The Way-Back Machine: Introduction

Immigration is a foundation of America. No other nation has as large an immigrant population as does the United States. With the important exception of those descended from Native peoples and/or enslaved Africans, few people in this country cannot trace at least part of their ancestry to an immigrant—either recently or centuries ago.

Brookings Institution, 2021

No serious study of American history can be undertaken without acknowledging the role played by immigrants.  As the introduction quotation acknowledges, America is founded on the immigrant experience.  Americans are all either indigenous or descended from immigrants – either voluntary or involuntary.  Modern discussions or immigration are frequently bound up in the legal language surrounding immigration – whether someone is “documented” or not, or whether someone followed the rules surrounding immigration.

In this book, I want to tell the story of the immigrants who came before the modern era – even before the great waves of immigrants who built our cities, farmed our land, and fueled the economic growth that created the dominant world power of the second half of the twentieth century.  Most of my immigrant ancestors came to America in the 17th century, before there was anything called America.   My previous research has focused on the lives of them and their descendants in America – what their lives were like, when and why they moved around, and how they intersected the “big history” of their times. 

However, this project focuses on their lives before they came to America – mostly in England, but some in Germany, France, and the Netherlands as well.  This involves accessing and assessing new sources of information about events further removed from me in both time and space.  I had to enter a world I knew little about – a world of pre-industrial (in some ways barely post-medieval) Europe, where the language and customs were very different from my own.  I had to learn a new geography, history, and sensibility.

In his seminal book Albion’s Seed, historian David Hackett Fischer provides a template for analyzing lives so removed from my own.  He identified migration patterns that seems to fit the lives of immigrant ancestors I am trying to write about, and he taught me to ask some important questions about their lives in Europe and their decisions to emigrate.

My first pass at focusing on who to write about identified over 200 ancestors about whom I had at least a little information regarding their European roots.  A second cut at the information pared that number down to more than 100.  I have sorted these immigrant ancestors by location, and have come up with a schedule that will allow me to complete this project by the end of his year.