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On Books

Voyagers to the West

Bernard Bailyn

Knopf; 668 pages; $30.

BERNARD BAILYN rarely takes on a project without the challenges of discovering attics of old letters, logbooks, and ledgers, or whole libraries of journals written in pre-Revolutionary script. His latest book, Voyagers to the West--A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution, fits right into the Bailyn tradition.

But this is the first volume that the legendary American history professor has produced that includes colored glossies of runaway servants described in colonial newspaper notices. And this is in addition to 51 tables and graphs, 20 maps and 34 portraits, documents and contemporary scenes.

Bailyn's 668-page tome--the first in a series on population movements--documents the lives of English and Scottish emigrants to the colonies between 1773 and 1776, the last Anglo-Saxon group to reach the East Coast before the American Revolution.

Although the book succeeds in illuminating a previously understudied area of immigration history, Bailyn frustrates the reader with his long explanations of his numerous charts and tables. Struggling through the first third of the book is worthwhile, however, as he goes on to display his unique ability to imagine and to sketch the lives of these British emigrants based on the thin documentation that remain.

BAILYN BASES his quantitative analysis on a massive computer survey of the Register of Emigrants, a British document listing and briefly describing every person officially known to have left Britain from December 1773 to March 1776. The Register--a survey compiled by custom officials at ports of debarkation--was to measure the degree of "American madness" which was purportedly sweeping the land, draining Britain economically as well as demographically.

With the fast approaching Revolutionary War, the Register never fulfilled its original purpose but the document has survived as a treasury of information for historians. Although Bailyn relies heavily on the data from these ledgers, he is careful to ennumerate the limitations of relying on the record-keeping of local port officials.

With this disclaimer, Bailyn counts exactly 9868 individuals who officially left for the colonies between December 1773 and March 1776. Using a variety of other sources including American port entry legers, he estimates that the total emigration to the colonies during these few months on the eve of the Revolution was between 10,000 and 15,300.

In the first two sections, Bailyn identifies a "dual emigration" of future Americans, some coming from urban London, others leaving from the rural northern provinces. Although his treatment of the data is rigorous, it is more than 150 pages of slow, dry reading.

THE LAST THREE sections of the book more than make up for this statistical start. Using letters, newspapers, journals and state documents, Bailyn fleshes out the data from the Register, introducing fascinating characters and stories from the Revolution.

Emigrants from London, 83 percent of whom were male, were often drawn by the fortunes that could be made in the American iron industry and the rapidly growing construction business. Craftsmen of all kinds were in demand in the booming colonies, especially in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. Bailyn identifies the hardships of living in the great metropolis of London as an important motivation for emigration, terming the city with typical flair, "a tumultuous human agglomeration abounding in contrasts between wealth and poverty, elegance and brutality, beauty and squalor."

The emigration of Scots and farmers from northern England was typified by families complete with women, young children and servants, fleeing the disgrace of poverty. These immigrants often moved to the current frontiers, the coasts of Nova Scotia and Florida and the land at the western edge of the Appalachians.

Bailyn uses the Register as a pair of binoculars to focus on the origins and destinations of specific people--like James Metcalf Jr., a 27-year-old Methodist farmer who left his native Hawnby, Scotland in 1772 to settle in a remote outpost of Nova Scotia.

Metcalf, who ventured into the new world without his fiancee, wrote an enthusiastic letter back to her four months after his arrival. He had already purchased land, found the other inhabitants pleasing, and complained only of, "a little flye caled a misketo that...bites like a midge," but even those could be kept out of the house with smoke pots, he guaranteed. Ending his plea with, "May ye Lord bles you, and conduct you safe hither," his story becomes just one of Bailyn's many revealing glimpses into the era.

Bailyn's book goes far beyond the important conclusions of his statistical data; it illuminates the hardships, the challenges, the fears, the failures and the triumphs of this narrow but crucial group of American immigrants. As the first volume, Voyagers to the West pioneers what may become the most important series in the annals of early American history.