Wondering Why We Left

About six months ago, after about a full year of a very deep dive into my family’s genealogy…tracing many of my maternal lines back to America’s early colonies…I began to ponder on why these people left. Why did so many British, Scottish, and Irish peasants leave their homeland…risk their lives…to arrive in an unknown and unwelcoming place.

I decided, without reading any resource, that things must have been terrible for them in their homelands. Why else would people leave?

While pondering this question, I stumbled across a reference to Joanna Brooks’ book, “Why We Left.” I purchased the book and read it within a couple of weeks. As a mother of a 5 year old, that is record time for me! A book these days normally takes me half a year.

The essential bits of information I gleaned from this book:
– the impact of enclosures of the land (16th and 17th centuries) and the rise of the mercantile class on the livelihoods of English peasants
– the creation of a landless, wage earning class (due to making subsistence living basically illegal)
– the fact that 2/3 of America’s first immigrants were these ‘landless, wage-earning’ class of English folks (including orphans, ‘criminals’, and highwaymen) — their story is quite different from the Puritan English that many think of…
– the many tactics and techniques used to force or coerce English folks to settle the New World
– the fact that Puritan writings are plenty as they were educated; only a few morsels of writings exist from indentured servants of the early Chesapeake colonies as most people were illiterate

What I thought was so brilliant about this book is that the author traces the old English ballads across the waters into places like Appalachia (where they still are sung). Because hardly any written records exist of the conditions of he early indentured servants, ballads are one of the only ways to sense how life was for these early immigrants. Personally, having lived in Western North Carolina, I heard these ballads still sung to today with that same dead-pan glare, staring off into the distance as the most horrible circumstances were recounted in song.

Brooks writes, “…I hear voices in these ballads that chill me with their darkness and bitterness: tale after tale of betrayal, loss, revenge, child abandonment, and murder.”


Another question I have pondered, having been raised in Mississippi and New Orleans, is where the resentment, the hardship, the racism, and the not-enoughness came from in those parts and surrounding region. This brought me to another book titled “Black Indians” by William Loren Katz. One thing that struck me the deepest was this text,

“Since all three races were abused under this system, they often rebelled and escaped. Reward notices of the time tell of red, black, and white men and women fleeing their masters — sometimes together.

The first Africans introduced into Jamestown’s economy in 1619 became indentured servants, not slaves. Upon their release, they became part of the Virginia colony. Some became landowners, and one, Anthony Johnson, ruled an African community of twelve homesteads and two hundred acres in Virginia’s Northampton County.

In the 1630s the rules of indenture began to change. It became legal to hold Africans or Indians for more than the usual seven years, even for life. The change began on the English-rules island of Barbados when the governor announced ‘that Negroes and Indians…should serve for life, unless a contract was made to the contrary.’ And beginning in 1636, only whites received contracts of indenture.

British America had taken a large step in dividing labor by race and reserving the worse for dark people. More and more white laborers were pouring into the thirteen British colonies, and masters did not want them making common cause with Africans or Native Americans. Masters had probably concluded their profitable labor system would work only as long as whites did not see their condition and fate as identical as nonwhites.”

Reading Brooks’ book and then finding this passage in Katz’s book made the text really grab me. It showed the point in history when the races were divided and even pitted against each other. I sense that one of the wounds that ails us now in America started in the 1630s. What do we do when generations of white people have benefited from a rigged system? What do we do when Native and African descendants come from long lines of systemic oppression.

While I wasn’t moved by the stories of black and mixed Native & black frontiersmen outlined in parts of the book, I will say that the story of the Seminoles was incredibly moving for me. The fact that they never saw justice after years of living a just life brought me to tears, actually. If you don’t know the story of the Seminoles, I encourage you to pick up Katz’s book to read about it. It is a sobering tale of true freedom fighters.

I can’t help but think that the exploitative scaffolding of early America still haunts us to this day. And, I wonder when we will actually get the courage to see it as it is…


Here is a well-made video by the Parks Society (Parks genealogy society) that I am a member of through the lineage of my great grandfather, William Ambrose Parks of Winston County, MS. It actually goes over the settlement pattern of two different groups of English/Scottish folks in our early American history. The Puritans, making up about 1/3 of these early immigrants, migrated to Maryland and north of that… They came over in complete family systems… The ‘vagrants’ that England sent over to the Chesapeake Bay consisted of 2/3 of the early immigrants…and these were part of an indentured servant system (7 years indenture in America versus 1 year of indenture in England, by the way).

You can also sense the echo of the two different groups of immigrants by the story of these two slaves that escaped their ‘masters’ in South Carolina. They fled to Massachusetts, a strong-hold for slave abolition. In the story, you see how the folks in Massachusetts treated and thought of the bounty hunters from South Carolina. I think that perspective is rooted in the two different histories of Massachusetts and South Carolina…meaning who originally settled those places.


Here are some excerpts that I collected from Brooks’ book ‘Why We Left’ to reflect on some more:

“That founding act of running away, the violent breaks it entailed, the abandonment of home places and kinspeople, how have these impacted not only the lives of early Anglo-American immigrants? Have their impacts been passed down through the generations?”

“For though five to seven times as many English migrated to the Chesapeake as to New England, it is New England Puritans who crafted most surviving English-language literature from 17th Century North America. When I stand before a lecture hall and teach the beginnings of American culture, there is virtually nothing I can share with my students to evoke the perspectives and feelings of the largest part of this continent’s early English migration. Just a few scraps of paper floating on an ocean of ideology and forgetting.”

“England and other European countries transformed their own lands, economies, and societies through a process of internal colonization that entailed the privatization of the lands. The transformation of subsistence economies into market and export economies in, the termination of traditional peasant life ways tied closely to subsistence on the land, and the structural exclusion of newly landless poor from modern nation-states.”

“During the 16th century, only about 4% of open fields lands was enclosed; by the 17th century , the grew to about 50%”

“New pressures, too, came from unprecedented growth in the English population which doubled over the course of one century, from an estimated 2.5 million in 1520 to 5 million in 1680, growing 40% between 1580 and 1640 alone.”

“As the population grew, prices rose, wages declined, diets deteriorated, and family size shrunk.”

“Courts sometimes hung men for being without a means of making a living, and in London the heads of men hung for crimes as slim as coin-clipping were boiled in bay-salt and cumin seeds and put on pikes for public display.”

“Promoters of Virginia plantations were especially influential in their arguments for using colonization as a solution for the new class of landless poor. Edward Williams in his treatise ‘Virginia More Especially the South Part Thereof, Richly and Truly Valued’ (1650) cited disposal of surplus populations (including the indigent, debtors, prisoners, parish charges, highwaymen, and orphans) among the primary objectives of American colonization.”

“We were not exceptional when we boarded those English merchant ships, two hundred of us at a time, indenture agreements (if we were lucky) tucked inside the breast of our canvas coats. It was not stroke of personal genius. It was not foresight. It was not luck. It was the massive impersonal forces of history, the violent dislocations of economic modernization and war…”

“One quarter to one half of new arrivals to the Chesapeake died in one year due to the rigors of their “seasoning” or to diseases like dysentery, typhoid, and malaria.”

“In England, indentures customarily lasted one year; in Virginia, seven.”

“About 7% of freed (indentured) servants were able to claim the fifty acres often promised them.”

“Even those who made their way to tracts of public land newly expropriated from the indigenous peoples of Virginia and the Carolinas, reported one contemporary observer, were ‘neither able to sustain themselves nor to discharge their moiety, and so dejected with their scarce provisions…most gave themselves over and die of melancholy.”

“In 1619, 700 poor children residing at London’s Bridewell prison-hospital were exported by the Virginia Company to work as laborers. At least 1,000 more were exported in 1627, as were 400 Irish children in 1653. Orphans made up nearly 2/3 of the young people how left London for American in the 1680s.”

“Some of us watched our loved ones scatter out across the countryside, then ocean, then continent, without having so much as ever seen a map of the places they were headed. Some of us said goodbye to the homeland that had shown itself so ready to dispose of its people. And we crossed the ocean and found that in the new colonial world, as in England, betrayal, abandonment, and memory loss would also govern modernity. We would never again hold on to a place or know the spirits that it belonged to.”

“When we enclosed land and expropriated indigenous lands, unjustly extracted value from the lives and labors of others, we were operating according to the grim new rules of the modern world we had learned back in England. What we did until others in America was what had been done unto us.”



The disposables…
The unwanted…
The thrown across the ocean onto unknown lands and barely surviving…

The fear of not knowing…
The hunger in the bellies…
The darkness of the night…

The children born from wombs shaking of scarcity…
In the way…
Can’t be fed…
Clinging to a mother’s breast who is tired and without care, herself…
…lost in a New World…

Broken promises and betrayal…
Desperation frames their faces and shapes their brows…

We did not come here free, my friends…
And, we still do not know it yet…

If we dive deep
into that eye-narrowing resentment
that shapes the dark underbelly of the New World,
I think we will
start to find
some answers.

Through clenched teeth,
they made a living.

Through clenched teeth,
their unwritten words
still haunt us
in the cultural ghosts
birthed from forgotten histories.

(by Lindsay Kolasa ~ Jan 31, 2023)

7 thoughts on “Wondering Why We Left

  1. Fascinating! This makes so much sense. Our sad history forgotten and left behind. Our resentment still visible through our hateful actions towards each other. A fear and a struggle to survive long ago forgotten.

  2. Hi, Lindsay!

    I’m sooo far behind that I’m only just now reading this and want to THANK YOU so very much for it. It is fascinating. I have spent hundreds of hours on genealogy classes thru our Adult Ed and SB Genealogical Society and wondered why exactly my Celtic Irish-Scottish-Welsh (not English) ancestors came over and will get these books and read them. But like you I don’t read much due to lack of time. May you spend all your time so happily with your little one as I did, I know zero about world events during all those years and only now that he’s out of college and thriving can I get back to thinking about other things outside of him and work.

    Love You,


    • Hi there Barbara! Good to hear from you and what you have been learning through local resources! ‘Why We Left’ is the book that most directly applies to your Irish-Scottish-Welsh roots… Hope you get a chance to read it!

      • Thanks! Just ordered the book from Amazon, can’t wait to read it! Was challenging to find until I entered the author’s name, because there is a recent book with the identical title but about ex-pat Americans who moved to Mexico.

        Blessings and Hugs,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s