Posted by Crista Cowan on October 7, 2014 in Family History Month, Research

We probably all remember the little school room ditty about how, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Columbus was not the first and he would not be the last. Exploration of the New World had been happening for a while by then. It would continue for several more decades before the first permanent European settlement would be founded in 1565 at what is now St Augustine, Florida. Within one hundred years, dozens of other European settlements were established as colonists crossed the ocean for economic opportunities and religious freedom. By the close of the 17th century there would be more than 234,000 settlers up and down the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Maine.

Jamestown, the Virginia Colony and Beyond

Jamestown, known as the first colony in the British Empire, was established in 1607, in Virginia. It took several attempts at colonization before success was achieved. Of the 6,000 colonist who came to the settlement between 1607 and 1624, more than 2,500 died of disease, exposure, starvation or attacks from the natives.

View of historic Jamestowne today, looking toward the status of Captain John Smith (erected in 1909). The Jamestown Church is in the background.  (Photo credit - U.S. Army, public domain)
View of historic Jamestowne today, looking toward the status of Captain John Smith (erected in 1909). The Jamestown Church is in the background. (Photo credit – U.S. Army, public domain)

Many of the settlers were English aristocrats, but there was also a large number of indentured servants who, in exchange for passage to the New World, agreed to work for upwards of seven years for their landed masters. Though primarily an English settlement, German and Polish colonists were recruited early on in order to provide diversity of trade and craft to the developing community.

Once success was achieved with the settlement of Jamestown, the newcomers began to spread out, taking up land, planting crops and creating new settlements. In 1624, Virginia became a royal colony and by 1634, King Charles I divided it into eight counties in order to better govern the growing colony.

Around that same time, in 1632, Charles granted a charter to Lord Baltimore to establish another colony in nearby Maryland. In an attempt to gain settlers, they were offered 50 acres of land for each person they brought to the colony – settler, servant or slave. Similar to Virginia, tobacco quickly became a profitable crop.

Other European countries got in on the action around the same time. The Dutch settled up and down the Hudson River starting in 1624 and then branched out into part of Delaware in 1631. The Swedes sent a group of settlers to the same area in 1638. Conflicting claims to land set the settlers up for conflict in the coming decades – natives, English, Dutch, French, Spanish.

By 1650, it is estimated that there were more than 23,000 European settlers in the area. That number tripled over the next thirty years as settlers spread throughout Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Delaware and New York.


The Mayflower and the Settling of New England

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth - 22 Dec 1620 (Photo Credit - Library of Congress, public domain)
The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth – 22 Dec 1620 (Photo Credit – Library of Congress, public domain)

In 1620, the Mayflower arrived in the New World from Plymouth, England with 102 passengers on board. Mostly English Puritans and Separatists, almost half of them would be dead before that first winter was over. Those that survived are credited with creating the oldest, continuously inhabited English settlement in what would become the United States.

A year later a second ship arrived with 37 new settlers for Plymouth Colony. A year and a half after that another two ships arrived carrying 96 passengers. In the first ten years following the landing of the Mayflower the majority of the 800 colonists arriving in Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colony were from England. Unlike the settlement of Virginia, Maryland and New Amsterdam, the majority of New England colonists immigrated for religious reasons rather than economic reasons. Most of them were middle class, skilled craftsman and merchants, rather than nobility.

Religious conflicts within the colony led some settlers to leave, founding Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine and New Hampshire in the process. By 1700 these collective colonies had a total population of more than 106,000 people.

One of the largest land grants during that century was given to William Penn by King Charles II in 1681 – what we now know as Pennsylvania and Delaware. A Quaker and a visionary man, Penn had a plan for his property, a “Holy Experiment” that included providing a safe haven for those of the Quaker faith who had been persecuted and imprisoned in England and Wales and were being kicked out of New England. His plan for religious freedom attracted others and within 20 years there were more than 18,000 settlers in Pennsylvania.


Some came for economic freedom, some came for religious freedom. Some came voluntarily, others came forcibly. Some came and dropped down deep roots that remain in those same communities almost 400 years later. Some moved on almost immediately and their descendants continued their established pattern of western expansion. Regardless of why they came, these are the founders of our nation.

A lot of research has been done into the lives of the original settlers of New England, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Amsterdam. Volumes have been written about these gateway ancestors. And, in fact, there are many organizations that have done extensive research to track the descendants of these original settlers.

Not sure if your family was in the New World prior to 1700? Check out just a few of the great resources available on that could help connect you with your colonial ancestors.

Mayflower Births and Deaths, Vol 1 and 2

A Genealogical History of the Clark and Worth Families: And Other Puritan Settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony

William Penn and the Dutch Quaker Migration to Pennsylvania

Early Virginia Immigrants, 1623-1666

Virginia Land, Marriage and Probate Records from 1639

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Twitter


  1. James

    My ancestors arrived in the USA with the immigrant waves in the early 1900’s. Tracing my own roots back in England and Ireland makes me long for the relative “ease” those whose families have been since the Pilgrims days might have tracing their roots.

  2. Ann Bullen Deitz

    Interesting article. Didn’t realize that aristocratic families immigrated, too; I have always thought it was just poor folks. My mother’s family were part of the Arundels and Howards who came to Maryland and I had wondered why.

  3. We trace back to Thomas Hill 1647 Rhode Island. We would like to find more back to country. 2 months ago we finally found Thomas George hill and Marilla lucore bliss buried in Denison Iowa 1908. Birth 1817 and 1820. Along with a large base of up to date dependents of which we had from over 20 years ago. We’re still intering All in at present into ancestry family tree maker. It was harder twenty-five years ago when armed with a copy machine a relative allowed us to take over her research of the familly. She was commissioned Research on cystic fibrosis of her child. We have done DNA spit test and am waiting for results. Thanks to genweb and the smart phone were putting down accurate info that only we have knowledge of and others so others may know our true history. We are senior citizens doing research for future generations.

  4. Connie
    The grandsire of the Oberholtzer family is Martin Michael Oberholtzer who came with Hans Herr and also signed the Charter with Penn in England before departure. Inland communities were established in Central PA before 1720.
    Ancestry tree Sholes Swarts Oberholser and Wenger Family Tree.

  5. My ancestor came over with William Peen. He was a Bailey. The family no longer goes by that name due to some shady behavior of my grandfather.

    I also go back to the Avery’s so connected to the Rockefellers and I have a few presidents in my tree. I go back to Royaly in more than one branch of my tree.

Comments are closed.