I have heard that early pilgrims for 'the new world' (North America / USA) left because they were indigent and had no support in their homelands. I have also heard that some were criminals or otherwise.

I know that some groups, such as Mennonites, Harmonites and/or their predecessors, left because their religious beliefs and practices were not accepted by local communities in Europe, and they sought refuge to practice in peace.

The Wikipedia article on the Mayflower says that the Mayflower

transported English and Dutch Separatists and other adventurers referred to by the Separatists as "the Strangers"

How were the initial migrants to the 'new world' seen by their neighbors and countrymen in Europe? Who were these 'Strangers'?

Edit: I have found this break-out of the passenger list, which helps paint a picture to the answers here.

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    I'm supposing you're talking early seventeenth century?
    – Luke_0
    Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 17:38
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    You also have to look at the times when religious prejudice in England pretty much made these people afraid for their lives and faith so they wanted to leave. Yet, each colony in the US was different, and the Pilgrims were really a small subset of Massachusetts, which had two groups colonizing it at the time. The Pilgrims mostly refers to the group that settled around Plymouth
    – MichaelF
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 12:12
  • I de-pilgrim-ized it. Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 13:50
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    In general, anyone who decides to travel thousands of miles to a unknown shore is going to be somewhat out of step in the old country. Otherwise, they would stay put, like most people, even those subject to persecution.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Oct 13, 2014 at 19:11
  • What do you mean by "early pilgrims" ? Have you checked the history of Georgia? "The colony of Georgia was truly the vision of James Edward Oglethorpe. His plan to use the new colony as a haven for people in debtors prison grew out of his committee work while a member of Parliament." ? Pennsylvania (religious freedom for Catholics & Quakers)?
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 15:44

5 Answers 5


Many 17th century settlers in what is now the United States were indeed indigent or criminals, but not all, and we should understand the "criminality" in question.

Many English farmers lost their livelihood due to enclosure, which had reached new heights during the Tudor years. Some ran themselves into debt and faced debtors' prison (indeed, Georgia Colony was originally intended to be a haven where debtors could work off their debts instead of wasting away in jail). At the same time, as the early colonies grew and prospered, they faced labor shortages. It is not surprising then that many companies were formed to ship surplus labor from the British Isles to North America, recouping the expense of transport by collecting the passenger's wages over seven years of indentured servitude.

Besides indebtedness, worshipping outside the current fashion of the Church of England could also land you in legal trouble. "Puritans" (encompassing a variety of Reformed theology groups), Baptists, Quakers, and Anabaptists were out of favor, not to mention Catholics, Lutherans, or Unitarians. Adherents of any minority religion would have seen a strong incentive to emigrate, and officials would have had an incentive to see them leave the country.

As for common criminals, to be sure, there would have been some. Certainly, people with such histories or inclinations would have seen an additional incentive to pursue a new life on another continent. On the other hand, the companies investing in colonies would have had little incentive to transport large numbers of unreliable petty thugs and thieves, the better to lose their investment. Neither were there large-scale deportations of criminals from England to the Americas: Pennsylvania was not Van Diemen's Land.

As always, we should take care not to over-generalize. The Pilgrim Fathers who settled Plymouth numbered barely 100, yet even they represented a cross-section of English commoners.

Some would have held comfortable places in English society were it not for their congregationalist religious beliefs. The first governor, John Carver, was a wealthy merchant. William Brewster, the religious elder, was a Cambridge-educated diplomat. Most of the other passengers were farmers or tradesmen, or of unknown occupation.

Not all who traveled on the Mayflower were religiously motivated, however. John Alden, by legend the first to step foot on Plymouth Rock, was a sailor in the employ of the Mayflower's owners. Myles Standish, while religiously sympathetic, was originally a hired gun for military and security affairs. Others were laborers recruited to work in the colony, or servants of the other settlers, and there were four children sent as indentured servants having been disowned as illegitimate.

  • I'll jest: it is funny that the nation 'made by outsourcing sweatshop labor' now faces a crisis from outsourcing its labor to sweatshops. ;) Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 23:59
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    @NewAlexandria - There was almost no outsourcing of labor to the New World, just outshipping of unneded laborers. Most manufacturing remained in England. Instead, you can make a credible case that the early NA colonies were essentially a narco-trafficing state, with tobacco(nicotene) being the drug. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_in_the_American_Colonies
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 13:48
  • @T.E.D. I was trying to make a little bit of humor, but thanks for following it up with more info on this topic. I know the tobacco history on the Britain-side, this you mention is important reinforcement of that. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 13:53
  • @NewAlexandria - Well, you can make a similar joke, but it should be about the drug trade. :-)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 13:57
  • You have my assurance that it is an old-fav of mine, and well-deliverable :) Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 14:00

Since this was lost in some other answers, in regards to "the Strangers" this piece may be illuminating:

The rest of the passengers, called "strangers" by the Pilgrims, included merchants, craftsmen, skilled workers and indentured servants, and several young orphans. All were common people. About one-third of them were children.

Remember, even though these were religious emigres coming over to start a new, they were here under a charter that demanded some sort of repayment on the investment given to get them here. So they needed skilled labor in addition to manual laborers, which many of the Pilgrims were not; they were just seeking religious freedom. From the Dutch, if I remember correctly, the Pilgrims were seen as odd since they left England to live in the Netherlands because they wanted to practice freely, yet they never learned Dutch and kept to themselves. After becoming homesick they went back to England, where many feared they would be arrested and their lands confiscated for their religion. So they sold what they could then chartered the ships to the New World, bringing their Strangers with them to help them create and build up the colony.

To also get back to your question, were they outcasts? Yes, in some fashion, as minority religious groups in many countries of the time could be.


You are conflating immigrants from different time periods. The North American colonies were established over a period of 150 years from approximately 1620 to 1770. During that time many different kinds of immigration occurred.

First of all, criminals were not allowed to immigrate normally. You had to be of good character to get sponsored to go to the colonies.

In the beginning only very select people were sent to the colonies, because it was enormously expensive to transport and support them, so only people favored by the crown and parliament were sent. The "puritans" were extremist Protestants who were favored by the English parliament and crown. They saw the colonies as a way to create a pure Calvinist society untainted by the immorality and papism in the British isles.

Later, after the English civil war especially, life became unpleasant for the Quakers (the Society of Friends) and large numbers of them immigrated for example in the 1660s. All of these people were quite well off, if not wealthy, due the huge cost of transport and the needs of paying for it themselves, without the assistance of the government or investors.

This pattern continued with various persecuted people of means coming over along with adventurers, often from Ireland, who wanted to set up plantations.

Before 1700, indentured immigrants were usually skilled tradesmen or otherwise capable people who could demonstrate their usefulness.

A few people fled to the new world. For example, after the failed Jacobite rebellion in 1745 the English went around systematically hunting down and murdering the Jacobites and some of them were able to secretely flee to the colonies by adopting a false identity. The lower costs of passage allowed such people to go if they were decently well off. However, such people were a minority compared to the religious immigrants.

  • Thanks, I think this was a really good contribution even so-long-after the original / primary discussion. Commented Oct 14, 2014 at 14:17

The main thing I think you should realise about immigrants to the New World is that they weren't a coherent lot that you can throw in to one mental box. In fact, your choice of the word "pilgrim" is kind of shaky in this context, as proper Pilgrims were a specific religous community that emigrated as a group to a colony in modern-day Massachusets.

There were of course religous non-conformists, like the aforementioned Pilgrims and Quakers in Pennsylvania. There were also prisoners, which is cheifly how Georgia got its start. But you should note that in the 16th-18th Centuries going bankrupt would land you in prison, so a lot of the prisoners sent to European colonies didn't do anything worse than fail to make a couple of loan payments. There were also people running from the law, their familes, other people's families, or just looking to make their fortune.

As for how they were viewed back in Europe, it seems to have been a bit like frontiersman have always been viewed: Not particularly sophisticated, but perhaps a bit dashing. Benjaman Franklin famously played this image up by wearing a coonskin cap everywhere he went while he was acting as the Colonial Congress' ambassador to France.


Almost by definition, the early American colonists were "different" from others in their home country. Some were criminals, many were "indigent," others had religious beliefs that prevented them from getting along well among their peers. Even wealthy colonists (like William Penn) tended to be "free thinkers" that didn't fit in well with "society."

Few people who were comfortable where they were would brave the hardships of the early journey to America. The ones who did were (mostly) misfits in some way.

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