Just before the Revolution, newly studied documents reveal, the flight of British subjects to the New World forced a panicky English government to wrestle with this question
In the early 1770s it still seemed likely that the struggle between Britain and her American colonies would be peacefully resolved. If it had been, history would have recorded far more clearly a remarkable development that was temporarily cut off by the Revolution. This development was a flood of immigration to British mainland North America and a sudden and immense spread of settlement in the backcountry of the coastal colonies and in the trans-Appalachian West. Both the immigration and the spread of settlement had been in motion before the last of the Anglo-French wars in America, the French and Indian War of 1754-63; but the magnitude was so much greater after the war than it had been before, the scale and range of migration and settlement so greatly enlarged, that the essential character of the peopling process seems to have been transformed, and with it some basic elements in American life.
Just how this transformation took place is revealed in an extraordinary document, a Register of Emigrants, long known to scholars but only now subjected to exhaustive analysis. The origins of this register, arising out of the turmoil in transatlantic population movements just before the Revolution, is as dramatic a story as the information it reveals, and it involves a huge range of British and North American territory, stretching from the Outer Hebrides to the Mississippi, from London to Savannah, and from Yorkshire to Nova Scotia. The key to it all was the relation between the great land acquisitions that came to Britain as a consequence of the war—the whole of Canada, Florida, and the territories as far west as the Mississippi—and the surging flow of emigration to the North American colonies.
This relation was not, at first, perceived by most British officials, but at least one of the leading politicians understood the implications of expansion in the American West for British emigration, and his influence on these matters was destined to be powerful, at certain points decisive.
The Earl of Hillsborough was an Anglo-Irish landowner with properties in Ireland so extensive that they constituted a world in themselves. Ever concerned for the stability and welfare of a large agricultural laboring class in Britain, Hillsborough had seen, long before most other landlords, the dangers of mass emigration to America. In 1753 he had entered fervently into a parliamentary debate on a bill to create a national census, a debate that in large part centered on whether such an enumeration, revealing annual increases and decreases in the population, would “instruct us when to encourage and when to restrain people from going to settle in our American colonies.” Multitudes of people flock to America, Hillsborough declared, “for no other reason but because they hope to live better, or to earn more money in those countries than they can do at home,” and in this they are “encouraged by hearing every day of poor people having in a few years got great estates there.” Many eventually regret their decisions, and therefore no sensible person can deny, Hillsborough concluded, in a phrase that epitomized landlord paternalism, that “it would be doing them a service to lay them under some restraint.” With a census, the magistracy would know “when we should encourage or restrain the transmigration of people from any one part of the British dominions to another, or when we should at the public expence encourage foreigners to go and settle in our colonies, which we certainly ought to do if it should appear that the number of our people is upon the decline at home.”
But there were others who saw dangers in the census bill: the regimentation implicit in any national register; the possible revelation to Britain’s enemies of its demographic strengths and weaknesses; the undue power the scheme might give to local officials; the cost of administering the census; and the likelihood that the act would be opposed “in a riotous manner, and … may raise such a popular flame as will endanger the peace if not the existence of our present government.”
The bill was defeated, but Hillsborough’s commitment to restraining the exodus from his homeland grew firmer. The purpose of the colonies, he argued in the British cabinet, where he served as president of the Board of Trade, was to benefit “this kingdom.” The North American colonies were expected to contribute to the benefit of the kingdom through commerce and the production of goods closely related to commerce. Therefore, the American fisheries should be enlarged, the naval-stores industry encouraged, lumber production increased, and agricultural yields suitable for consumption in the sugar islands should be improved. But as for settling the Western lands, he wrote, what sense did it make to encourage the dispersion of the population into inland communities that would not further the primary goals of empire—that would in fact conflict with imperial policy? Not only would it be difficult to keep such remote settlements “in just subordination to and dependence upon this kingdom,” but they would inevitably draw settlers both from the productive seaboard colonies and, indirectly if not directly, from Britain and Ireland.
In 1768 Hillsborough assumed the key post of secretary of state for the colonies. In that influential oosition. he stepped up his opposition to Western settlements and to emigration from Britain, but the tide was running strongly against him. The massive array of land speculators and Western trading interests working through an intricate network of lobbyists in London was overpowering. Not only were these interests powerful in themselves, and not only were they connected with every important agency of government, but they had among their leaders Benjamin Franklin—a figure of international renown, a publicist of genius, and a political manipulator of experience and skill.
Franklin, who was in effect ambassador from America at the Court of St. James’s, was the spearhead of the most ambitious plans for Western settlement and for the development of American society generally. He had long been fascinated by the remarkable growth and diversity of the American population, and he sensed the potential strength of the American economy. He knew that America’s economic and demographic growth meant power—all the power needed, ultimately, to assert the colonies’ rights against Britain without bloodshed. The enemy, to him, both symbolically and personally, was Hillsborough.
Franklin had disliked the Irish nobleman—whom George Washington too disliked for his “malignant disposition towards Americans”—when he first met him in the mid-1760s, and by the early 177Os his distaste had turned to hatred. Hillsborough’s character, Franklin wrote, was a compound of “conceit, wrongheadedness, obstinancy and passion”; he was “as double and deceitful as any man I ever met with”; “the most unequal in his treatment of people, the most insincere, and the most wrongheaded.” Hillsborough had rejected Franklin’s credentials as agent for Massachusetts “with something,” Franklin wrote, “between a smile and a sneer,” and although Hillsborough had at first lavished hospitality on him, he later instructed his servants not to let Franklin inside the door. To the American, Hillsborough embodied all the corruption of an aristocratic society and the infuriating arrogance of its privileged leaders.
But Franklin’s conflict with Hillsborough also had more immediate and less personal roots. Franklin knew of the Irishman’s fear of emigration; and he knew that Hillsborough had delayed and was attempting to destroy the proposed Vandalia colony, the greatest effort of the postwar years to colonize the trans-Appalachian West. That plan of a squadron of the most powerful political and commercial operators in Britain and America to turn a twenty-million-acre grant on the Ohio into a huge inland colony fell into the maelstrom of factional fighting among Britain’s leading politicians. The Privy Council finally approved the project, and Hillsborough, refusing to enforce a decision he so strongly opposed, resigned as secretary of state for the colonies in 1772.
Lord North was amazed by it all. Attempting to hold his fragile ministry together, the prime minister viewed the struggle over the petition for the Ohio lands as a “foolish business.” “I am myself incapable of reason,” he wrote, “for upon the maturest consideration … I can not help thinking all the parties in the wrong.” But North’s cynical and amused bewilderment did him no credit. Hillsborough on the one side and the Vandalia speculators on the other correctly grasped the immensity of the stakes involved. By the time Hillsborough resigned, in August 1772, the problems of emigration and expansion into the American West had become dangerously inflamed, and the connection between them was beginning to be widely understood.
By 1773 it was commonly believed that emigration was leading to virtual depopulation in certain regions of the British Isles. Reports from Ireland were particularly ominous. An authoritative summary that circulated widely contained startling figures. It stated, first, that between July 1769 and March 1771, as much as 5,870 tons of emigrant shipping had departed from five main Irish ports, which meant, by the traditional calculation, the same number of emigrant departures. Then, in the two years that followed, the report said, the figure had tripled, to 17,400; and in the course of the next fifteen months (March 1773 through May 1774) no fewer than 20,450 emigrants had left. The monthly average, therefore, had almost quintupled in four years. And another report, of 1773, estimated the freight cost of what were believed to be 16,250 departures from northern Ireland to America in 1771 and 1772 at 60,725; it stated, too, that in the previous five or six years, Ulster had been “drained of one fourth of its trading cash and the like proportion of the manufacturing people” by the emigration. Now no longer composed of the “very meanest of the people” but of industrial workers, farmers, and people of “some property,” the removals were “sensibly felt in this country.… Where the evil will end, remains in the womb of time to determine.”
At times concern in Ireland seems to have turned to panic. The “incredible” emigration there was said to threaten the future of Ireland’s industry as well as its agriculture; in the end, it could only lead to a forced reduction of both rents and taxes. Ireland’s excise revenues, the secretary to the lord lieutenant of Ireland declared, were as drastically reduced by emigration as by poverty. The Irish poor, who emigrate “in swarms to America,” must be allowed at least enough sustenance to be able to pay taxes: “if the cow is to be milked, she must be fed.” Belfast newspapers teemed with letters from recent emigrants, many of them instructive, cautionary, warning of the lies and avarice of shipmasters, the swindling advertisements of American land speculators, and of savagery on the wild Indian frontiers.
But frightening stories could not stay the exodus. “The spirit of emigration hath seized our people,” a much reprinted letter from Dublin stated, “and the several counties hitherto famous for the residence of the linen manufacturers, are now almost dwindled into dreary wastes. The land lies uncultivated; and … scarcely a vessel sails from Ireland bound to any of the plantations but what is filled with multitudes of useful artisans. … It is to be hoped that some method may be taken to put a stop to so alarming an evil; for if the numbers of inhabitants constitute the riches of a state, Heaven knows, Ireland will soon be the poorest country under the canopy of Heaven.”
The reports from Scotland were even more alarming. In 1771 a land agent on the Isle of Skye reported such losses and such elaborate plans for further emigration that if nothing were done, major estates would become “wastelands” and land would go begging for buyers. Observers of the exodus from the Western Isles of Scotland noted in 1772 that in the course of the previous four years, 10,000 had been taken out of Britain by the emigrants to America, and “unless some speedy remedy is fallen upon by the government and landholders,” Scotland would be fatally depleted, economically as well as demographically. And more than that: “the continual emigrations from Ireland and Scotland will soon render our [American] colonies independent on the mother-country.”
But it was Dr. Johnson, after his famous tour of the Scottish Highlands and the Western Isles with Boswell in 1773, who sounded the most eloquent alarm. He was shocked by what he termed the “epidemick disease of wandering” that he found in his travels. The exodus of whole neighborhoods, moving in such numbers that departure scarcely seemed an exile at all, threatened, he wrote, “a total secession” of the Highlanders. And the loss of even one person in such an inhospitable place as the Hebrides “leaves a lasting vacuity, for nobody born in any other parts of the world will choose this country for his residence, and an island once depopulated will remain a desert as long as the present facility of travel gives every one who is discontented and unsettled the choice of his abode.”
The tragedy of the emigrations, Johnson believed, lay not simply in the demographic and economic losses. The subtler and deeper catastrophe was cultural; and he evoked a haunting image of people scattered in the wilderness spaces of America where their culture, their spiritual and moral integument, and their familiar, time-sanctioned ways of life simply dissolved, leaving them bereft and primitive, and Britain reduced. The thousands who were leaving for the colonies, he wrote, were forever lost, “for a nation scattered in the boundless regions of America resembles rays diverging from a focus. All the rays remain, but the heat is gone. Their power consisted in their concentration: when they are dispersed, they have no effect.”
Later this profound remark would find echoes, but at the time, it was the manifest demographic and economic losses involved that created the general public fear, a concern that grew wildly as the crisis in Anglo-American political relations swelled to the point of explosion. Between 700 and 800 people were reported to have left the port of Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides on a single day in June 1773, a month in which 800 emigrants on the Isle of Skye completed arrangements for their voyage to North Carolina. A month later, 775 more were known to have left Stromness in the Orkneys.
In June 1774, local journals predicted that continued emigration would make the west of Scotland a grass park; in October, that the deserted kingdom would come to be the resort of owls and dragons. But the most dramatic expression came late in 1773 from a writer in Yorkshire. “The emigration of people from all parts of England,” he wrote, “is very amazing indeed, and if no stop is put to it England will really be drained of multitudes of mechanics of all sorts, also people of considerable property; ships are daily taken up for this purpose, and the spirit of emigration daily encreases:—America that land of promise, is their cry.”
There was no mystery about the causes of the emigration, as the lord lieutenant of Ireland wrote in the summer of 1773: rack renting, landlords’ absenteeism, and the collapse of the linen industry. Much evidence was available to support this explanation. The years from 1770 to 1772 were known to have marked the climax of fifty years of increasing rents in Ireland. In 1770, for instance, the absentee Earl of Donegal demanded fees for renewing leases on his estate in County Antrim that were three or four times annual rents, an innovation that touched off a wave of rioting not only in Antrim but also in Counties Down, Londonderry, Tyrone, and Armagh. And in the midst of this sudden escalation of rents—by which, it was said, “the very marrow is screwed out of our bones, and our lives are even become so burdensome to us … that we do not care whether we live or die”—the linen industry collapsed as a result of a sudden drop in foreign demand. The cost of bread rose to famine levels, and the laboring population suffered severely.
Accounts from Scotland, and to a lesser extent from Yorkshire and elsewhere in northern England, stressed many of the same causes of emigration. But there were special conditions in Scotland that challenged the analytical powers of some of the keenest minds in Britain.
Dr. Johnson, contemplating deserted lands on the Isle of Skye, saw greed everywhere: he cursed the avarice both of the landlords and of the emigration agents who enticed away the desperate Highlanders by false representations of America as the “fortunate islands,” luring them into a life of endless toil in the wilderness. But the ultimate cause of the threatening depopulation, he believed, lay in the destruction of the ancient structure of the clans, the social cohesion that had united lairds and the meanest cottagers in quasi-feudal relationships that had been systematically destroyed by the punitive laws that had followed the Scottish rebellion of 1745. These laws abolished private jurisdictions, exiled the rebellious Highland chiefs who had survived the slaughter, handed over their estates to a commission of modernizing Lowland gentry, banned the wearing of the traditional dress, and outlawed all weapons in private hands. The laws not only stripped the chiefs of their public functions but destroyed the social organization of the old clan system. This was the main problem, Johnson said; and somehow it had to be solved—somehow the lost social cohesion had to be re-stored if the exodus was to be contained.
The most elaborate analysis of the roots and cost of the Highland emigration was that of Henry Dundas, the lord advocate of Scotland, member of Parliament, and at age thirty-three well on his way to becoming the most powerful political figure in Scotland and for some years in England as well. Dundas, a rigorous, unbending imperialist in the Anglo-American political crisis, agreed that a “precipitant and injudicious rise of rents” was a cause of emigration, but only in certain parts of Scotland, not everywhere. The “universality of the disease” affecting areas where rents had not been raised required a deeper explanation. Like Dr. Johnson, Dundas believed the origins lay in the legislation that followed the rebellion of 1745, but he traced a different path from cause to effect. In the old days, the self-respect of the Highland chieftains had lain not in the monetary rents they produced but in “what I call a rent in men.” “Idle men” on these estates were considered in the years before the rebellion to be valuable, for “in proportion as his clan was numerous and his estate covered with inhabitants, [the chieftain] felt himself great and respectable.”
This close binding of chieftain and de- pendent, Dundas believed, was particularly important because the Highlands had always had a surplus population. When the new legislation stripped the chieftains of their autonomous authority —their “interest and connection”—and hence their prestige, they lost the veneration and respect of their dependents, whose spirits in turn became covered with “gloom and damp.” More important, the chieftains, no longer motivated to “have their estates covered with inhabitants” who were to serve as retainers and personal troops, had begun to think of their dependents simply as tenants and of themselves as landlords rather than as chiefs, and they had turned to making the most of the commercial value of their lands. Thus mutual respect and responsibility had been destroyed, and there had developed on the one hand profiteering in rents and, on the other, a mass exodus from the land.
Whatever the explanation offered, by 1773 almost everyone who commented on the rising tide of emigration saw it as a severe problem that required drastic solutions. Some recommended reduction of rents and radical improvements in the living conditions of the tenants. Dr. Johnson urged the repeal of the punitive laws passed after the 1745 Rebellion. If wearing native costume would “disincline [the Scots] from coalescing with the Pennsylvanians or people of Connecticut,” he wrote, let them keep their native dress. If retaining arms would keep them on their ancient lands, let them have arms as before. If rents were too high, force landlords to lower them and compensate them for their loss by pensions. One way or another the cohesion of the old society must be recovered and the depopulation stopped.
Dundas was less impatient and a better politician. By decree of the government, he said, the Highland chiefs should be returned to their estates, restored to something like their “traditional influence,” and reinvolved with the lives of their clansmen. Far from being a military threat, these leaders could provide welcome military strength for the entire nation.
One particularly shrewd scheme was to limit the number of passengers emigrant vessels might carry and require the ships to bring more than adequate provisions and adequate crews, and also “a surgeon … [for each] 20 passengers or upwards.” All of this would raise the cost of passage so high “as to put it wholly out of the power of the greatest part of such people as have hitherto emigrated, to depart.”
Another involved a triple prohibition: a Privy Council resolution to grant no more land in North America for several years; explicit Crown “dissapprobation of these emigrations” coupled with promises of royal favor for those “who shall stay at home”; and imprisonment for any shipmaster or merchant who transported a British subject to the colonies without a special license. Some officials had no hesitation in recommending that emigration should simply be stopped “by express law.” No doubt, selfish interests will “cry out that the liberty of the subject is invaded when we can no longer remove from one part of the British dominions to another, & the cruelty of stopping the flight of oppressed tennants from their avaricious landlords will afford an ample field for declamation.” But a sufficient reply “to all this noise” is simply the maxim that the interest of the few must give way to the good of the whole, especially when the government is prepared to “set every engine at work” to render those who are discontented “richer & happier than ever.”
But such confident statements were rare and flew in the face of considered opinion. There was in fact no agreement on whether the government could legally constrain the movements of British subjects from one British territory to another, or whether it should do so. “Personal liberty,” an Edinburgh essayist observed, “and the power of loco-motion, is the undoubted privilege and birthright of every individual. … It is not at all clear that the Parliament has a right to hinder the inhabitants of Great Britain from leaving it when they think proper.” Nor could such a law be enforced. The whole idea, the writer concluded, was “impossible and absurd.” To the extent that it succeeded, it would “make the nation a prison, & the whole members of it prisoners, though not yet guilty of any crime.” Wrote another, “To hinder freeborn subjects, who are really starving, to go wheresoever they can find food & clothes! This would be contrary to all laws, human & divine; but I cannot think it will ever be arrived at by a British parliament.”
Nevertheless, the pressure on the government to restrain emigration grew stronger in the years just before the American rebellion. In mid-1773, a year that marked the climax of emigration from the British Isles, the leading officers of state at last turned seriously to the possibility of devising legislation or taking other action that would deal directly with the problem.
The immediate instigation came from Scotland, and in particular from the lord justice clerk, Thomas Miller. A member of Parliament, well known and widely respected as a lawyer and jurist in both Scotland and England, Miller had supported the Stamp Act and had opposed its repeal out of an apprehension of the growing independence of the colonies and concern for the magnetism they were exerting on the home islands. This fear grew over the years and climaxed in October 1773 when he presided over the conspiracy trial of twelve journeymen weavers in Paisley. Not only had these workers struck for higher wages and forcefully prevented their employers from using scab labor, but they had rallied thousands of other weavers to their banner and with them “threatened to goe off in a body to America” if their cause was not vindicated. This was precisely the sort of thing Miller most feared, and he reported the affair in great detail to the secretary of state for the Northern Department (effectively the home secretary), the Earl of Suffolk.
Miller handled the strikers delicately, and the particular crisis had passed, he said, but the problem of emigration remained extremely serious: “I pray God, for the sake of this countrey, that such ideas of migration to America may not become epidemical.…” He had also discovered, he said, that the traditional commutation of criminal sentences to “transportation” to the colonies was no longer either a deterrent or a meaningful reprisal: “in this part of the Kingdom transportation to America begins to lose every characteristick of punishment.”
Immediately thereafter, Miller attended a meeting of the Ayrshire county magistracy, and it was his response to what he learned there that moved the British government to action. When the regular business of the meeting was done, Miller reported, Sir Adam Fergusson—a prominent Ayrshire landlord and politician—“took notice of the dangerous situation this country was in from the various arts used to impose upon our people and entice them to America,” and he then produced a broadside advertising in quite specific terms for settlers for St. John’s (now Prince Edward) Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The advertisement was the work of a notorious land promoter, the lieutenant governor of St. John’s, Thomas Desbrisay. This frenetic Irishman had been attempting to populate his property on the island since 1770, but his elaborate recruitment efforts, which included three published notices each month from February to May 1772, had produced very little response. By the end of 1772 he had extended his range to western Scotland, distributing enticing ads in Ayrshire, Argyllshire, and the counties to the north. It took no eloquence on Fergusson’s part to detonate the lord justice clerk’s already overheated concern. Miller immediately sent Lord Suffolk an account of the meeting together with a copy of Desbrisay’s offending advertisement. Something had to be done, specifically about Desbrisay and generally about what another concerned Scot called “the America madness” sweeping the land. Surely the problem was ripe for Parliamentary action.
Suffolk had long been plagued with such warnings and requests, but this time he, and through him the British government, responded actively. He instructed Miller to find out what effect Desbrisay’s broadside had had in Scotland—that is, “what number of people have emigrated from Scotland since the publication of it.” Despite petitions first to Scottish customs officials and then to the local clergy, Miller could only come up with incomplete figures that he felt greatly underestimated the seriousness of the situation. The spirit of emigration, he wrote Suffolk, was no longer simply a Highland problem, nor was it only a lower-class phenomenon. It had spread to the Lowlands and to “some of the better sort of farmers & mechanicks who are in good circumstances & can live very comfortably at home.” Moreover, he had discovered that land-purchasing associations had been organized. If that practice, which enabled whole communities to move with all their personal associations undisturbed, became popular among affluent Scots, “it may in time as effectually depopulate this country as the mines of Peru & Mexico have depopulated the Kingdom of Spain.”
But the ultimate danger went beyond even this. The present cause of emigration, he believed, was chiefly dire want; and that, he felt, would sooner or later fade as conditions improved. But if, by the time that happened, a new motivation had become common, namely, the hope simply “of attaining a better situation” in America than could be had in Scotland, emigration would become entirely uncontrollable. By then Miller’s efforts had borne more fruit, of various kinds, than he realized. Word that troops had been requested to stop emigration reached the newspapers and was denounced as the work of “half [-baked] politicians” and as “silly beyond measure.” Furthermore, the Highland clergy had become thoroughly alarmed, “imagining there was some design to make them tools of oppression and tyranny.” It was understood that for that reason, among others, they were systematically underreporting the number of emigrants.
At the same time that Suffolk had set Miller to collecting data, he had sent a copy of the lord justice clerk’s letter, enclosing Desbrisay’s advertisement, to the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Dartmouth, stating it as the king’s view that the emigrations referred to were “very detrimental to the general good of the state, and that every proper check, within the power of the government, should be given to plans which tend so fatally to depopulate a considerable part of his kingdom.” Dartmouth’s undersecretary, John Pownall, a canny veteran of the bureaucratic wars, opened Suffolk’s letter and read it with astonishment. One secretary of state, he advised Dartmouth within hours of receiving the letter, is hardly in a position to tell another what the king thinks and to state peremptorily what the other should do. “I am at a loss to guess what Lord Suffolk expects from us & what he means by laying such a business at our door.”
Pownall wasted no time in recriminations. Three days after receiving Suffolk’s stiff note, he sent Desbrisay a blistering letter reminding him that he had already been warned against illegal recruitment and telling him that the landlords in northern Britain “whose estates have suffered extremely by the emigration of their tenants” had complained. He ordered him, in the name of the king, to suppress his advertisements instantly. Desbrisay was thoroughly squelched. He withdrew the ads and swore to Pownall that he “never took any tenant out of the north of Ireland without first asking the consent of either the proprietor or agent of lands he lived upon …”
Pownall’s chief concern, however, was not to rein in the hustling and annoying Irishman, but rather to develop a general and effective policy for restraining emigration. To that end, he sent to Dart-mouth for his approval a document that finally set the heavy wheels of the national government in motion.
The Board of Trade, Pownall wrote in this draft recommendation to the king, called the emigration problem to the crown’s attention but confessed itself unable to recommend any remedy “without knowing with precision the actual extent of the emigration complained of and what parts of Your Majesty’s kingdom are principally affected.” In order to gain that information, “we most humbly submit to Your Majesty whether it might not be advisable that the officers of Your Majesty’s customs in the several ports of your said kingdoms should receive directions to take account of all persons that shall embark as passengers on any ships which may clear out from the said ports and to transmit to His Majesty to transmit to us monthly, or oftener, a list of all such persons specifying their names, ages, sex, and profession, as far as the same can be ascertained.”
By the end of November 1773, word had gone out that the government was about to take action. But it soon became clear that Parliament would delay consideration of bills curbing emigration until Pownall’s first step, the collection of statistics on who was leaving, whence and why, was completed. Even that much, it soon developed, would be difficult to accomplish.
The treasury administered the customs offices where the emigrants would be questioned, and so it fell to the Treasury Department to establish the specific terms of the survey. Whoever it was in the Treasury who gave the questionnaire its final form had a keen sense of what might be learned from such a survey as well as an exaggerated respect for the efficiency of the British customs administration. On December 9, 1773, Britain’s Lords of the Treasury ordered the Boards of Customs Commissioners in London and Edinburgh to instruct their officials in the various ports “to use every proper means in their power” to record not only the name of every person leaving the kingdom but also his or her “age, quality, occupation, employment & former residence,” and also “what port or place they propose to go, and on what account, and for what purposes they leave this country, together with such other remarks and informaon as they may be able to obtain.”
In the months that followed, customs officials in ports scattered from Devonshire to northern Scotland and from Dover to the Outer Hebrides interviewed hundreds, then thousands, of emigrants as they boarded ship; gathered passenger information from ship captains and port officials; and sent in to the customs headquarters sheet after sheet of detailed compilations. In the back rooms of the customs headquarters in London and Edinburgh, clerks gathered the sheets, collated the information from England, and forwarded all the material to the Treasury.
At first there was much confusion. The inspectors in Wigtown, in southern Scotland, were politely incredulous of the whole project: did the honorable Board of Customs Commissioners really mean that the ports should “take such a minute account of every individual person as [their] letter would seem to imply,” or did they, more reasonably, want only summaries? Answers were given: yes, the board meant precisely what its letter implied, “a minute account of every individual person.”
The result is a documentary collection that illuminates as does no other source, literary or statistical, the process by which British North America was peopled in the years before the split with England, and that characterizes a major segment of the immigrant population in pre-Revolutionary America. Here, in the sheets received at the Treasury Office—which together compose what may be called the Register of Emigrants, 1773–76, well preserved in four large volumes of Treasury papers—are the answers to the questions that so agitated the Hillsboroughs, Millers, and Suffolks: who were the people who were leaving Britain—what ages, which sex, what occupations were represented and in what proportions? Where did they come from, why did they leave, from what strata of society were they drawn? How did they travel, where were they going?
The answers to these questions, based on a computer analysis of these records, fill a large volume, Voyagers to the West, to be published later this year, the 210th anniversary of the register’s last entry. Some of the results are predictable. Of the 9,364 permanent emigrants to the North American colonies registered during these months, the overwhelming number were young: almost half were under twenty-five, 30 percent between the ages of twenty and twenty-four. Three out of four were male. Slightly less than half (48 percent) were indentured servants and redemptioners. Almost a third traveled in family groups, and very few of the families listed included servants of any kind. Just under one-third came from London and the six Home Counties of southeastern England; onequarter of the total came from greater London itself. On the other hand, 41 percent of the entire group came from Scotland, and over a third of the Scots came from the Highlands and the northern and western islands.
These are gross figures for the recorded migration as a whole—informative, but not very surprising—and difficult to fit together into a meaningful pattern. The more significant figures are masked by these overall totals and emerge only from successive stages of computer analysis. In the end, the picture as a whole proves to be highly differentiated. This was no singular migration from the British Isles to North America; there were two migrations—separate, quite distinctive, and in motion at the same time. One consisted of emigrants who traveled outward to America from the main population center of Britain in the Thames valley; the other group was drawn from the northern British provinces. At the extremities—London on the one hand, Yorkshire and the Scottish Highlands on the other —there were two patterns, which may be designated metropolitan on the one hand and provincial on the other. And these differences profoundly shaped the way these emigrants would enter into American life and the impact they would have in the new land.
The metropolitan pattern, which characterizes the central migration from the Thames valley, is typified by a young man, in his early twenties, acting individually. He is not, characteristically, drawn from among London’s most desperate, destitute slum dwellers; nor is he from the more stable or substantial segments of the population. He is, rather, an impecunious young artisan or craftsman who has served all or some part of his apprenticeship, or in a less formal way, learned something of a trade, found employment irregular or nonexistent, and, still unmarried and without family encumbrances, has decided to head out to the colonies alone. In doing so, whether to preserve a small modicum of savings for settlement in the new land or out of sheer necessity, he has assumed a burden of debt for his transportation, to be paid off by four years of bonded labor. There are few children in this metropolitan migration, few women, and few families. The families that can be found are of the simplest possible structure—almost all of them only husband and wife or siblings traveling together.
Such is the “ideal type” of the metropolitan emigrant. At the other extreme, there is a different pattern altogether. In this provincial pattern the characteristic unit is not an isolated male worker in his early twenties, a bondsman for several years of unlimited servitude. It is not even a person. It is, rather, a family, and a family that contains not only mature women but also small children, including a remarkable number of young girls. There are 7 males for every female in the metropolitan migration, but only 1.6 males for every female in the provincial migration. The size of these families emigrating from northern England and from Scotland is surprising. The average was almost as large as the average English family in the nonemigrating population, and hence it would appear that these family units were moving essentially intact. Consistent with this fact is the economic condition of these migrating families. Few of these family members were indentured servants; in one way or another—often by liquidating all their possessions, real and personalthey had raised enough money, often just enough, to retain their freedom.
The provincial emigration was predominantly the transfer of farming families that were still in the process of growth, hence likely to contribute quickly to the increase of the American population. And they would contribute quickly, too, to the growth of the American economy, not only by their con- structive enterprise but by the demand they created, the markets they enlarged, as consumers. Above all, they were eager from the start to take advantage of opportunities created by the opening up of new land in America. They were likely to seek out new settlements and to move quickly into the most attractive areas available in the backcountry. They, and not the majority of the emigrants—isolated artisans bound to serve any master who could buy their services from the ship captain or merchant who owned them—were destined to be the frontiersmen.
Such, in briefest form, is what the British government would have discovered if it had carefully analyzed the emigration data its customs officials had so laboriously collected. Would it have been the basis for Parliamentary regulation of emigration? Would it have calmed or further excited the fears of the time? There is no way of knowing. The turmoil of the Revolution completely buried the problem, which resurfaced for the British only once, when, after the end of the War for Independence, the Loyalist Claims Commissioners considered the Loyalists’ applications for repayment for the losses they had suffered during the war. The board systematically struck down those who were known to have promoted or assisted in the migration of the pre-Revolutionary years. These promoters were even suspected, to some degree, of treason, for whether they had intended to or not, they had in fact helped man a disastrous civil insurrection and so assisted in the dismemberment of the Empire. Why should they be rewarded for that?
Eventually the old problem was forgotten. But for historians, the inquiry set in motion in December 1773 is a priceless resource that helps immeasurably in understanding who the American people were in these early years, how they were recruited, and how they helped form the fabric of American life.