Popular images of the first transatlantic migrants depict fierce conquistadors in the South and pious pilgrims in the North, motivated by greed in the former case and obscure Puritanism in the latter. However, what really caused people to make such a radical journey in the centuries following the encounter with the Americas? What factors could have led them to leave their homes and start a new life in an unfamiliar land?

Motives for migration varied greatly according to both origin and destination. The very first settlers, primarily from Southern Europe, sought the ‘great unknown’ and the presumed riches thereof, largely so that they might pass them on to their patrons. Later migrants to the fertile lands of South America, the Caribbean, and areas of the modern-day U.S. such as Virginia, sought to obtain for themselves the economic benefits that these ‘promised lands’ are now known to possess. As well as these economic ‘pull’ factors, there were many instances in which adverse economic circumstances at home caused people to emigrate. Overpopulation in the cities, contrasted with famine and hardship in the countryside, led many to seek a better life elsewhere. In 17th Century England, the periods of acute grain shortages and the economic crisis caused by the decline of the cloth trade were both events that were followed by massive waves of emigration.

In many cases, however, the motivation seems to have been more one of principle than pragmatism. Most of the Protestants who made their way to New England from Britain in the 17th Century did so out of dismay at the direction the Church of England was taking from the 1620s onwards. This trend was exacerbated by Archbishop Laud’s suppression of the Puritanical upheaval in the 1630s, which led many to seek refuge overseas; somewhere they could live in a Godly manner, free from the corruption of the established ecclesiastical powers. It is improbable that they would have seen much economic potential in the harsh landscape of the North East Coast, and records show that many of those who made their way there were, if not exactly the nobility, from at least reasonably elevated ranks of society, so the wish to escape abject poverty seems an unlikely explanation for their actions. Members of other nonconformist denominations also made the radical step of migrating to far-off lands with a view to being able to exercise a greater degree of religious freedom. Large numbers of Quakers from Scotland and Wales settled in Pennsylvania, again showing little evidence of having had a particularly economic motivation for doing so. Likewise the Roman Catholics who settled in Maryland sought safe asylum away from the Church of England’s watchful eye.

Of course these migrants may well have hoped for an all-round improvement in their living conditions that will have included economic considerations. However, it seems that, in most cases at least, emigration to New England was motivated primarily by religious discontent. This was quite different from the more scattered diaspora to the rest of the Americas, which was doubtless largely motivated by the promise of financial profit from its fertile climes. What these adventurous souls would find upon reaching their destination was often not quite the paradise they wished for, but it was certainly vastly different from what they were leaving behind.