure point, as almost a quarter of pre-Revolution emigrants claimed the city as residence. Seventy percent of English and Welsh emigrants left from its port, some coming from four hundred miles away. The remainder sailed from the ports of Liverpool, Hull, Bristol, and smaller harbors such as the Isle of Man. Yorkshire was a significant source of emigrants to Nova Scotia and the upcountry of New York, driven by an increasing scarcity of land and increase in rents. Yorkshireman John Wetherhead, who left Leeds in the 1760s, became one of the new breed of land speculators, scouting territory in northern New York and vigorously promoting purchases for new immigrants by promises of fertile land, easy access to river trade routes, and family safety.

Young men such as Wetherhead were by far the majority of emigrants. Over half of all English emigrants were men under the age of thirty, with many of those under twenty-five. Although they spanned all classes, the typical emigrant was a metropolitan skilled tradesman or artisan who had completed an apprenticeship in a skilled trade and felt his value would be realized in America. Clergymen and agrarian families, mostly from the North, hoped to settle in a more fruitful situation as well. Less than 20 percent were described as being "the enterprising sort," namely merchants and entrepreneurs. Those who were settled in comfortable professions in England did not feel the pull to leave, and only a very small percentage of immigrants claimed to be upper-class.

The number of immigrants varied widely from decade to decade, increasing through the eighteenth century until the Revolution. It peaked at some 125,000 between 1764 and 1776, prompting Parliament to consider a bill banning North American emigration entirely. The glut of new arrivals soon spread farther to the American interior, greatly extending the possibilities on the continent away from the port cities.

Emigrants were drawn to certain regions based on available opportunities. Young urban men settled in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, colonies with labor markets in need of experienced tradesmen. Rural families were drawn to Nova Scotia, New York, and North Carolina, farming regions where settlement, not fortune, was the goal. Familiarity played a role as well. Many preferred districts that resembled the areas they had left behind; thus, for instance, Welshmen populated the mining towns of Pennsylvania and English merchants the port cities of New England and the mid-Atlantic.

The ten- to thirteen-week Atlantic crossing was made by merchant ships, which picked up a few emigrants for the free labor they provided on the trip, and larger vessels dedicated to ferrying as many emigrants in as little space as possible. One ship in the mid-eighteenth century spent twenty-two weeks at sea and cast seventy-five bodies overboard during the crossing; the Essex, bound for the northern provinces in 1720, was taken by pirates, who terrorized the passengers and diverted the ship to Newfoundland. The sad fate of the Nancy, a Sunderland brig over-loaded with settlers which embarked from Britain in 1773, meant for the northern wilderness of New York, was not unusual: after a brutal crossing, during which disease and storms claimed the lives of one-third of the passengers, the weak and emaciated remainder were submitted to a strict quarantine by unsympathetic customs officials in New York harbor.

Some made the crossing almost by accident. John Harrower left the Shetland Islands in 1773, seeking any employment in Britain, and his travels took him southward through Scotland, Newcastle, and Liverpool. Down to his last shilling, he walked eighty miles to London and accepted the first employment he found—passage to America as a servant on the steamship Planter. In the end, he was luckily enlisted as a tutor to a Virginia merchant, avoiding the toils of fieldwork.

As the Revolution approached, new arrivals pushed westward with remarkable speed. By 1770 the Great Wagon Road stretched from Philadelphia some eight hundred miles through rocky and swampy terrain to Augusta, Georgia; via this route, migrants spread through the south and west by the thousand. Absentee land speculators in England, who had never even set foot in the province of "West Florida," enticed settlers with fantastic descriptions of plentiful game and fertile ground—which settlers quickly discovered was just so much swampland.

As many as half the male emigrants from England came across as indentured servants. They met the costs of emigration by reaching agreement with a ship captain or broker, who paid their transit in exchange for a period of service of anywhere from one to four years. Such indentures could be sold or bartered, and the servant was legally bound for the period of his contract. Though most served out their terms, there were many cases of escape. Londoner John Watts fled from his brass-making master in 1775 and was sought with the offered reward of five pounds and "reasonable charges" of capture; the former convict William Chase was hunted with the warning that he was a villain.

For those who came for the promise of open land, the West held limitless potential. Taking advantage of existing networks of trade and agriculture, wealthy British squires imagined potential estates that would dwarf the size of their lands at home. The earl of Dartmouth's tracts totaled 100,000 acres near present-day Miami. Absentee landlords like Dartmouth needed immigrants to cultivate and protect their lands, and found no shortage of Britons ready to cross.

While few families emigrated together in America, and those who did were frequently only a husband and wife with no children, emigration had a profound effect on family life in America. The greatest concentration of families settled in New York, and Nova Scotia, and quickly tried to re-create the family and gender roles they had in England. Colonial life forced changes in those roles, however, as both men and women assumed previously unfamiliar duties—particularly for women, in fieldwork and paid labor. While the traditional family structure survived, it was forced to adapt and become less rigidly defined than before. The large numbers of young, able men caused the structure of courtship and marriage to change as well; men and women married a few years later, on average, in the colonies than in England, and also had fewer children.

Welsh emigration to America was quite small compared to that from England, but uniquely Welsh settlements were formed in many parts of colonial America. Welsh Quakers were by far the largest group of immigrants to Pennsylvania, and by 1700 they accounted for approximately one-third of the colony's estimated population of twenty thousand, reflected today in a legacy of Welsh place names like Bryn Mawr and Cardiff. Welsh miners, the most skilled in Europe, came to Pennsylvania because of the opportunities in the mines; they found better working conditions and a better chance of owning property. In the ironworks of Maryland, in scattered but close-knit communities in New York and Connecticut, in later migrations of Baptists to South Carolina, and in small settlements like the community of Calvinist Welshmen who settled in Jackson County, Ohio, in the mid-eighteenth century, Welshmen brought their cultural identity and guarded it in North America.

Perhaps because of their own conflicted colonial relationship with England, Welshmen were also more likely to ally themselves with American Revolutionary ideals. Fourteen generals of the Revolutionary army were Welsh, as were eighteen of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Men like James Davies, originally from Carnarvon, earned distinction as a militia captain during the time of the Whiskey Rebellion.

The polyglot mixture of emigrants in America was nothing like the ordered social world, with its defined strata, in England from which the immigrants came. Although many struggled to cope with the challenges of the colonial world, as a whole the English and Welsh showed a remarkable resilience. They established homogenous and integrative networks and practices with remarkable speed. Immigrants from England and Wales managed to retain their national identity even as as they forged a new, American presence.

See alsoExpansion; Iron Mining and Metallurgy; Quakers; Work: Indentured Servants .


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Doug Krehbiel

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Immigration and Immigrants: England and Wales

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Immigration and Immigrants: England and Wales