Four Reasons People Came to England's American Colonies

Four Reasons People Came to England's American Colonies

Settled primarily throughout the 1600s, England's American colonies were home to diverse groups of people. The Northern colonies were frequently settled by people escaping religious persecution in Europe. In the South, economic interests tended to prevail, with most colonies populated by profit seekers. Some people, like the millions of slaves who were brought from Africa, came unwillingly to America.

1 Religious Freedom

Colonies such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland were settled primarily by people seeking religious freedom. Pilgrim Separatists desired a break from the Church of England, and arrived in Massachusetts aboard the Mayflower in 1620. Later, a different religious sect, the Puritans, arrived in Massachusetts fleeing persecution in England. Unlike the Separatists, the Puritans did not want to break from the Church of England; they wanted to "purify" it. This was met with opposition -- including violence -- and by 1630 nearly 20,000 Puritans fled to Massachusetts. Colonies such as Maryland were founded as a refuge for other persecuted religious groups. English persecution -- like a ban on a Catholic priest officiating a marriage of two Catholics -- prompted many to come to Maryland. Lord Baltimore founded Maryland as a Catholic refuge in 1632.

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2 Economic Gain

In the Southern colonies, economic incentives often trumped religious intentions. Cash crops -- and the profits they rendered -- were a primary motive for early immigration to Virginia and the Carolinas. As early as 1613, John Rolfe planted tobacco in Virginia and began exporting it to Europe. Land and its crops were a huge incentive for early colonists in the South. In Jamestown, Virginia for example, a colonist would be given 50 acres plus an additional 50 more for each indentured servant he brought with him.

3 Avoiding Debtor's Prison

Georgia, which was not founded until 1733, was unique among England's American colonies. James Oglethorpe, the colony's founder, envisioned a Utopian society in which English debtors could improve their lives. By the early 1700s, Britain had numerous citizens who were imprisoned for their debts. King George, however, was unconcerned about English debtors. Instead, he saw Georgia as an attractive opportunity to create a buffer zone between Spanish-owned Florida, French-owned Louisiana and the English colonies farther north. He approved the Georgian experiment, and thousands of debtors moved to the colony. Within two decades, however, Oglethorpe's dream of a society in which debtors could improve their lives had failed, and King George revoked the charter and converted Georgia into a society much like its counterparts immediately to the north.

4 Enslavement

Not all early Americans came to English colonies willingly. Beginning with the first Dutch ship that brought 20 slaves to Jamestown in 1619, slavery rapidly expanded in colonial America. Though poor record-keeping limits what can be known about the number of slaves brought to America, estimates suggest that as many as 6 to 7 million Africans were brought to America in the 18th century alone. In the South especially, slaves often represented a significant proportion of the local population.

Kevin Wandrei has written extensively on higher education. His work has been published with Kaplan,, and Shmoop, Inc., among others. He is currently pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Cornell University.