Uncovering Personalities of the Great Migration

by Robert Charles Anderson

An unexpected benefit of the Great Migration Study Project has been the light thrown on the full range of personalities of the immigrants to New England. By studying exhaustively and systematically every immigrant during the years from 1620 to 1640, we begin to see patterns, and we establish a norm, from which there are the expected deviations.

Along one axis, we have the usual socioeconomic distribution. At one end of the spectrum were a few men and women with exceptional wealth, and, for the men, along with that wealth usually came high political position. We have already published sketches for men such as John Winthrop, Richard Bellingham, John Haynes, and William Coddington. At this same level would also be the ministers, given their central position in New England culture. Here we have treated men such as John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Roger Williams.

At the other end of the scale we find immigrants such as Matthew Abdy and Webb Adey, men who lived on the margins of society, with a bare minimum of the economic essentials. Even these poorest men of the first New England generation were not, however, so forlorn as those on the lowest rungs of society in old England. Nor were the wealthiest and most powerful anywhere near as potent as those at the higher end of the scale in the society they had left behind. Those who chose to move to New England in the 1620s and 1630s were from a relatively narrow band in the middle of the full range of English social strata.

The vast majority of these immigrants were, of course, from the middle of this middle range. Many practiced trades, and most who did not were styled yeomen or husbandmen, reflecting their status in England as comfortable farmers who tilled a substantial amount of land.

When these husbandmen and tradesmen made their settlement in New England, they distributed themselves along a second axis. Most fell into a standard pattern. They married and had a number of children. They were given substantial grants of land, in most instances far more than they had held in old England. They joined the church, and were made freemen. They were frequently called to hold office, whether as jurymen or constables or selectmen. They were occasionally before the courts as plaintiffs or defendants in civil suits, or as perpetrators of minor infractions in criminal cases.

Hundreds of the immigrant families which we have already investigated fall near the center of this second axis of socioeconomic distribution. The backbone of every settlement consisted of dozens of families, and dozens of heads of families, who fell in the middle range of this middle class.

Having now seen so many immigrants in great detail, the few who do not adhere to this central pattern stand out from the norm, and demand our attention. As examples, we will here look closely at two men who fall on either side of this central distribution, William Hatch and William Hannum. Both arrived in New England in 1635 and obtained land grants in the middle range in their respective towns. Both men married and had families, seven children for Hatch and six for Hannum. But here the similarities end. What interests us here is the manner in which these two men differed from the norm in other aspects of their lives.

William Hatch

William Hatch, a resident of Sandwich, Kent, sailed for New England in 1635 on the Hercules . Upon arrival he settled in Scituate, where he resided until his death in 1651. He brought with him his second wife and five children, two other children having died in England prior to the family’s migration. The town of Scituate granted him the usual course of land distributions.

Beyond these basics, William Hatch in some respects seemed to reflect the norm of the middle of the middle stratum. He became a freeman soon after arrival and served in several offices, including participation on grand and petit juries. He was, in fact, a little above the norm, in that he was in 1642 and again in 1645 Deputy from Scituate to the Plymouth Colony General Court, and in 1643 he was appointed Lieutenant of the Scituate trainband.

Were this the totality of what the surviving records had to tell us about William Hatch, we would account him a solid but unremarkable New England immigrant. But in addition to the details of his life which have been outlined above, we find also a steady stream of other notices of this man which tell us a different story.

The very first entry in the volume of "Judicial Acts of the General Court and Court of Assistants" of Plymouth Colony, dated January 3, 1636/7, was a law suit against William Hatch, instituted by Comfort Starr in a case of debt, the jury finding for the plaintiff. This judgment in itself was not remarkable, but, as will be seen, was a portent of things to come. Barely six months later, on June 7, 1637, "whereas William Hatch, of Scituate, is presented for an incroachment upon a piece of ground on this side the river without license of this Court, it is therefore enacted by this Court that the said William Hatch shall reap the crop this year only, and leave the land, which is the mulct laid upon him for his presumption therein."

Not long after these events, Hatch returned to England, and then sailed again for New England on the Castle , bringing with him his brother Thomas and his family. While on this voyage, William Hatch formed a partnership with Thomas Ruck and Joseph Merriam to handle the affairs of the voyage. In August 1639, a year after this transatlantic passage, Ruck and Merriam sued Hatch, claimed he did "overreckon, misreckon, account short & mischarge" various items in the accounts.

Two years later, on September 7, 1641, William Hatch was accused of stating publicly that "the warrants sent from the governor were nothing but stinking commissary warrants." Finally, on March 5, 1643/4, the Court took notice of a dispute between Hatch and his servant Hercules, regarding the length of service of the latter.

Very few men were so frequently recorded in so many forms of disagreeable behavior. Even so, throughout this period, William Hatch continued to hold offices at the colony and town level. His peers and neighbors clearly valued his skills and abilities highly enough to set aside his apparent antisocial behavior, but he may have been skating very close to the edge.

William Hannum

We do not have a passenger ship list entry for William Hannum, but he first appears at Dorchester late in 1635, when he was granted an acre of meadow. This grant would suggest that he had purchased the houselot, and the attached proprietorial privileges, from one of the earlier Dorchester settlers who by that date had migrated to Windsor. Just two years later, on September 10, 1637, Hannum sold all his Dorchester land to Jonas Humphrey, and himself removed to Windsor.

William Hannum was a younger man than William Hatch by a decade or more, and had apparently arrived in New England as a single man. Soon, however, he married Honor Capen, daughter of Bernard Capen, who had come to Dorchester in 1633. With this wife, William Hannum had six children in the decade from 1637 to 1647. In 1654 the family moved to Northampton, where William died on June 1, 1677.

Beyond this history, however, any similarity to the career of William Hatch ceases. No record has been found that William Hannum ever held any public office. He did come before the Court on one occasion, on March 26, 1661, when he presented a "petition to the Court for freedom from training, watching and warding by reason of his age and the weakness of his body, the Court considering his weakness of body, his age and mean estate, have freed him from training, watching and warding."

There is no record that William Hannum was a freeman during his residence at Dorchester, Windsor, or Northampton. Based on the baptism of one of his children at Windsor in 1640, he may have been a member of that church, but this baptism could just as well have been performed on the strength of his wife’s membership.

Hannum emerges from obscurity on only one occasion. In 1656 Sarah, the wife of James Bridgman of Northampton, made some accusations against Mary (Bliss) Parsons, wife of Joseph Parsons, as a result of which the Parsonses sued Sarah Bridgman for slander. On August 11, 1656, both William Hannum and his wife made depositions in support of the Bridgman side of the controversy. [1]

William Hannum recounted his version of three incidents in which Mary (Bliss) Parsons was involved, which might at that time have been accounted instances of witchcraft. Hannum did not himself accuse Parsons of being responsible for the death of his sow and ox. At the end of his deposition, he tried to have it both ways: "These things do something run in my mind that I cannot have my mind from this woman that if she be not right this way she may be a cause of these things, though I desire to look at the overruling hand of God in all."

A week later, on August 18, William Hannum and his wife made a second, very revealing, deposition: "James Bridgman hired them to [go] down to Springfield to give in their testimony or else they would not have gone but that he was very importunate with them." [2]

William Hannum was not himself motivated to become involved in the dispute between the Parsonses and the Bridgmans, and when he was pressured to do so, could not bring himself to speak strongly against Mary Parsons. He even reproached himself for making a mild joke, saying that this "manner of jesting I do not approve or allow of in myself." [3]

William Hatch and William Hannum were in many respects typical New England immigrants of the Great Migration, but their personalities could not have been more different. Hatch apparently missed no opportunity to take a strong position on any issue, be he right or wrong. Hannum apparently made every effort to avoid conflict with his neighbors, and, on the one occasion when he did become involved in a dispute, made it very clear that he would rather not be.

The immigrants of the Great Migration were individuals, and we are assisted in teasing out some details of their personalities, and how those personalities fitted into their communities, by studying all the immigrants, and taking note of what constituted normal behavior, and what behavior fell outside those norms.


1 David D. Hall, Witch-hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England: A Documentary History, 1638–1693 (Northeastern University Press: Boston, 1991), pp. 100–2, citing "Middlesex County Court Records, folder 15."

Ibid., p. 110.

Ibid., p. 101.