Why They Came To America

When Thomas and Anne Brownell came to America in 1638 they were a part of the "Great Migration" of English people to the New World. During the 1620's only about 1,800 immigrants arrived in New England. But from 1630 to 1640 over 21,000 left their homes in England and made the voyage to New England. By the end of the 17th century, approximately 39,000 Englishmen had emigrated there. (A far greater number of English emigrants, 341,000, settled in the Southern colonies and the West Indies in the 1600's.)

Why did the Brownells and thousands of their countrymen embark on a long, hazardous and unpleasant voyage to begin a new life in America? What propelled them to give up "civilization," to leave their homes, families and all that was familiar to them for the prospect of an arduous life in New England?

To understand the reasons behind this migration, we must look at the political, social, economic and religious forces that converged in the early 1600's, providing the motivation for thousands to leave their homeland.

The religious wars brought about by the Reformation were ending, although religious differences continued to grow. After more than a hundred years of intermittent warfare, the net result was that the ruler of each country or state would decide the religious affiliation of his or her subjects-if the king was Catholic, so too would be his subjects; if Protestant, his subjects were forced to worship in the particular form he espoused, whether it be Lutheran, Calvinist, Presbyterian, or any other non-Catholic sect. Rather than international wars over religion, the stage was set for internal fighting that sometimes, as in the case of England, resulted in civil war. The Reformation in England had not changed much in terms of the religious practices of the people. King Henry VIII had merely placed himself in the role of the head of the church rather than the Pope in Rome. The religious hierarchy and the form of worship remained the same except that English was substituted for Latin in the Liturgy.

In the latter half of the 16th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I, there was a sentiment among many Englishmen that reform had not gone far enough. These people, primarily members of the middle and lower classes, wanted to "purify" the Church of England by doing away with all vestiges of Catholicism and returning to a simple and pure form of worship. Furthermore, they wanted to eliminate the clerical hierarchy as God's appointed representatives on earth with the privilege of interpreting the word of God.

The Puritan concept of worship included no dogma, no ceremony, no statuary and no formal Book of Prayer. It disdained the vestments of the clergy and their ritualistic services, and completely rejected the use of symbolism in the form of Mass, Communion, Baptism, the Enthronement of Bishops, and the Solemnization of Marriages.

The Puritans objected to being compelled to support the Church through tithes, levies, and taxes. They preferred to worship solemnly in humble surroundings and in direct communication with God. They resented the Church's claim to infallibility and both the Church and state's rejection of the right of any man to worship in accordance with his own conscience.

These precepts put the Puritans on a collision course with the King and government. The Anglican, or Established, Church of England had the advantage of forming a vast network of communication that reached into every corner and every home of the country. Through the Church ran the authority of the law, the fear of the hereafter and the knowledge that the priests employed by it would take note of any "nonconformity" on the part of the people.

Attendance at church services was compulsory and ensured that the surveillance was total. The parish rolls prevented the citizens from dispersing and so evading taxes, military service and their "duty" to their masters. For those who failed to conform, the penalties were severe.

As the Puritan movement grew stronger in numbers and determination, so to did the opposition and repression of the King, the government and the Church. Under the Stuart Kings, James I and Charles I, the Puritans despaired of making any real change in the Church and feared for their freedom and their lives if they continued in their non-conformity. As religious tensions in England grew, the New World was seen as a place of refuge where dissenters could worship as they pleased.

Religious differences and the resulting political difficulties were not, however, the sole reason for emigration to America and may, in fact, have been a minor reason. In the early 17th century, the economic and social lives of Englishmen were undergoing dramatic changes. England's economy had for centuries been based on agriculture. Ownership of land was not only a road to wealth, but was the basis of one's social and political position. The land hunger of both the gentry (land owners) and the tenant farmers could not be satisfied on a small island governed by those in favor of maintaining feudal rights. The gentry wanted more land while tenant farmers wanted to own the land they worked and to be free of the feudal restraints that still bound them.

By the beginning of the 17th century, land was becoming increasingly scarce while the population was growing. England was, in fact, overpopulated. At the same time, the woolen industry went into a severe depression, partly a result of the tremendous inflation caused by the great influx into Europe of gold and silver from the New World. Prices on all goods were rising very fast. The poor, laboring classes suffered most from this condition.

Thousands were thrown out of work and onto the poor-relief rolls of the parishes. Rural laborers were also forced into idleness by government policies which enclosed the previously open fields of England in order to create land suitable, not for farming, but for raising sheep to support the woolen industry.

Beggars were found in every town. In London the unemployed slept in the streets. The problem was further compounded when Charles I brought his armies home from Europe, swelling the already high numbers of unemployed, and forced England's householders to provide the troops with board and lodging.

Thus the New World and its opportunities began to seem more appealing to the poor, the unemployed, and the younger sons of the gentry. Seemingly limitless tracts of land and the potential for trade and commerce offered possibilities for producing new wealth.

Finally, the English government encouraged emigration. In addition to being a release-valve for her excess population, colonies could become markets for her woolen goods. The English sorely needed precious metals and hoped to find gold and silver in North America as the Spanish had done in South America.

England wanted to become self-sufficient in terms of raw materials such as ship timber, tar and cordage (ropes for ship's riggings) and for products such as olive oil, currants and wine. If English colonies could produce these goods, England would no longer have to purchase them from the Baltic and Mediterranean countries.

While the English government did not support colonization financially, it was quick to encourage private individuals and groups to establish colonies in the New World. Charters for new colonies were somewhat easily obtained and often contained concessions that were not available to Englishmen at home. In a time when emigration without royal permission was illegal, the Crown eagerly granted such permission to groups like the Puritans and for almost 150 years thereafter, allowed these colonies to grow and develop without a great deal of interference.

Which of these reasons brought Thomas and Anne Brownell to America? We will never know the true answer, but can guess it was a combination of several. As a cloth worker in London, the depression in the cloth industry must have affected Thomas and his chances for economic advancement. As the son of a farmer, the large amount of available land in America must have been attractive. And because of the areas in which the Brownells chose to settle we can surmise that they were of a liberal, non-conformist viewpoint. All these factors together most likely brought the Brownells to the momentous decision to emigrate to the New World.

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Copyright 1999 Bill Brownell
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