The Puritans

by Sue Roe

REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION

A four-part series on the largest groups of emigrants from the British Isles to Colonial America. They were: the PURITANS who came, primarily, from East Anglia to the Massachusetts Bay Colony between 1629 and 1640; the CAVALIERS AND SERVANTS who came, primarily, from the south of England to Virginia between 1642 and 1675; the QUAKERS who came, primarily, from the English Midlands to Pennsylvania between 1675 and 1725; and the SCOTCH-IRISH who came, primarily, from the English/Scottish border counties (sometimes via northern Ireland) to Virginia (via Pennsylvania) between 1717 and 1775.

It is estimated that, between the years 1629 and 1640, about 80,000 Puritans fled from England because of religious persecution. About 21,000 of them came to Massachusetts Bay Colony (the others went to Ireland, the Netherlands and the West Indies). They came from all over England, but most heavily from the East England counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Herfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, and Kent. Of the total, about 60 percent were from these counties. The next largest number came from the southern counties of Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, Devonshire, and Hampshire. Less than 10 percent came from the City of London.

The majority of the Puritans were from the middle class of English society. They were educated--two thirds of the adult males could sign their own names--and most of them could afford to pay their own passage. They were usually (about 60 percent) skilled craftsmen or tradesmen. Less than a third of them had been employed in agriculture in England. Those who did farm followed the East Anglia practice of mixed husbandry and a trade. They tended to migrate in families. More than 40 percent were adult men and women over the age of 25 and about half of them were children under the age of 16. The gender ratio was about 150 men to 100 women. Very few were elderly and very few were servants. Those servants who did come were usually already part of the family before leaving England--not part of a labor draft. With the Puritans, the nuclear family was very important and the extended family not as important as in other groups. Therefore, we don't see them migrating in clans as, for example, the Scotch- Irish did. When they settled in the new world, their settlements were the same style that they had been used to in England: Towns, villages, and farmsteads outside of a village but no more than 1/2 mile from the nearest "meeting house". As a group, they tended to stay in the Massachusetts Bay Colony (greater Boston area)--but a small minority did migrate to the Connecticut River Valley.

The Puritans were a part of what became the Congregational Church here in America. They subscribed to a modified Calvinist Doctrine--which can best be defined by five words: depravity, covenant, election, grace, and love. One thing that was extraordinary about this group of immigrants was that they were screened. If anyone "unsuitable" showed up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they were asked to leave. That was because their basic sense of order was one that required unity. In spite of the fact that there were more men than women who came, among church members there were more women than men. (Nothing has changed!)

The family ways of the Puritans came out of their religious convictions. Family relationships were covenants that could be broken. Marriages, therefore, were not usually performed by a clergyman, but by the magistrate. Divorce was allowed if the covenant was broken. Valid reasons for divorce were: adultery, fraudulent contract, willful desertion, and physical cruelty. It was against the law for husbands and wives to strike each other. Sex was supposed to be confined to marriage and offenders were punished severely--both parties were punished but the men more severely than the women. The average age for marriage was higher than in any other group of immigrants. For men it was age 26 and for women age 23. (This is something to consider when trying to estimate a possible birth date from age at marriage.) There was a strong imperative to marry--those who did not were ostracized. Therefore, 98 percent of men and 94 percent of women did get married. The practice of celibacy was disapproved of by the Puritans. Both parents and children had to consent before a marriage could take place--and parents were not allowed to withhold consent arbitrarily. They had to have a valid reason. The Puritans married for love--there were no arranged marriages. Courtship practices were strict and weddings were simple affairs. Banns had to be posted before a marriage could take place. First cousin marriages were forbidden and second cousin marriages were discouraged.

Families were larger among the Puritans than any other group. They did not approve of doing anything to prevent pregnancy and they valued their children very much. The naming of a child was not a trivial matter. Biblical names were preferred and they named children after family members. Ninety percent of all Puritan children had Biblical names--this is much higher than in any other group of immigrants. The most common names for boys were John, Joseph, Samuel and Josiah; the most common for girls were Mary, Elizabeth and Sarah, followed by Hannah, Rebecca, Anne, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, Rachel and Ruth. These were all names of Biblical persons of great virtue. The hope was that the child would follow in the footsteps of the namesake. Some names were forbidden: Jesus, Emmanuel, Christopher, Gabriel, Michael, Angel, etc. They did not allow anyone to have Christ's name or the name of an angel. People were thought to be much too unworthy for such names. Children were never named after God- parents as in some other groups, but were often named after family members. Two thirds of all eldest children in a Puritan family were named after their parents; this was followed by grandparents and other relatives (omitting, of course, any disapproved names). Children were often named for a previous child who had died. A small group of Puritans (only about 1 percent) from the area of Sussex gave oratory names to their children (i.e. Be-worthy, Safely-on-high, Kill-sin, etc.).

Puritans were strict parents who loved their children very much but believed their wills needed to be broken (due to basic depravity of human nature). This will-breaking was achieved by strict and rigorous supervision in which the fathers took an active part. They tried to use mental discipline and love but, if it didn't work, they were quick to use physical constraints. The practice of "sending out" was used. Children often were sent to stay with other families for training, discipline, apprenticeship, etc.

Puritans had a great respect for the elderly and ranked people according to age. The elderly had the best seats in the meeting house, held the highest offices, etc. This was because they believed that God, the bestower of life, gave them long life for a purpose--to influence the younger generation to salvation. The Puritans valued education. All children were taught to read by parents or masters; schools were available very early; and four colleges were founded prior to the Revolution.

When looking for records in New England, your two best sources are town records (marriages were recorded here) and Congregational Church records (for burials and baptisms--the Puritans practiced infant baptism). In many cases, the church records were turned over to the town clerk and everything will be found in the town records. Later on, marriages began to be performed and recorded by clergymen. The best bet is to do a thorough search of both!

<< Sue's Genealogy Recipes


If you would like to study these groups in more depth, I recommend that you read the book, ALBION'S SEED: FOUR BRITISH FOLKWAYS IN AMERICA by David Hackett Fischer, Oxford University Press, 1989. Much (but not all) of the material in this "Recipe" is from that book.
What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo