Motives for the Colonisation of America

Amerigo Vespucci awakens "America" in a Stradanus's engraving (circa 1638)

During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Europeans developed the technology and ambitions which would be the foundations for colonisation throughout the British Atlantic Empire (1603-1763). In the early days of colonisation, promoters in America encountered increasing difficulty in finding settlers for their colonies as an expanding economy in England meant that fewer people were available for work within the colonies. However, significant migrations occurred during the seventeenth Century, resulting in the steady setting up of colonies in the ‘New World’; for example, in this period alone 130,000 people migrated to the Chesapeake and 21,000 to New England.

Background, Context and History

Whatever the motives for emigration to the Americas, one thing was certain: people were seeking a new life ‘beyond the seas’. It has often been asserted that the leading motives for emigration to the Chesapeake were economic. Indeed, the people of Europe wanted to make a life for themselves and embrace the so-called “rivers of gold” which the Spanish had already conquered.

Conversely, religion has been looked upon as the chief motive for the emigration to New England; it is believed that the Puritans assumed they could purify their churches and enact a code of laws derived from the Bible. Although these conceptions may be accurate, an analysis of the extent to which the Chesapeake and New England emigrants shared common motives for their migration will consider several alternative viewpoints.

In 1622, Mr Arundel, a well-respected figure of the British monarchy, sent a letter to Virginia which predicted that ‘any young laborious honest man may in a short time become rich in [Virginia]’. In addition to this, Thomas Hariot made an important assertion in 1585:

There is a kind of grasse in this countrey [Chesapeake] … where of there groweth very good silke … if it be planted and ordered as in Persia, it cannot in reason be otherwise, but that there will rise in shorte time great profite to the dealers therein.

The statements by both Hariot and Arundel paint an accurate picture of the motives involved in emigrating to the Chesapeake: economic motives. This attitude would surface in numerous documents throughout the period of colonisation, and would prove to allow historians the ability to view the motives involved in the colonisation of the Chesapeake.

Cheap Labour as a Motive?

Indentured servants were heavily used in the early Chesapeake colonies. In Virginia for example, there was an abundance of land but not enough labour. As a result, the ‘under-classes’ of Europe (about 90% at the time) were encouraged to create a wealthy life for themselves once their contracts run out. The contracts, usually between four and seven years, were signed by the white servant in return for the sale of their labour and having their ship passage paid for them.

The servants were then offered ‘freedom dues’ at the end of their terms, meaning they were given land and goods to establish themselves as autonomous settlers and thus generate wealth and money. The employment of indentured servants in the Chesapeake shows that the colonists needed labour in order to gain economic growth, with the main source of the servants’ labour being based in the tobacco fields.

Revenue & Profit

Planters in the Chesapeake learned how to cultivate tobacco in 1616, led by John Rolfe. By 1616, the Virginia Company had sent more than 1700 people to the Chesapeake and had spent over $50,000, but had little to show for it. As tobacco began to be cultivated, production surged from £200,000 in 1624 to £3,000,000 in 1638, resulting in the accumulation of profits for both the settlers and English crown alike.

The success of the tobacco industry secured the economic fortunes of both the Virginia and Maryland colonies in the Chesapeake. As the West Country Promoters had hoped, the Chesapeake produced agriculture that greatly improved the nation’s international balance of trade. Therefore, it becomes clear that economic motives were, to a great extent, the encouraging force in migration to the Chesapeake.

New England

When looking at the motives for emigration to New England, a much different pattern of events is shown. The first attempts to colonise New England were unsuccessful; in 1606, a group of West Country Englishmen formed a joint-stock company with permission to plant a colony, but financial troubles and conflict with the Indians in 1607 led to the declination of this colony. The next attempt did not occur until decades later, with the Plymouth colony surfacing in 1620 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony succeeding considerably in 1630.

Religious Motives?

The principal colonists of New England were the Puritans from England. The Puritans contained an ideological commitment to their colonies, with a sense of common religious purpose flourishing as the settlers were convinced that God favoured their emigration. The primary motives for emigration to New England were religion and underlying efforts to maximise profit, with families wanting to create a prosperous life for themselves.

John Winthrop’s Reasons for Plantation in New England told of the reasons to be considered for justifying the undertakers of the intended plantation in New England. The article stated that ‘the fountains of learning and religion [in New England] are so corrupted that most children … are perverted, corrupted, and utterly overthrown by the multitude of evil examples’.

This shows that to some extent, the motives for plantation in New England was more of an individual attempt by Puritans to create a life for themselves while spreading Puritan values at the same time. In addition to this, the law in England at the time demanded that everyone support the official Church of England with taxes and regular attendance, resulting in the persecution of the Puritans from England.

When looking at Winthrop’s Reasons, it appears that the motives were solely religious; however, if one looks further into the source, economic incentives emerge. The fourth reason states:

The whole earth is the Lord’s garden, and He hath given it to mankind with a general commission to multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it, which was again renewed to Noah … why [should] one strive here [England] … at such a cost that would obtain better land in another country.

This information perhaps shows that Winthrop’s letter is embellished in religious dialogue as a means to hide the true motive: wealth. Additionally, when pairing this information with the fact that the Massachusetts Bay Company (1929) was set up to take investments from London merchants who saw an opportunity to make money, a picture of the New England motives becomes clearer.

It could also be suggested that the Puritans were frightened of the prospect of slipping into the ranks of the beggars, as the poor seemed to be becoming poorer while the rich were becoming richer; the depression of the cloth-making industry would also threaten to ruin hundreds of Puritan cloth-makers. Therefore, it is not illogical to suggest that economic motives were, to some extent, also present in the emigration to New England.


In conclusion, an analysis of the extent to which the emigrants to the Chesapeake and New England shared common motives for their migration has come to a number of viewpoints. To some extent, the motives were common, as emigrants to both the Chesapeake and New England had economic incentives and motives for their migration.

Furthermore, the emigrants to the Chesapeake wanted to make a new life for themselves and prosper, just as the emigrants to New England had also hoped for. Therefore, although to some extent the motives of the emigrants were different in terms of religious implications, the ultimate impression shows that the majority of the motives were similar, if not the same.