Posted by Ancestry Team on October 13, 2014 in Family History Month, Research

As you work backwards in your tree, do you find that the trail seems to go cold in the 1700s? Lack of census records and passenger lists can leave you scratching your head and wondering how exactly they suddenly appeared in Pennsylvania, New England, and Virginia. The answer may be in some of the major migrations of settlers to the colonies in the 1700s.

Two major groups that arrived during that time were the Germans and the Scots-Irish.

Detail of Palatine Church, early German immigrants. Library of Congress, “FRAMING DETAIL OF ROOF. - Palatine Church, State Route 5, Nelliston, Montgomery County, NY,” digital file from originial negative.
Detail of Palatine Church, early German immigrants. Library of Congress, “FRAMING DETAIL OF ROOF. – Palatine Church, State Route 5, Nelliston, Montgomery County, NY,” digital file from originial negative.

German Immigration to America

Around 1670 the first significant group of Germans came to the colonies, mostly settling in Pennsylvania and New York. In 1709 a group known as the Palatines made the journey from the Palatinate region of Germany. Many died on the way over on crowded ships, but around 2,100 survived and settled in New York.

Soon after that, multiple waves of Germans arrived in the Southeast and settled in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. Another wave came and settled in New England.

Between 1725 and 1775 many Germans arrived and settled in Pennsylvania. By the beginning of the Revolutionary War, about 1/3 of the state was Germans.

Scots-Irish in America

Timber Ridge Church built by early Scots-Irish settlers in Virginia.
Timber Ridge Church built by early Scots-Irish settlers in Virginia. Detail of Palatine Church, early German immigrants. Library of Congress, “Old Stone Church, Timber Ridge, Rockbridge County, Virginia,” digital file from original negative.

In the 1600s, many Scots migrated to the Ulster area of Ireland as they tried to escape war, religious conflict, poverty, drought and conflict with the English.

Between 1710 and 1775, around 200,000 of these Scots-Irish emigrated to what was to become the United States for many of the same reasons that they left Scotland. The majority of these new immigrants ended up first in Pennsylvania. Looking for cheaper land, many then went south down into Virginia and the Carolinas and other southern points; many eventually migrated west to Ohio and Indiana.

Major Settlements, Immigration, and Naturalization in the 1700s

  • 1707: A new era of Scottish migration began as a result of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. Scots settled in colonial seaports. Lowland artisans and laborers left Glasgow to become indentured servants in tobacco colonies and New York.
  • 1709: In the wake of devastation caused by wars of Louis XIV, German Palatines settled in the Hudson Valley and Pennsylvania.
  • 1717: The English Parliament legalized transportation to American colonies as punishment; contractors began regular shipments from jails, mostly to Virginia and Maryland.
  • 1718: Discontent with the land system: absentee landlords, high rents, and short leases in the homeland motivated large numbers of Scotch-Irish to emigrate. Most settled first in New England, then in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
  • 1730: Germans and Scotch Irish from Pennsylvania colonized Virginia valley and the Carolina back country.
  • 1732: James Oglethorpe settled Georgia as a buffer against Spanish and French attack, as a producer of raw silk, and as a haven for imprisoned debtors.
  • 1740: The English Parliament enacted the Naturalization Act, which conferred British citizenship on alien colonial immigrants in an attempt to encourage Jewish immigration.
  • 1745: Scottish rebels were transported to America after a Jacobite attempt to put Stuarts back on the throne failed.
  • 1755: French Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia on suspicion of disloyalty. The survivors settled in Louisiana.
  • 1771–73: Severe crop failure and depression in the Ulster linen trade brought a new influx of Scotch-Irish to the American colonies.
  • 1775: The outbreak of hostilities in American colonies caused the British government to suspend emigration.
  • 1783: The revolutionary war ended with the Treaty of Paris. Immigration to America resumed, with especially large numbers of Scotch-Irish.
  • 1789: The outbreak of the French Revolution prompted the emigration of aristocrats and royalist sympathizers.
  • 1790: The first federal activity in an area previously under the control of the individual colonies: An act of 26 March
  • 1790 attempted to establish a uniform rule for naturalization by setting the residence requirement at two years. Children of naturalized citizens were considered to be citizens (1 Stat. 103).
  • 1791: After a slave revolt in Santo Domingo, 10,000 to 20,000 French exiles took refuge in the United States, principally in towns on the Atlantic seaboard.
  • 1793: As a result of the French Revolution, Girondists and Jacobins threatened by guillotine fled to the United States.
  • 1795: Provisions of a naturalization act of 29 January 1795 included the following: free white persons of good moral character; five-year residency with one year in state; declaration of intention had to be filed three years prior to filing of the petition.(1 Stat. 414).
  • 1798: An unsuccessful Irish rebellion sent rebels to the United States. Distressed artisans, yeoman farmers, and agricultural laborers affected by bad harvests and low prices joined the rebels in emigrating. U.S. Alien and Sedition Acts gave the president powers to seize and expel resident aliens suspected of engaging in subversive activities.

This list originally appeared in “Immigration Records” by Loretto Dennis Szucs, FUGA, Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA, and Marian L. Smith in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy.


  1. Elizabeth Hanson

    Thank you so much for the article on migration in early America. It never ceases to amaze me how our ancestors traveled from place to place without roads.

  2. Lucy Mossburg Bellville

    Thank you for the information in this article. Unfortunately, it does not address my immigration issue. According to family tradition, our immigrant ancestors arrived DURING the American Revolution. We know this is impossible but have made a diligent search for over 20 years with no success. There is another family that tries to link to ours through a Hessian soldier but the dates just don’t fit. Anyway, I don’t expect a solution; just wishing there was one.

  3. Jean Hoyle Rudo

    I’ve hit a wall trying to find the Scotland birthplace of my great- great-grandfather. Born in 1832, he came here, lived in SC, and served in the Confederacy. He was killed in 1862. Where else can I go?!?

  4. Nate Oakes

    The article is very good. What would help would be a list of possible resources where people could go to try to find those who came over during these times. I cannot track my direct gr-fathers back beyond 1760, he was apparently German as he lived in a German settlement in NJ, but his name is spelled in the English tradition. Did his father come over here via the English route – when they wanted to populate their colony and he took the name of a sponsor, or changed his outright? Are there any manifests or other resources that could assist me?

  5. Todd Frederick

    This is a good article, but I agree with Nate’s request. My family tradition says my immigrant ancestor was German, but my DNA results point to Ireland. Knowing that these were the most common populations during this time just makes the brick wall seem higher.

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