Contrary to popular belief, not every journey from England to the New World in the 1600’s was a one-way trip. Ships went back and forth between the North American and European continents with regularity once colonization began. While most colonists did come to stay and never went back to England, the same cannot be said for everyone. Some made their permanent home in the New World, but became mariners, going back and forth to England many times to do trade. During these trips, they would visit relatives and take care of family business in the “old country.” Others came to the colonies for a little while, then decided it was not for them and returned to England permanently. What did your ancestor do?
The Southern Colonies and Travel to and from England
Travel back and forth between North America and England was commonplace in Virginia and the other southern colonies, as these colonies were founded as businesses. Most people going to live there did not expect to stay forever. They went with the intention of earning some money for a few years, then taking their fortune back to England and living a better quality of lifestyle. Some people did stay and establish families that continue in America to this day, but the southern colonies were not, by and large, intended to be permanent homes for those who came to them.
New Englanders and Returning to England
It was different in New England. Founded by the Pilgrims and the Puritans, these people came for religious reasons, and intended to stay. During the period between 1620 and 1640, when more than 200,000 Pilgrim and Puritan immigrants came to New England, they were being persecuted in England for not conforming to the nation’s official Anglican church’s teachings. They wanted to create a more “pure” church, based on their own interpretation of the Bible, and so came to America to do it. They did not intend to go back.
By and large, they did stay. Descendants of the original Puritan and Pilgrim settlers are still in New England and the entire United States today. However, not everyone found life in the New World to their liking. For some, it was too hard to eke out a new society from the wilderness, and they went home quickly after arriving. It was certainly possible to make quick trips. Famously, Robert Cushman, who was the business manager for the Pilgrims, refused to come over on the Mayflower because he was afraid of the sea.
The next year, after the Pilgrims had weathered their first harsh winter in Massachusetts and were beginning to build a thriving colony, Cushman did come. However, he only stayed a week (after taking the two month sea voyage to get there). He checked in on the colonists, one of whom was his son, brought them supplies and news (and gathered some from them to take back with him), then left a week later on the same ship that brought him. That was his only trip to the New World.
The English Civil War and Its Impact on Puritans in the New World
When the English Civil War broke out in 1641, many colonists went back to England to help fight the war. After all, the war was between the Puritans who had stayed in England and the English government. They felt like it was their duty to participate. Some left families behind in New England and later returned to them. Some never came back, and some sent for their families to return to England when the war was over.
In fact, up to 11 percent of families in New England, and one-third of the clergymen there, returned to England permanently after the Civil War was over. The Puritans in England won the war and held the government for over a decade. With the prospect of persecution no longer present, there was no reason for many families to stay in New England, and every reason for them to go back to the home country they loved. For the clergymen who went back, the new Puritan-based government offered them many opportunities for preaching and earning a decent living that they did not have in the New World.
Inheritance and Going Back to England
Other people went back to England because they were left property there by their parents or other relatives who stayed. Sometimes, they went back just long enough to sell the property, then came back to New England. Other times, they stayed permanently, especially if the property they inherited was substantial. Some clever relatives even made staying in England a condition of a person receiving their inheritance.
How to Find Out if Your Ancestors Went Back to England, and Why They Did It
If you have records of ancestors in New England who seem to disappear without a trace, consider the possibility that they went back to England and stayed there. Look at ships’ passenger records for their names as arriving in England. Take the time period of their disappearance into consideration, especially if it was around the time of the English Civil War. Check records in England in the post-1641 date range and see if you can find them there.
If you know what part of England they originally came from, you can check for them there, as most people went back to their family lands and homes when they returned. Look in surrounding towns and cities, as well. Be sure to check records in London if you can’t find them anywhere else, as some returnees took advantage of the bustling economy in the city after the Civil War and set up businesses and bought homes there.
By looking at an ancestor’s religion, the time period they disappeared from New England, and checking wills and property records in England in the post-1641 period, you may be able to find your ancestor again. These clues will also tell you a lot about exactly why they left their life in the New World and returned to the life they left behind in England once more.
- English Origins of New England Families, 1500s-1800s
- Early New England Settlers, 1600s-1800s
- New England Family Histories #1, 1600s-1800s
- American Source Records in England, 1600s-1800s