Colonial America – Colonial Immigration: An Overview


The population of the American Colonies, until the end of the 17th century, was almost entirely English. Except for the Dutch in New York, the English population had managed to maintain or impose their institutions on all other competing cultures. The 18th century saw the arrival of large numbers of Swedes, Germans, Swiss, Scotch-Irish, Africans and other cultures as they arrived or were brought into the colonies.

Most immigrants arrived from Europe in waves following some episode in Europe, such as a drought or famine, a period persecution against a particular group or an economic recession in Britain. Immigration to the Colonies after 1683 since Europe was at war for almost thirty years, but picked up after 1710 with a wave of Scotch-Irish and German immigrants. Regardless of when they came or where they cam from, almost all immigrants arrived in the colonies in an effort to leave something behind and a hope to better their circumstances in the new American Colonies.

In the colonies, there was plenty of land for the wealthy landowner, but always a lack of labor. One answer to this problem was to import indentured servants. A landowner would pay the price of passage for an indentured servant and that passenger would work to pay off the cost of his voyage, usually for seven years. Often, the landowner would be given 50 acres for each person he paid to transport. Most of these indentured servants were young, unmarried men, who often had been in service in England. Both the poor and the middle class immigrated as indentured servants. These indentured servants were the primary migrant to the British settlements of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Jamaica and Barbados. However, the death rate was very high in these colonies as many servants died before they were “acclimatized” to the region. This kept the demand for labor high.

In the 18th century, slave labor came to supplant the demand for indentured servants. About 2,300,000 Africans arrived in the American Colonies between 1600 – 1800.

Family migrations usually occurred among dissenters of the crown (Puritans, Quakers) and during depressions that hit the British economy. These dissenters were usually awarded land in the northern colonies (which were seen as being less profitable to the crown). This type of migration fostered the growth of towns and cities since the newly arrived families were looked after by local merchants, not by a landowner holding an indenture, thus boosting the town economy.

The British government also took care of overcrowded prisons by sending “pardoned” prisoners to the colonies for a certain period of time.

The immigration of German immigrants was first encouraged by William Penn . Around 1683, the first group of Germans settled at Germantown, not far from Philadelphia. By 1775, it was estimated that around 100,000 Germans had settled in Pennsylvania, making up about one third of it’s total population. A large group of Germans fled persecution along the Rhine around 1708 and settled in the Hudson Valley in New York. Before the Revolution, there were Germans settled in the valley of Virginia, in parts of western Maryland, and in western North Carolina. By the Revolution, Germans had settled all along the eastern seaboard, as far north as Maine.

The largest non-English ethnic group to immigrate to the American Colonies before the Revolution was the Scotch-Irish. These were neither Scots nor Irish, but Ulstermen from Northern Ireland. In 1713 a few Scotch-Irish settlements had been established along the frontier land in New England, but the New Englanders gave a cold reception to the new immigrants. After a less than successful start in New England, the Scotch-Irish turned their attention to the colony of Pennsylvania. They pushed westward through Pennsylvania and formed a large settlement near what would become Pittsburgh. They were a people well suited to frontier living, being rugged, fearless and combative. During the 1730’s, they were encouraged to settle on the Virginia frontier. The movement of Scotch-Irish continued south through the Carolinas and into Georgia.

The Scots were another immigrant group and were definitely distinguishable from the Scotch-Irish. Constant poverty in Scotland caused a large migration in the middle of the 18th century. It is estimated that about 25,000 Scots immigrated to the colonies in the twelve years before the Revolution. Unlike the Scotch-Irish, the Scottish immigrants rarely ever settled in the frontier regions and were considered to be passive people.

There were several other minority groups settled in the colonies. The Dutch settled New York and there was a large settlement of Swedes in the Delaware Valley. In 1732, Swiss immigrants established the settlement of Beaufort, South Carolina. The Huguenots (French Protestants) had established settlements in South Carolina and southern Virginia in the early 18th century.

Africans were imported as slaves primarily into the southern colonies. In 1761, about 284,000 Negroes lived in the southern colonies (Maryland to Georgia) and about 41,000 lived in the northern colonies (Delaware to New Hampshire). Nearly 60 percent of all slaves were found in Virginia and Maryland, with another 30 percent in North Carolina, South Caroline and Georgia.

Immigrants who were looking for an opportunity to increase their wealth, to escape persecution, or to serve out a prison sentence settled the early American colonies. In the 17th century, the colonies were populated almost entirely by the English. From the turn of the 18th century through the Revolution, the arrival of minority immigrant populations including the Dutch, Germans, Scots, Scotch-Irish, Swedes, Irish and Africans imported as slaves, have helped to shape identity of America. Whether is was setting an example of solid living and good husbandry (as in the case of the Germans) or setting the stage for centuries of turbulent race relations (as in the treatment of Africans), the immigrants who populated the American Colonies provided the foundation for who we are today.