About the Family

Early Emigrants

The Early Emigrants
by Ian Smith
Photographs © Ken Ward

Why Norfolk?
"The prospect of transatlantic emigration for such people would have been akin to a voyage to the moon for us. Indeed it was even more daunting than a space shot." - Such was one of the conclusions reached by Roger Thompson in his exhaustive study of East Anglian participation in the Great Migration to New England.

What then motivated these seventeenth century emigrants and others who came after to launch themselves into the unknown? And are there any special factors which apply in particular to those Norfolk men and women who abandoned their native county?

One such factor was a spirit of commercial enterprise, thanks to which Norwich had already developed into a thriving, outward-looking city and Norfolk into the centre of a successful textile industry. Among those Norfolk adventurers seeking fresh fields to conquer were a handful who helped to establish the very first English New World settlement in Virginia in the early 1600s.

Heacham Village signWithout outstanding individuals such as John Rolfe of Heacham this fragile foothold may not have survived at all. He saved its economy by introducing tobacco, its first commercial crop, and ensured at least a temporary truce with its native inhabitants by his marriage to their Chief's daughter Pocahontas.

Another factor driving early emigration from Norfolk can be traced to a long tradition of non-conformity and dissent dating right back to the Peasants' Revolt, Kett's Rebellion and the Lollards. Some twenty years after the Virginia settlement several thousand Norfolk Puritans, inheritors of this non-conformist tradition, left their native shore in the footsteps of the 'Pilgrim Fathers' to establish a pure 'Bible Commonwealth' in Massachusetts Bay away from the increasingly intolerant religious climate in England. Part of a predominantly East Anglian exodus - which became known as the Great Migration - their contribution to the New World was less in terms of outstanding individuals, and more in terms of collective ideals. According to one commentator the way of thinking later characterised by Franklin Roosevelt as the Four Freedoms, 'appeared in Massachusetts within a few years of its founding'. The libertarian ideas of the early colonists were 'deeply embedded in Puritan ideas and also in East Anglian realities'.

Thomas Paine statue in ThetfordAfter these initial migrations Norfolk genes continued to play a crucial role in the subsequent political history of the North American colonies and later of the USA.

Thomas Paine, the Thetford-born political radical, did more than anyone to change the course of the dispute with the mother country from protest to rebellion and then to independence.

Abraham Lincoln, directly descended from an apprentice weaver who emigrated from Hingham via Norwich in 1637, was perhaps the greatest of all American Presidents.

Later migration from Norfolk - both to North America and elsewhere - was generated more by 'push' than 'pull' factors. A rising rural population combined with an agricultural depression, for example, drove 3,354 people from Norfolk villages to Canada between 1835 and 1837, helped and encouraged both by their unions and the parish ratepayers. Others were going even more involuntarily - on the convict ships to Australia. But whether their migration was voluntary or not, these Norfolk men and women of humble origin all helped to populate and develop these two great dominions.

Place names are then only one aspect of the imprint of Norfolk in distant lands. From commercial adventurers and Puritans to impoverished farmers and convicts, all Norfolk migrants made an important and distinctive contribution to their adopted countries.