Voyagers to the West

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution is truly an epic undertaking. The book is the product of a decade of research by Bernard Bailyn, the distinguished Harvard historian perhaps best known for The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967), winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft Prize. In this opening volume of a projected three-volume study, the author portrays the great transatlantic movement of people from Great Britain on the eve of the American Revolution.

The scope, the analytic breadth of the book, is immense. It is unprecedented in terms of the variety of historical methods used to distill and present a staggering amount of data. Its five parts range from impressionistic descriptions of contemporary events and perceptions to highly sophisticated quantitative analysis. Indeed, the format of Voyagers to the West reflects the complexity of the data sources as well as the multidimensional reality of this varied and vital era in building the American nation.

The matrix source for this volume is an emigration register that listed every person officially known to have embarked from Great Britain for America from December, 1773, to March, 1776. The document also provided personal information about each prospective colonist, such as age, occupation, and reasons for emigrating. Bailyn and his assistant Barbara DeWolfe (“a virtual collaborator,” he calls her) also drew on newspaper accounts, genealogical information, state papers, town records, local histories, and scores of personal manuscript collections on both sides of the Atlantic. Through masterful analysis, Bailyn is able to depict who these people were, where they came from, how they traveled, where they settled, and how they established themselves in their occupations.

The book offers in five sections a progressively refined portrait of pre-Revolutionary War emigration from Great Britain. The first part is a broad overview which explains the critical events of 1772 and 1773 that led Great Britain initially to consider prohibiting all emigration to the Colonies and ultimately—in an effort to understand and control the outflow of people—to compile the official emigration register that is the heart of this book. The mode of presentation in part 1 is descriptive exposition. Here the author discusses the economic and social role of the Colonies as a refuge and source of opportunity for the discontented, impoverished, as well as the venturesome and ambitious of the Western world. After 1760, America was perceived no longer as a Colonial frontier but, rather, as a powerful magnet that attracted all levels of society. The surging exodus evoked concern from Crown officials who fretfully sought a means of regulating and possibly mitigating the consequences of depopulation of key geographic areas as well as loss of skilled artisans and tradesmen.

Bailyn stresses that the tidal movement of people was neither random nor patternless: Beneath the surface of this swarming demographic motion, there was purpose and shape. He first brings into focus the numbers involved in this widespread movement of people. The narrative carefully delimits the geographical sources of emigrants, the flow of traffic from residences to specific ports of exit, and the social and economic forces that prompted the hordes to accept the risks of a hazardous voyage and an uncertain life in the Colonies.

Part 2 offers a cornucopia of data about the emigrants’ social and occupational characteristics—sex, age, family groupings, legal status, reason for emigrating, and final destination—information harvested from a computer-based study of ten thousand emigrants identified in the register. Through careful scrutiny of these data, Bailyn establishes the dimensions and structure of the movement and reveals that there was not simply one surge of people from Great Britain but a dual migration, reflecting contrasting social and economic forces and affecting the developing character of American life in different ways.

Part 3 is an in-depth examination of the first of these two concurrent migrations. It was largely made up of indentured servants from central and southern England who settled in the middle range of Colonies—Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Bailyn explores the geographic and socioeconomic background...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)