The Southern Migration During The 18th Century

When you begin researching your ancestor’s migration within the American colonies, a few questions quickly come to mind. For example, Why did my ancestors move so far? Did they travel alone on the roads? How long did the trip last? What months did they travel? These are just a few examples. I am sure that majority of you have many more questions that would make the list much larger. When one begins to research this time period within their family history, there are several things to keep in mind. I call them the three most important factors. One, understanding your ancestor’s origins. Two, understanding the social status of your ancestor. And, three, understanding the religious beliefs of your ancestor. I will explain the reasons for these important factors and much more in this segment of, “The Southern Migration.”

Family migration to the southern colonies began, for the most part, during the later years of the Great Awakening. This places the timeline between the years of 1745 to 1760. In order to understand the migration, you first have to understand the colonies. The American colonies compared to the mother country of England, were very different in many aspects. One important factor displaying the differences are that people owned property, namely landholders. In England, 20% of citizens owned land while the remaining 80% were tenants, farm laborers, etc. In the colonies, these numbers change drastically from 60% owning land in a population that was steadily growing. As a land owner in the American colonies, you were also given the privileges to vote and participate in local government activities. Each colony by 1760, held the mechanisms and basic operations of a legislature which defined the needed policies to govern themselves as an independent nation. Also, by 1760, many families contained a history with their colony for several generations and no longer held personal ties with England or their foreign home.

New England Colonies

The thirteen colonies of America were divided into three regions. They were the New England colonies, the Middle colonies and the Southern colonies. Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, together comprise the New England colonies. The people of these colonies were mainly Puritan and governed themselves by strict guidelines. Connecticut required all new arrivals of “freemen” to be placed on a probation period consisting of two years prior to being eligible to own property and to become a church member. If the person/persons arrived as an indentured servant, all debts were to be paid in full and then placed on a two year probation period prior to owning land, voting and becoming a church member. Each small community was guided by the Puritan church and it’s pastor. Routine visit were conducted by the church in order to assure residents were living and acting in the correct manner according to the church.

Rhode Island, on the other hand, was somewhat different as distinguishing separation from the church and state. The citizens were mainly Puritan, however, many Quakers and Jews settled in this area as well. Rhode Island was the last colony to be named as a new state by the United States. Even George Washington by-passed the state during his southern tour, claiming it was another country. New Hampshire gained it’s first independence from Massachusetts, not England in 1741. They elected Benning Wentworth as governor and remained under his leadership until the year of 1766. Massachusetts, the largest of the New England colonies was established by Puritans and did not encourage the freedom of religion by other settlers. They held strict morals similar to Connecticut.

Majority of the settlers residing in the New England colonies did participate with the Great Awakening however; for the most part, they did not participate in the Southern Migration. That is not to say that settlers from these areas did not migrate south, they did. But the majority of them remained loyal to their colony or as they personally thought, loyal to their country, until well after the American Revolutionary War.

Middle Colonies

The Middle colonies were comprised of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Various religious groups arrived to these areas in vast numbers due to the less strict guidelines associated with the individual colony legislature versus the New England colonies. Within these 4 colonies, you would find, English, Swedes, Scots-Irish, French, Native Americans and Africans. Among these were Quakers, Mennonites, Lutherans, Dutch Calvinists and Presbyterians.

As more and more ships were docking and unloading new arrivals of immigrants in Philadelphia, it became apparent that the German language was quickly transforming into the most popular language of the area. New settlements moving slowly towards the frontier sections were more numerous especially during the early to mid 18th century. Colonial status was prevalent among the Middle colonies but, it would not have been so obvious to the eye. In other words, the middle colonies had more of a “middling” ground when it came to status and class. You certainly had the large plantation owners who were wealthy in land and currency but the more common class was in between the wealthy and very poor. Majority of the population in the Middle colonies owned land and landowners were entitled to other privileges such as voting, etc. The population among the Middle colonies grew at a staggering rate during the early to late 18th century. This combined with regular population growth restricted the availability of land within the settlement area. The allowed settlement area was restricted by the Appalachian Mountains and the Indian tribes of the Iroquois Nation.

Southern Colonies

The Southern colonies were comprised of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia. Virginia was the first of the colonies, founded during the year of 1607. Maryland was established in 1634 while North Carolina was organized in 1653. South Carolina began it’s journey during the year of 1663 and Georgia is listed as origin date of 1732. The sections west of the eastern seaboard were nearly uninhabited during the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s. The signing of the Lancaster Treaty in 1744, created a new route to these areas. This route was known as the “Great Warrior’s Path and later known as the Great Wagon Road. The establishment of other roads also existed, such as the Fall Line, Upper Road and others. These connected to the King’s Highway which ran along a line north and south within the coastal areas of the colonies.

Picture Taken at Tennessee State Museum

Southern Migration

The people who migrated south during this first major migration were distinctive in many ways. First of all, they were “risk-takers”. They were independent and were willing to push for what they wanted. They were always on the outlook of prospering themselves and their families. Majority of these early travelers were first generation immigrants to the American colonies. Although, several older families were known to travel south as well, most of these were 2nd, 3rd and 4th born sons who were destined to receive smaller portions of their father’s estates.

According to ship lists of the time period, it stands to reason that the first families to migrate south were the Germans, Swiss, Scots-Irish and Irish. These were the majority of immigrants arriving to ports during the short period prior to the migration.

The conditions of life in all of the colonies were filled with many new freedoms, especially to those who owned land. In fact, owning land established status within the community which also brought forward many opportunities that otherwise would not be available to the person. Learning of new lands in an area not yet settled was irresistible, to say the least. For many the concept would enter the minds of creating and establishing new legislature and this idea would tailor to their own personal needs and opinions. This reason alone was enough for these early travelers to commit to the trip. These men were seeking prosperity and a change in community personal status among their neighbors, peers and family. What better way to do this then to settle in a new land? This was the very reason why these immigrants came to America.

As the Southern colonies began to grow with daily travelers, small communities and villages would emerge. New churches were established and businesses were organized and founded. Many purchased land or submitted a land warranty claim. After improvements and fees were paid, a warranty claim would become a land deed, thus improving colonial status. In order to continue to grow, many landowners obtained contracts for indentured servants to be used for labor. Others would also purchase slaves from the African slave traders, England and Scotland. These transactions were considered as property of the land owner until debts were paid by the indentured servant or freedom was given to the slave.

The roads that led south quickly became the main trade routes for the farmers with their harvests and livestock. More and more new routes were added through the years while even more new settlements were established among the Southern colonies. Soon, courthouses were designated and new legislature for counties and districts were planned. By the time of the American Revolutionary War, the Southern colonies were just as developed as their counterparts to the north.

In conclusion, several reasons contributed to the first southern migration. The obvious and probably the most important being prosperity with more freedom. All early families were aware of the dangers associated with moving south, but each one chose to pursue the journey thinking the advantages outweighed the disadvantages. While traveling together in groups, these families were determined to reach their destination. If you refer back to the three important factors, you can get more of an idea on why your ancestors left their current home to venture south. You can further began to understand what path they would’ve taken to reach their destination. Keep in mind that religion played a factor as well. I will be discussing the religion topic in a much more detailed article in the coming month.

As you discover the truths of your ancestors travels, be sure to look for the ending result of their southern migration. Connect the details and determine if their trip was a success or a failure. And, if they indeed found prosperity and freedom? Thank You all so much for your support of Piedmont Trails. Be sure to Follow the website and receive notifications about updates to the site by way of your email. If you have a comment or a suggestion, I would love to hear from you. As always, I wish you well with your research and Enjoy Your Journey To The Past !!


  • America, A Narrative History-New York 2016 David Shi and George Tindall
  • Colonial Life-New York 2000 January Brendan
  • Documentary provided by speaker Aaron Fogleman 2015
  • Lectures given by Joanne Freeman of Yale University 2011
  • Massachusetts, A Concise History-Amherst University of Massachusetts Press, 2000 Richard Brown and Jack Tager
  • Religion In Colonial America-Oxford University Press-New York-2000-Jon Butler

4 replies »

  1. I do not believe that the majority of the early settlers in the South were first generation immigrants to the American colonies, as you claim. If you study genealogy for any area, you will see that almost every settler was moving from an older colony, especially Virginia and Maryland. My own ancestors moved to Western North Carolina after the Cherokee were defeated, mostly in the 1750s and 1760s. They came from various parts of Virginia, from Maryland, from the Swedish settlement of the Delaware Valley, from New Jersey (the Jersey Settlement of Rowan County), from Pennsylvania, even from Massachusetts Some had been in the colonies since the early to mid-1600s and were fourth or fifth generation American colonists. Most were of English background, with a few Swedish, German, and Irish. For the most part, they came looking for land.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My husband’s family lived in Onslow County, NC from the 1760’s (unknown before that time) and left for Effingham County, GA in 1785. We were fortunate to find a letter written by the son of the oldest known ancestor in which he stated that the family left Onslow County on the 29th day of April and arrived safely on the 31st of May. He had written that letter on 23rd day of April 1803. Our oldest known ancestor was born in 1737, location unknown. I doubt that he was an immigrant. I have read that many came into Onslow from southern counties of VA like Amelia, Brunswick, and Lunenburg, but I have no proof that this was true for him. They came to Onlsow County to work, tapping the tall pine trees for turpentine for the growing boat industry. By the 1780’s most of those trees were dead and had been cut down for wood for boat building and local businesses and homes. My husband’s ancestors left for Georgia and being a Revolutionary War Soldier, I believe he had a land grant. From working on the family tree, I can say for sure that families traveled from Onslow to Effingham together and that in the 1840’s and 1850’s some of my husband’s direct line moved from Effingham County to Alachua County, FL, along with other families from the area. Some of his family ended up staying in south Georgia in what is now the Valdosta area.

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  3. This is absolutely fascinating stuff. I’ve conducted only casual genealogical research on my paternal side. It traces backward from MS to AL to the Carolinas, at which point it may have come from VA. If I can trust the nugget I found on, part of the family came to VA from England in the late 17th-early 18th C. It’s all speculation, based on a brief look at the work of others. I haven’t done much work of my own, so I have little hard documentation.

    What I do not understand, what befuddles me, is how a family that wound up very poor, as my paternal lines all did, could afford migration at all. Was it poverty that drove them to migrate or was migration what drove them into poverty? Or both? Also, the information on Geni claims relation to English nobility. How could that have even come about, that aristocrats trace to poor farmers barely scratching out a living?

    Just thinking out loud. I doubt anyone’s listening to my rambles! But thank you for this wonderfully informative post. I’m off to do more research.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear you loud and clear, Lisa. Various reasons would contribute to why the family’s status may have changed from aristocracy to poor stature. Keep your timeline in focus as you research for the answers. Migrations during the 18th-century occurred with all social classes, and you need the details of your parental family to determine the whys and the hows. The records are out there. I encourage you to look closely at the family’s surroundings, such as their neighbors and friends, and study them as well. The majority of migrating families held one common goal, and that is prosperity. They each sought the means to live out their dreams and better themselves financially. Other reasons come into play, but this common aspect seems to top the list. Also, keep in mind that families traveled together. The traveling group may lead you to understand more about the initial reasoning for the move. Please keep us updated on your findings, and wishing you well on your journey to the past.


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