Migration in British Colonial America 1607 to 1783 (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Colonial America, 1607-1783

Coastal Settlement

The earliest English and Dutch colonists came under the auspices of the great trading companies. They were here to expand the mercantile efforts of their mother countries. Their economy was based on what could be sold back to the home countries. Initially, they saw no reason to look beyond their eastern shores. A hundred years went by before they saw any need whatsoever to move on. By contrast, the 1700s influx of the Palatines and the Scots-Irish came to these shores for a different reason—to escape the persecution they had endured in the past. They had no intention of returning to their native lands or even to engage in commerce with them. They had the attitude, desire, and skills necessary to move on to frontier life which they saw as opportunity. By 1749, about 12,000 German-speaking persons had come to Pennsylvania, and they were agreeable to moving away from the coast in order to obtain good land. Likewise, the Scots-Irish were ready to move on, usually staying in one place for only about seven years.

Virginia has long been recognized as the seedbed of the nation. Before about 1730 settlements were primarily in the Atlantic coastal region. When persons wanted to travel between settlements they generally used the waterways or the old Indian paths. Although they constructed some crude roads, they usually found the water routes easier.

During the 17th century the Tidewater colonies of Virginia and Maryland experienced rapid growth. Tobacco planters welcomed swarms of indentured servants who exchanged seven years of labor in return for their passage across the ocean. Fur traders and yeoman farmers were driving back Spaniards on the Southern frontier. In the 1700s coastal settlements in Georgia were encouraged in order to hold the colony for English colonists.

In the early 1700s people went from Virginia to Maryland, but in the late 1700s people returned to Virginia because of lack of fertile land. The tobacco economy of both colonies led to migration as the land became exhausted and unable to support a good yield and financial prosperity.

As Virginians moved away from the Atlantic seaboard and toward the Appalachian Mountains, they first veered north or south rather than continuing west. They settled along the mountain front and kept in communication with the coastal areas by means of the streams that emptied into the ocean. The area known at this time as Carolina was considered part of the Virginia claim by the British, but the Spanish regarded it as theirs. Even before the 1663 land grants, Virginians established a settlement there on Albemarle Sound. Those who moved into the surrounding backwoods country were usually thrifty, hardy farmers who opposed the power of large plantation owners, preferring to locate where, through hard work, they could thrive on their own land. Eventually the southern frontier burst through the mountain gaps to flood into the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys.

North Carolina was settled originally by Virginians along with a few Englishmen by way of Albemarle Sound. South Carolina was made up of a more aristocratic population from England and Barbados who established large plantations.

Meanwhile, the coastal lowlands and river bottoms of the Northeast had been filled by colonists who transformed their wilderness into a new civilization considerably different from that of the Southern colonists.

Early Contact with the Indians

As early as 1637 the Pequot Indians tried to rid itself of white newcomers. The initial conflict was defused, and for about forty years, they posed no threat to the white villages in Massachusetts and Connecticut. But the time came when Indian insurrection in this area was put down without mercy.

In 1675 the King Philip’s War broke out due to white encroachment when “King” Philip convinced the Indians that the new frontier had to be rolled back. Of the 120,000 white residents in New England at this time, 16,000 were fighting men, and they were called upon to put down the threat.

By 1680 Indians in the South were in open warfare with whites in the backcountry, in large part due to the recklessness with which traders had dealt with the Indians which included capturing natives for sale as slaves.

Migration to the Connecticut River Valley

Land-hungry pioneers from coastal Massachusetts, attracted to the fertile valleys of the Connecticut River, had to travel through dense virgin forests. Such an expedition took two long weeks, over a route modern travelers on the Massachusetts Turnpike can cover in just over an hour. The Old Connecticut Path started at Cambridge and continued west through Waltham, then branched off just beyond Weston and past Westboro and Oxford to Springfield. Later a second trail, slightly shorter, was blazed to Springfield by way of South Sudbury and Worcester and became known as the New Connecticut Path. Before long, the villages of Windsor, Wethersfield, and Hartford sprang up in the Connecticut Valley. Trails also connected New Haven and the villages of her short-lived colony which extended along the coast to Stamford. Douglas Waitley, describes this migration route in Roads of Destiny; the Trails that Shaped a Nation, (Washington: R. B. Luce, 1970), 77-78.

Migration Out of Boston

The earliest migration patterns developed out of Boston. They went north along the coast to the Merrimac, also southwest to the Providence Plantation and the Connecticut Valley. Movement from Plymouth was both north and south and to a lesser degree west to Rhode Island and Connecticut.

By about 1740, movement patterns were developing northwest from Boston to Vermont country, and settlers were moving north along the Connecticut River from as far south as New Jersey. Movement remained strong from Boston north to New Hampshire and Maine. Three major roads developed to the south and west: the “lower road” which dropped almost south from Boston to Providence and then west along the Connecticut coast; the “middle road” which nearly followed the Great Trail to Windsor and Hartford and then dropped south along the Connecticut River and west along the coast to New York; and the “upper road” which went almost west from Boston with a little southerly movement to Springfield on the Connecticut River and then south along that river, joining the other roads.”
Merlin C. and Eva M. Finnell, “Migration Trails of the Eastern United States,” The Palatine Immigrant,” Vol. VI, No. 2, 1980, pp 51-52.

Early Migrations Out of Pennsylvania

After 1682, English and Welsh settlers from Pennsylvania moved into Maryland and Virginia.

By 1685 the population of Philadelphia had reached 2500, and other towns had begun to spring up along the coastal north-south Post Road which was already being referred to as the King’s Road.

From Philadelphia, the Lancaster Road, the first overland road, began as early as 1725 to what would become Lancaster, and then it went on to Harrisburg. In 1733 money was approved for the Great Conestoga Road.

After 1740 three major migration routes crossed Pennsylvania. One coming out of Philadelphia by the west branch of the Susquehanna River reached the Allegheny River at Kittanning. The Forbes’ Road was further south. Still a third followed the Potomac to Fort Cumberland and subsequently by Braddock’s Road crossed the divide to the Youghiogeny and Monongahela Rivers; many Virginians traveled this route. (Merlin C. and Eva M. Finnell, Migration Trails of the Eastern United States, 53.)

By 1760 Philadelphia’s population had soared to 20,000. As Philadelphia expanded, it drew commerce from both the interior of Pennsylvania and the newly emerging New Jersey farms. (Douglas Waitley, Roads of Destiny..., 94-96.)

As eastern Pennsylvania filled with Palatinate and Scots-Irish immigrants, many sought opportunities apart from their English neighbors. “These settlers, along with a few from New Jersey and the northern colonies, formed the backbone for the great western and southern migration which took place just before the Revolutionary War and shortly afterwards.” (Merlin C. and Eva M. Finnell, Migration Trails of the Eastern United States, 54.)

German Migrations

After 1700, German and Swiss-German immigrants to Pennsylvania began making their way west and south. They moved along four routes, three to the west, one south:

1. west to Pittsburgh, then down the Ohio River to Kentucky and southern Ohio, or directly to Ohio   overland on roads from the western sections of Maryland and Virginia

2. west from North Carolina into Kentucky or Tennessee

3. west along the Mohawk Valley, along shores of Lake Erie to northern Ohio

4. south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and then on into Tennessee and Kentucky and from there north to southern Ohio.

By 1730 land-hungry Germans and Scots-Irish began to fill up the Shenandoah Valley. By mid-century, thousands more Germans were arriving into colonial America, and they spread throughout the areas where the farm land was reminiscent of what they had left behind, but without the restrictions from which they had departed.

Scots-Irish Migrations

The heavy German migration south was followed about twenty years later by many Scots-Irish families. Most pre-Revolutionary Scots-Irish had come to Pennsylvania. They moved first, north, along the Susquehanna River Valley, around 1720. After about ten more years, they moved southwest into Pennsylvania’s Cumberland Valley and on West as far as Indians and the French would allow. At about this same time, other Scots-Irish families from the Cumberland Valley began the trek through the Shenandoah Valley to Roanoke.

Around 1740 some of these migrants chose to go west out of the Valley into what is now northern West Virginia. Between 1740 and 1755, others of the Scots-Irish chose to go east out of the Valley into the back country of Virginia, central North Carolina, or northwestern South Carolina. Just prior to the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Scots-Irish from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania began to move through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. At about that same time, many who had stayed in Pennsylvania moved over the Appalachians into southwestern Pennsylvania and northwestern Virginia. By the time of the Revolutionary War, more than a quarter million Scots-Irish were located in the backcountry of Pennsylvania and the colonies to the south.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course US Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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