Jan 27, 2021

What Attracted Our Ancestors to the New World

I learned in school that our ancestors came to the New World in the 1600s in search of religious freedom. While I still believe that to be true, I now believe the full story is a bit more complex than the reasons given in grammar school textbooks.

Religious freedom certainly was a motivation for Puritans, Pilgrims, Quakers, and others from England, but thousands of other immigrants were members of the established church in England and had no interest in other theologies. Immigrants from Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and other countries had similar reasons. What motivated them?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that living in England or in the European continent was very difficult at the time. The upper classes lived comfortably, but the majority of citizens had difficulty eking out even a mere subsistence. Starvation was not unknown, and even those who did eat regularly had diets that most of us today would reject. Without refrigeration or modern canning techniques, even those with some financial security had monotonous diets in the winter and early spring. The thought of eating turnip soup three times a day for weeks on end seems appalling today but was common in the 1600s. The Irish more likely ate potato soup every day.

Fish and meat were available but often at prices that were beyond the reach of most city dwellers. Their country cousins perhaps had a slightly better diet of meats and vegetables that they produced themselves, but country dwellers typically lacked other comforts of life. In the winter, there was no available fresh produce, regardless of where you lived. The only vegetables that were available were the root crops that could be stored for months: potatoes, turnips, carrots, etc. Cabbage, while not a root crop, also stores well and was frequently available.

Perhaps today we do not appreciate the appalling conditions under which our ancestors lived. Imagine, if you will, a city on a warm summer day in which there were no sewers and no source of fresh water. The primary mode of transportation was by horse-drawn carriages and wagons, so horse manure was everywhere in the streets. Even so, the odor from human wastes must have been far stronger as chamberpots were typically dumped into the streets and alleyways. (Sewer pipes were largely unknown at the time.) Most residents did not bathe regularly, did not wash their hair, and never brushed their teeth.

Of course, modern medical care was unknown, and medical ignorance was universal. These people did not know why they breathed air, how the digestive system worked, why brushing one’s teeth was important.

Most of England’s water was heavily polluted. Most citizens did not drink water, instead preferring weakly-brewed beers and ales, even for children. At least the beers and ales were usually safe to drink, unlike the water.

There was relatively little in the way of forests for food or for lumber, as most forests had been cut years earlier for timber and for firewood.

Without proper food preservation techniques, we can assume that most of the food our ancestors consumed had a high germ count. Without clean living quarters or clean water, we can also assume that most of our malnourished ancestors were ill a high percentage of the time. It’s a wonder that any of them survived and had descendants!

Speculators and adventurers of the time wildly advertised living conditions in the New World as a Utopian experience. While the claims were partially true, those with a financial interest in attracting new immigrants were quick to embellish the facts. After all, there were no “truth in advertising” laws at the time.

We now know that many of the early settlers starved to death or died of diseases linked to malnutrition. Within a year or so of their arrival un the New World. Yet the reports sent back to England spoke glowingly of fertile fields and forests that were full of game for the hunter. The seas were described as full of fish available to anyone.

William Wood in his 1634 book, New England Prospect, wrote:

Unlike England’s undrinkable water, New England’s is “so good many preferred it to ‘beer, whey, and buttermilk and those that drink it be as healthful, fresh and lusty as they that drink beer.'”

Winters, he claimed, were milder than in England, summers hotter but “tolerable because of the cooling effect of fresh winds.” Oh, and food was plentiful: “deer, available for the taking; raccoon, as good as lamb; grey squirrels, almost as big as an English rabbit; turkeys, up to 40 pounds.”

Hmmm, have you ever eaten raccoon? Or squirrel? To the semi-starved residents of England, those meats must have sounded like a feast.

You can read William Wood’s book, New England Prospect, on Google Books at:

I have focused on the people and the lifestyles of England simply for convenience; those records and books are easy to read for modern-day English speakers. However, the lifestyles and the motivations were similar in Ireland, Scotland, and all throughout Europe.

In fact, some of our ancestors did make the difficult trip over the Atlantic for religious freedom. However, probably a much larger number made the trip for adventure and for greater financial opportunities. More than a few made the trip with the hope of being able to eat regularly. After all, life was none too pleasant in “the Old Country.” Many believed that life would be much better in the New World.

I certainly am glad that they made the trip!

Jan 27, 2021

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