Bound for America
Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775
by A. Roger Ekirch
Janice Farnsworth for sending
Dinsmore Documentation presents
Classics of American Colonial History
Author: Butler, James Davie
Title: "British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies."
Citation: American Historical Review 2 (October 1896): 12-33
HTML by Dinsmore Documentation * Added May 13, 2002
BRITISH CONVICTS SHIPPED TO AMERICAN COLONIES
In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, "Sir, they
are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may
allow them short of hanging." In the latest edition of Boswell, who
chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote:
"Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to
one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr.
Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent
might be about 50,000 altogether."1 Again, in the Encyclopędia
Britannica, under the article "Botany Bay," we read: "On the revolt of
the New England colonies, the convict establishments in America were no
longer available, and so the attention of the British government was
turned to Botany Bay, and in 1787 a penal settlement was formed there."
In keeping with these statements is a conversation related in the
autobiography of Dr. Francis Lieber (p. 180). The scene was a breakfast
in 1844 at Dr. Ferguson's in London. "I remarked how curious a fact it
was that all American women look so genteel and refined, even the
lowest; small heads, fine silky hair, delicate and marked eyebrows. The
Doctor answered, 'Oh, that is easily accounted for. The super-abundance
of public women, who are always rather good-looking, were sent over to
America in early times.'"
These English views of the United States in the colonial period as penal
settlements and convict establishments move incredulity and indignation
in Americans, with whom Plymouth stands for a colony of conscience,
Massachusetts for an asylum of martyrs, and Virginia for the old
dominion of high-bred cavaliers. But a student who would nothing
extenuate nor set down aught in malice - falsa dicere, nec vera reticere
- is bound to ascertain how far a convict element really pervaded our
In this research he will find little help from our standard histories.
Bancroft, in 1887, conversing with the present writer, freely admitted
that, when speaking of felons among our settlers, he had been very
economical in dispensing the truths he had
1 Boswell's Johnson, II. 312; Penny Cyclopędia, XXV. 138.
discovered. Having a handful, he had opened only his little finger. He
wrote too early to expect that American eyes could bear the light of
full disclosures. Writing of the early Virginians, he said: "Some of
them were even convicts; but it must be remembered the crimes of which
they were convicted were chiefly political. The number transported to
Virginia for social crimes was never considerable."1 Most other writers
have held that, among transports shipped to America, political offenders
formed a large majority. Such criminals it was felt were less likely to
be stained with moral guilt, and it was patriotic, if not natural, to
exaggerate their number.
It seems certain that among the felons sent to New England, by far the
largest element was made up of prisoners taken in battle. A letter from
Rev. John Cotton to Cromwell, dated Boston, July 28, 1651, states that
"sundry Scots taken by him at Dunbar, September 2, 1650, had arrived
there and been sold, not for slaves to perpetual servitude, but for six
or seven or eight years," etc. That the word "sundry" meant one hundred
and fifty we learn from the British Calendar, Domestic Series, for 1650.
On September 19, the Council of State ordered 150 Scotch prisoners
delivered to be sent to New England by John Foot; on October 23, it was
ordered that they be shipped away forthwith, and, on November 11, that
they be delivered to Augustus Walker, master of the Unity, for
transportation to New England.2 In 1650 Dr. Stone, a Massachusetts
agent, bought several Scotch prisoners from Tothill jail, London. Again,
of the prisoners taken at Worcester, September 3, 1651, two hundred and
seventy-two were shipped to New England on the John and Sarah from
London, and arrived in Boston the following spring. Their names, derived
from the "Hutchinson Papers," were printed in the New England Historical
and Genealogical Register (I. 377)3
The number deported to Virginia from among the Scotch made prisoners at
the battle of Worcester was much smaller than is generally stated. Thus,
in Ballagh's White Servitude in the Colony of Virginia, a recent issue
of the Johns Hopkins press, we read (p. 35): "Of the Scotch prisoners
taken at the battle
1 History of the United States, I. 443.
2 It is possible that Foot and Walker each brought over 150 Scots, so
that the whole number of Dunbar prisoners transported was 300.
3 These Worcester prisoners are described through mistake by Winsor as
having been made captives at Dunbar. Memorial History of Boston, I. 304;
IV. 659. Both references are to the same misnomer. According to the
latter, "in 1652 the John and Sarah arrived bringing 272 Scotchmen who
had been taken prisoners at the disastrous battle of Dunbar," etc.
of Worcester sixteen hundred and ten were sent to Virginia in 1651."
Bancroft gives some countenance to such an assertion. But Bruce, though
he loves to swell the number of political transports, says, in his
Economic History of Virginia (I. 608): "After the defeat of Charles II.
at Worcester, his soldiers who were seized on that occasion were
disposed of to merchants, and at least sixteen hundred were thus
conveyed to America. The Parliamentary fleet in which they were
transported sailed first to Barbadoes. . . . We have certain information
of the arrival of only one hundred and fifty Scotch servants in the
Colony when the fleet arrived in 1651." There is no certainty, however,
as to even the handful which Bruce specifies. According to the Domestic
Calendar for 1650, the Council of State, on September 19, really ordered
nine hundred Scotch prisoners to be delivered to Samuel Clark for
transportation to Virginia, and two hundred to Isaac Le Gay for the same
purpose, but on October 23 it ordered to stay these prisoners, "till
assurance be given of their not being carried where they may be
dangerous." Furthermore, Gardiner, the latest and most accurate
historian of the Commonwealth (I. 464), declares there is no proof that
these political felons were sent abroad at all. All we know is that
certain Bristol merchants who had contracted to transport a thousand of
them to New England, broke their contract. Those unfortunates, he
thinks, may have been sent back to Scotland, in accordance with another
order which he cites.
Regarding men implicated in Monmouth's rebellion, Ballagh says (p. 35),
"a number of them were sent to Virginia in 1685." Bancroft was of the
same opinion, and says "the suppression of Monmouth's rebellion gave to
the colony useful citizens" with a page more of declamation (I. 471).
The truth is that not one of Monmouth's 841 condemned men was sentenced
to Virginia or shipped thither. Macaulay, Mackintosh, and the Calendar
all agree that their destination was "Jamaica, Barbadoes, or any of the
Leeward Islands in America." If any were carried to Virginia, it was the
remnant that did not prove salable on the islands. Hotten's list
mentions Barbadoes and Jamaica often but Virginia never as to Monmouth's
It seems well established that some political convicts had been
introduced into Virginia in the time of Charles II. Thus Bruce relates
(I. 611) that in 1678, when the uprising in Scotland had been
suppressed, a considerable proportion of the prisoners
1 Macaulay, History, I. 602; Mackintosh, History of the Revolution of
1688, p. 703; Calendar.
were shipped to America. The king in that year addressed a letter to
Lord Culpeper, ordering him to permit Ralph Williamson to bring into the
colony and to dispose of fifty-two persons implicated in the
insurrection, and Culpeper was still further directed to suffer
Williamson to land all others guilty of the same offences in Scotland
who might be hereafter delivered to him. At the same time, as Bruce
adds, the king ordered his provincial officers to treat as invalid all
Virginia laws which prohibited the importation of British felons. Such
laws may have been suggested by the chronicle that after the fall of
Drogheda in 1649 the surviving prisoners were shipped across the
Atlantic; that the next winter two vessels set out from London, with
prisoners designed for the plantations in Virginia; that in 1653 Richard
Netherway of Bristol was permitted to export from Ireland a hundred
Tories, who were to be sold as slaves in Virginia; and that other
batches, some still larger, of Irish unfortunates were there imported.
Yet no proof appears that any of the Drogheda prisoners were transported
to Virginia. Cromwell himself mentions Barbadoes as their destination.1
The Scotch prisoners in the Preston campaign of 1648 were sent to
Some of the men at that time brought into Virginia from New York as
convicts were felons only in the eye of martial law. Thus, previous to
the year 1665, the English invaders of Long Island attacked New Amstel
on South River. Many of the Dutch colonists they sold as slaves in
Virginia.3 Other convicts guilty of no moral transgressions came from
other colonies. Thus, the General Court in Boston ordained that Quakers
who had not wherewithal to pay their fines (and they were enormous)
should be sold for bondmen or bondwomen to Barbadoes, Virginia, or any
of the English plantations.4
After the Mar and Derwentwater rising, in 1716, two shiploads of
defeated Jacobites, "out of His Majesty's abundant clemency," class of
political offenders would have come to both Virginia and New England, -
and that in great numbers, - through the Conventicle Act of 1664. But
that law, which expelled from England a noble army of martyrs, expressly
forbade t; were deported, eighty in the ship Friendship, and fifty-five
in the Good Speed, and were sold in Maryland.5 A most
desirableransporting them to either Virginia or New England, and so they
1 Carlyle, II. 66.
2 Gardiner, Civil War, III 448.
3 N. Y. Colonial Docs., II, 369.
4 Besse, Sufferings of Quakers, I. xxxi.
5 Scharf, I. 385.
signed to the torrid sugar islands.1 If cargoes could not all be sold
there, there is reason to think that the remnant in some way was carried
on into continental colonies.
Some political offenders in the eighteenth century were, no doubt, sold
into a longer or shorter American servitude. The Historical Register for
1718 notes (p. 46) a trial in the Admiralty Court of Mutineers on "a
ship bound to the plantations with thirty prisoners taken in the late
rebellion at Preston, whom they set ashore at St. Martin's in France,"
etc. Again, the Gentleman's Magazine states, on May 31, 1747, that "430
rebel prisoners from the jails of Lancaster, Carlisle, Chester, York,
and Lincoln were transported this month from Liverpool to the
plantations. Eight of them were drowned by a boat over-setting, not
being able to swim because handcuffed. This number, with the rest, makes
above a thousand rebels transported."2
But throughout the whole colonial era a large class, and probably a
majority, of the convicts shipped to America were not political
offenders. Details on this matter will be sought in vain where we have
reason to look for them. Thus Hotten's table of contents includes
"serving men sold for a term of years," but never shows that any one of
them was a felon, except politically. Mr. Bruce, however, in his
admirable Economic History of Virginia, devotes many pages to an inquiry
how far the company under which the first plantation was made had been
willing to accept criminal or dissolute persons for transportation (I.
589-600). He cites a declaration of that company in 1609, that they
would accept no man who could not bring testimonials that he was moral
and religious.3 Yet in a sermon before that same company the next year,
the preacher did not deny that they sent base and disordered men, but
added that, "The basest and worst men trained up in a severe discipline,
a hard life, etc., do prove good citizens."4 The company's declaration
must have been of a piece with the more modern law that no man not of
good moral character shall be licensed to keep a saloon. In the next
year, 1611, Governor Dale wrote from Virginia begging the king to
"banish hither all offenders condemned to die out of common goales, and
likewise to continue that grant for three years unto the colonie (and
thus doth the Spaniard people his Indes) it would be a readie way to
furnish us with men, and not allways with the worst kind of men," etc.
He goes on to show that criminals would be better colonists
1 Besse, I. xiv.
2 XVII. 246.
3 Brown, Genesis of the United States, 353.
4 Ibid., 364.
than "the three hundred he had been enforced to bring over gathered by
It does not appear that the governor's request was granted, but there is
no reason to think that he changed his opinion as to the colonial value
of felons. He remained supreme in Virginia for five years afterward, and
did much to build it up. It is not unlikely that he obtained some
recruits of the criminal class he preferred. At all events, his
suggestion was a leaven whose working was soon manifest. Sir Thomas
Smith, in 1617, secured from Oxford jail five reprieved prisoners "to be
transported to Virginia, or other parts beyond the seas." Others
convicted of felony, as Knott and Throckmorton, delivered to him out of
Newgate, arrived in Virginia in 1618.1 Rogers, sentenced to be hung for
manslaughter, was transported to Virginia on the ground that he was a
skilful carpenter.2 Carter and Francke, felons, came in 1622.
In 1619 the king had sent for transportation to Sir Thomas Smith divers
young people who had been twice punished but not reformed, and the same
year commanded the Virginia company to transport fifty similar criminals
at once.3 Bruce (I. 602) gives particulars concerning a dozen other
felons, nine of them females, shipped to Virginia before 1636. Others in
the reign of James I. - as Elizabeth Hendsley, or Ralph Rookes - are
noted by the British editor of Middlesex Records4 as "interesting to
persons seeking particulars touching the history of Virginia." The same
records show others in the forties, and in 1655, under the Commonwealth,
name ten felons, - six of them women, transported at once to Virginia, -
using for the first time the word "transported" as a substitute for
"reprieved," which had been previously used. They also record that in
1665 under Charles II. twenty-four convict felons were ordered to be
shipped "within two months for the island (sic) of Virginia, or
Barbadoes or some other part of America inhabited by British subjects."5
In 1667 eighteen convicts were transported to Virginia6 and in 1670
cattle killers and burners of corn-stacks became liable according to
statute either to death or to transportation to the plantations. The
provincial authorities of Virginia, the same year, passed the notable
act prohibiting the importation of convicts; but this act, like all
others of a similar aim in all the colonies, was overruled and nullified
by orders from the king to his Virginian and other
1 Neill, Virginia Vetusta, 102.
2 Quia est le Arte le Carpentar (sic).
3 Neill, Virginia Vetusta, 103.
4 II. 305.
5 III. 337.
6 Neill, Virginia Carolorum, 329.
provincial officers. For other reasons this prohibition did not
prohibit. Planters both in the West Indies and in Virginia, which was
reckoned a part of them far on in the eighteenth century, needed
laborers, and welcomed a supply from whatever quarter. Negroes were
brought from Guinea, - and from the British islands men who had been
kidnapped, or had sold themselves to obtain a passage over the Atlantic,
or had been sold by sheriffs to shipmasters who would contract to carry
convicts beyond seas. All were bought for tobacco and set at work
raising more. As Virginia's staple was tobacco, it naturally became a
centre of white as well as black servitude, whether its victims were
indented or not, and criminal or not. All fared alike.
The reason given in the act itself for the Virginia prohibitory
enactment of 1670 is a proof that the convict element there was then not
small. It speaks of "the great number of felons and other desperate
villains sent hither from the several prisons of England," and adds that
through such imports "we are believed to be a place only fit to receive
such base and lewd persons."1 But they still came. Narcissus Luttrell,
in his diary,2 remarks that a ship lay at Leith, going for Virginia, on
board which the magistrates had ordered fifty lewd women out of the
houses of correction and thirty others, who walked the streets after ten
at night. Hugh Jones, a rector at Jamestown, took an optimistic view of
felon imports, although, as he says in his book published in 1724, many
attempts and laws to prevent too great a stock of them had been made in
vain. According to his plan, convicts should be brought over at the
expense of Virginia counties, and should thenceforth belong to those
counties. From the avails of their labor, funds could be raised in every
county. All public charges could be thus defrayed from the labors of
their rogues and beggars without any tax upon honest and industrious
people. "But such notorious villains as are sent over in chains for
robbery or murder should be kept apart in chains still," etc. Satisfied
that England was Japheth, the Indians Shem, and negroes Ham, Jones
viewed the planting of Virginia as a plain fulfilment of Noah's
prophecy, which he printed on his title-page: "God shall enlarge
Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem, and Canaan shall be
his servant" (Gen. ix. 27). President Stith, two decades later than
Jones, was more pessimistic, saying that "Virginia had come to be
reputed another Siberia or a hell upon earth."
Virginia, in the present paper, has been chiefly spoken of as
1 Hening, II. 510.
2 November 17, 1692; p. 617.
the destination of convicts. It is made thus prominent in all documents
which have come to the knowledge of the writer. But he is not ignorant
that, according to Dr. Lang, all the nine colonies outside of New
England were penal settlements, and that Lodge and other able writers
maintain that Maryland received a larger felon quota than any other
province. The whole number there, as estimated by Scharf, the Maryland
historian,1 was at least 20,000, about half of them after 1750. In all
cases where Maryland has been found coupled with Virginia, the writer
has so stated it. The Historical Register now and then mentions Maryland
alone, saying that on October 4, 1726, about eighty felons-convict under
sentence of transportation were taken out of Newgate and put on
shipboard for Maryland in America, being joined on the river by several
more convicts from Surrey and Kent. In 1665 certain convicts in England
petitioned Her Majesty, the queen mother, in hope she would order them
sent to her Maryland. As late as 1769, eighty seven-year convicts from
Bristol are noticed by Scharf,2 and Lodge maintains that "such
importations continued there after they had ceased in other colonies,"
though such imports into Virginia were not declared illegal till 1788.
As Bristol, according to Macaulay, was specially infamous for
kidnappers, so it shared largely in an allied branch of business, the
traffic in convicts. Hunt, the historian of that city, remarks (p. 142),
"Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Bristol aldermen and
justices used to transport criminals and sell them as slaves or put them
to work on their plantations in the West Indies." A writer in Notes and
Queries3 holds this Bristol industry to have arisen still earlier,
saying, "When Cromwell [and William, as well] had conquered Ireland, the
Irish officers sought safety on the continent, while the rank and file
were pressed to enlist in foreign service. As many as 34,000 men were
thus hurried into exile. Widows and orphans the government shipped
wholesale to the West Indies - the boys for slaves - the women and girls
for mistresses to the English sugar-planters. The merchants of Bristol -
slave-dealers in the days of Strongbow - sent over their agents to hunt
down and ensnare the wretched people. Orders were given them on the
governors of jails and workhouses, for 'boys who were of an age to labor
and women who were marriageable, or not past breeding.'"4 In the
foregoing notice of Bristol exports, the words "West Indies" probably
mean the best American market, no matter where. A curious chapter might
1 I. 371.
2 II. 53.
3 7th Series, 111. 58
4 Walpole's Kingdom of Ireland.
written on the word "Indies," and the historic mistakes which have
resulted from misapprehensions of that geographical term. In 1652, Peter
Heylyn, a standard English cosmographer, printed in his folio concerning
the Western Hemisphere: "It is sometimes called the New World. Its most
usual yet somewhat improper name is America. The most improper name of
all, and yet not much less used than that of America, is the West
Indies."1 The English Historical Register for 1715 and long afterward,
in its record of current events, constantly sets down under the heading
"West Indies," news from Virginia, and even New York and Boston. Some of
those whom Bristol vessels had transported were brought to New England
and sold there. One result was that, in 1654, a committee appointed by
the General Court of the colony of Massachusetts to consider proposals
for the public benefit, submitted the following report: -
This Court, considering the cruel and malignant spirit that has from
time to time been manifest in the Irish nation against the English
nation, do hereby declare their prohibition of bringing any Irish, men,
women, or children, into this jurisdiction, on the penalty of £50
sterling to each inhabitant who shall buy of any merchant, shipmaster,
or other agent any such person or persons so transported by them; which
fine shall be by the country's marshall levied on conviction of some
magistrate or court, onethird to be to the use of the informer, and
two-thirds to the country. This act to be in force six months after the
publication of this order.
October 29, 1654.
A similar act had been previously passed. There is a record of persons
who, in 1652, made application for the remission of fines which had been
imposed upon them for the offence specified above.2
New England legislation concerning the bringing in of transports for
sale was very variable. In general, such imports were desiderated. In
1709 the General Court of Massachusetts offered a bounty of forty
shillings to any one who would bring in and dispose in service (that is,
sell into bondage more or less lasting) any white male between the ages
of eight and twenty-five years.3 No
1 Cosmographie, Part II. 95.
2 Notes and Queries, 7th Series, V. 266.
3 Mass. Acts and Resolves, I. 634.
doubt Massachusetts wished to shut out bad immigrants. Hence a statute
had been made in 1700 to fine shipmasters £5 for every passenger whose
name, character, and circumstances they had failed to deliver in writing
to the custom-house officer, who was bound to transmit that list to the
town clerk. These names were those of servants as well as of others. In
1722 this penalty was increased to £100.1 The rosters thus formed would
have been a copious source of historical information. But they have been
sought for long and vainly.
The opposition to Irish imports, perhaps never general, had soon worn
away. In 1680 the governor of Massachusetts reported to the home
government, "There may be within our limits about one hundred and twenty
negroes, bought for about £20 apiece, and it may be as many Scotch
brought hither and sold for servants in the time of war with Scotland,
mostly now married and living here, and about half as many Irish brought
at several times and sold as servants."2 It seems surprising that the
census of Scots was but little over one hundred, when more than four
hundred of them had been imported within the last thirty years. The
dwindling of their number is said to have come to pass from their being,
spite of Cotton's humanitarian claims, largely exported and sold again
into other colonies.3 The original consignment of 272 Scots is
suspiciously worded, and leads us to fear that if any of them could have
been best disposed of in Barbadoes they would not have been sold in
Boston.4 For more than a hundred years afterwards Irish were brought
into Boston and sold. No doubt some were felons, and whatever their
antecedents they had good testimonials from their sellers. In 1730
Colonel Josiah Willard of Lunenburg, while in Boston, was invited to
take a walk on Long Wharf and view some transports who had just arrived
from Ireland. He observed a lad of some vivacity, and who was the only
1 Ibid., 452; II. 245.
2 Mass. Hist. Soc. Coll., 3d Series, VIII. 337.
3 Proof that white slaves - or so-called "servants" - were sold from
Massachusetts to the South just at the time when those imported from
Scotland arrived is furnished by a document which came to the present
writer's knowledge while his article was already in the press. In Boston
Courthouse there is a bundle docketed 1650-1652. In this collection, No.
24,743 is entitled, "Filed account of servants." It gives the names,
save one, of seventeen "servants at Pensilvania" and of twelve "servants
at New York," with values which amount to £417. Though none of these
names appear to be identical with the 272 printed in the Genealogical
Register as Worcester prisoners shipped to Boston, the lists still
countenance the opinion that two-thirds of the Scots sold into New
England bondage were re-sold out of that region.
4 Geneal. Reg. I. 377.
found that could speak English. This boy, one of a number who had been
put ashore to exhibit their activity to those who wished to purchase,
said that he had been kidnapped and then sold by pirates in the Irish
Sea to the Boston-bound vessel. Willard bought the boy, brought him up,
and gave him his niece as a wife. This story, told by that wife, Susanna
Johnson, in her Captivity, published at Walpole, N.H., in 1796, is
curiously confirmed by Boston newspapers of 1730. The first issue of the
News-Letter in October, 1730, says, "Entered, Dove, Sterling Capt. from
Dublin." In the next issue we read, "Some servant lads on the ship Dove
at the Long wharf; their time of service to be disposed of."1
If fewer transports were imported into New England than into more
southern colonies, the reason was that they sold at higher rates in
Southern markets, which also by their staple, tobacco, furnished better
return freight to English vessels. Virginia and Maryland were held of
more commercial value than all the other United States colonies. Imports
were naturally in proportion to exports.2 Some Northern colonies were
planted, - to use an old writer's words, - as emunctories or sinks of
states to drain away their filth. One of the earliest United States
colonies was in Maine, at the Sagadahoc. Its founder was Chief Justice
Popham. Says an old writer, Lloyd, "He provided for malefactors, and
first set up the discovery of New England to employ
1 The following paper is one of many proofs that Irish servants,
so-called, sold in Boston in the middle of the eighteenth century, were
sometimes convicts, and known to be by the sellers.
The Deposition of Peter Montgomerry Taken This 6th Day of July 1749
Who being duly Sworn and Examin'd, Saith That about the last of
September last, in the Town of Belfast in Ireland said Deponent was
present, when Katharine McKoy and Mary McKoy were Deliver'd by The
Subsheriff and Jaylor of the County of Down to James Potts, Merchant in
said Belfast - That the said Weomen were brought aboard his Majesties
Barge which barge carried both said Weomen aboard the Eagle sloop
commanded by Oliver Airy to which Airy the aforesaid Potts was Security
but dont know what [to what amount] to Indemnify him for carrying said
transport Weomen to a place not allow'd by Law ? That said two Weomen
were for a while Confin'd under Deck That they were used and called
Convicts during the passage untill she made Harbour at Boston where said
Potts treated the bands and others aboard by way of Bribe to conceal
what they knew of said Weomen being Convicts as he Intended to sell them
for Voluntary Servants - That the said Deponent was Present when the s'd
Potts sold these Weomen and said they were good Spinners and honest
Weomen as far as he knew.
Sworn to Infr . Court
by sd Montgomery
Middlecott Cooke Cler.
2 Scharf, I. 384.
those who could not live honestly in the old." Another contemporary,
Anthony Wood, says: "Popham was the first person who invented the plan
of sending criminals as founders of colonies, which, says Aubrey, he
stocked out of all the jails in England," Thomas Fuller adds: "It was
rather bitterly than falsely said concerning one of our Western
plantations, consisting mostly of dissolute people, that it was very
like England - as being spit out of the very mouth of it."1 It is not
certain whether Bacon thought of Maine or Virginia, or of general custom
in planting colonies, when he wrote: "It is a shameful and unblessed
thing to take the scum of people and wicked condemned men to be the
people with whom you plant."2
In the first decade of Philadelphia, as in the infancy of most colonies,
all laborers were welcome no matter what their previous condition,
character, or other antecedents. Accordingly, in 1685, a shipper who had
brought thither transports from England and intended to take them to
Virginia, was summoned before the council. But he was armed with
indentures which ran that his transports were "bound to serve him or his
assignee for four years from their arrival in Virginia or any other part
of America." This formula was a natural expedient for giving the sellers
of transports the largest choice of markets for their merchandise.
But Pennsylvanians were from early days opposed to receiving convicts.
In 1722,4 May 5, their assembly passed an act for imposing a duty on
"persons guilty of heinous crimes, and imported into the province as
servants or otherwise," They passed another in 1729.5 The governor,
however, like the chief magistrates in other provinces, was forbidden by
the king to approve any act of this sort. In 1731, his instructions were
as follows: "Whereas acts have been passed in America for laying duties
on felons imported, - in direct opposition to an act of Parliament for
the more effectual transportation of felons, - it is our royal will and
pleasure that you approve of no duties laid on the importation of any
felons into Pennsylvania."6 Longing for a protective tariff was an
original sin in Pennsylvanians, and their opposition to free trade may
have been doubled by the determination of King George to force it upon
Convicts were exported to New York. In 1693, June 12, the Committee of
Trade asked that all the convicts who were in Newgate
1 Historical Magazine, XV. 339.
2 Essay of Plantations, 1612 and 1624.
3 Penn. Colonial Records, I. 161.
4 Colonial Records, III. 163.
5 Ibid., III. 359.
6 Penn. Archives, I. 306.
for transportation might be sent to New York.1 In 1677, John Brown, a
Quaker, was shipped from the island of Nevis to Long Island.2 As early
as 1630, the Dutch were zealous to build up their colony on the Hudson.
With this view the government offered to men of property, or patroons,
who would emigrate thither, vast tracts of land, and, further, that
"their High Mightinesses shall exert themselves to provide the patroons
with persons bound to service who shall be obliged to serve out their
bounden time." Persons, as the editor remarks, here means vagabonds who
live in idleness and crime. Transports were desired in Rhode Island. In
1714, bringing in any Indian as servant or slave was prohibited under a
penalty of £50. The reason given for this law was that such importations
"daily discouraged the importing of white servants from Great Britain,"
We have seen that orders from the Privy Council, or from judges and even
inferior magistrates, sent felons convict into American colonies from
their earliest stages; but nothing tended so powerfully and continuously
and lastingly to bring about such deportations as a statute of 1718.5
This act provided that persons convicted of clergyable offences, such as
burglary, robbery, perjury, forgery, and theft, - after being sentenced
to death, - might, if their crimes did not seem too heinous, "at the
discretion of the court be transported to America for at least seven
years," remaining punishable with death without further trial if they
should return before the expiration of their sentence. A reason assigned
for this enactment was the great want of servants (still a favorite
euphemism for slaves) who might be the means of improving the colonial
plantations and making them more useful to His Majesty.
Thanks to early English periodicals, the workings of this Georgian law
are clearly traceable from first to last. On April 26, 1718, according
to the Historical Register,6 "twenty-nine malefactors at the Old Bailey
were ordered to be transported." Before the end of the year, 134 were so
ordered. On August 23, 1718, "106 convicts, that were ordered for
transportation, were taken out of Newgate and put on board a lighter at
Blackwall stairs, from whence they were carried through the Bridge to
Long Reach, and there shipped on board the Eagle galley, Captain Staples
commander, bound to Virginia and Maryland." In 1719, January 19, the
names of those "cast for transportation" are given; six of the eighteen
were feminine. "May 11, 105 out of Newgate,
1 N. Y. Col. Docs., IV. 31.
2 Besse, II. 364.
3 See N. Y. Col. Docs., I. 99.
4 Rhode Island Colonial Records, IV. 193.
5 4 Geo. I., c. 11; Blackstone, IV. 370.
6 III. 19.
the Marshalsea, and several other country prisons, were put on
shipboard, to be transported to Maryland." "October 27, 1720, 92 felons
taken out of Newgate, and 62 out of the Marshalsea, were put on
shipboard to be transported to Virginia." The notices in the Historical
Register continue for ten consecutive years. During that decade the
number ordered for transportation was 2138. Names are usually mentioned,
and not a few are feminine. The destination, when not Virginia or
Maryland, is American plantations, or America. "September 12, 1722, 35
were ordered for transportation. Among these was Sir Charles Burton of
Lincolnshire, Bart., who was convicted of stealing a cornelian ring set
After 1727 no printed notice of transports is known to the present
writer till the Gentleman's Magazine was started in 1731. The record
there on Tuesday, March 9,1 is: "Upwards of a hundred convicts were
removed from Newgate to be transported to America." Other periodicals
gave more particulars. Thus in the London Magazine of 1732 (I. 368) we
read: "October 26, sixty-eight men and fifty women felons convict were
taken from Newgate, and put on board a lighter to be carried down the
river, to be shipped on board the Cęsar off Deptford, for transportation
to Virginia." In this work, however, court reports ceased after a while;
yet onward for more than forty years, even up to the opening of the
American Revolution, the numbers "cast for transportation" are
chronicled in the Gentleman's Magazine, but in the briefest form,
usually with no mention of names or sex. A few culprits were noted as
from jails in Gloucester, Salisbury, Monmouth, Exeter, Hereford, St.
Edmunds, Newcastle, Kingston, Maidstone, Derby, Chelmsford, Winchester,
etc. Soon, however, provincial transports were passed unnoticed. But
those from the Old Bailey, who averaged more than a score at every
session, never failed of a line. The first five volumes show a roster of
887 convict transports, and all subsequent volumes proportional numbers.
It would not be safe to reckon the total of involuntary emigrants sent
forth from the Old Bailey alone as less than 10,000 between 1717 and
There must exist sources of information more complete and exact than
those the present writer has been able to discover, and showing the
proceedings of all provincial courts as well as that in the metropolis.
It is hoped that the publication of the present paper will arouse other
1 I. 124.
The London Magazine, though not so persistent a chronicler as the
Gentleman's, often furnishes fuller reports. The following is its
account - much abridged - of Henry Justice, Esq.: -
Sat., May 8, 1736, came on . . . the trial of Henry Justice of the
Middle Temple, for stealing out of the library of Trinity-College,
Cambridge, a Field's Bible with cuts and Common-prayer, value 25 l.,
Newcastle's Horsemanship, value 10 l., several other books of great
value, several Tracts cut out of books, etc. . . . The counsel of Mr.
Justice were Mr. Winne, Mr. Agar, and Mr. Robinson. [After many
objections, pleading not guilty, he was proved so by witnesses; he then
claimed to be a member of the Trinity corporation, etc., but the jury
found him guilty of felony within benefit of clergy. He was then charged
with stealing other books, and after six hours pleaded guilty.] Mond.
10, Mr. Justice being brought to the Old Bailey to receive sentence,
desired the court, - Lord Hardwick, Mr. Justice Denton, etc. - that as
they had a discretionary power either to transport, or to burn in the
hand, etc., he might not be sent abroad, which would, first, be a great
injury to his children, and to his clients with several of whom he had
great concerns. Secondly, for the sake of the University. He had numbers
of books belonging to them, some sent to Holland, and if he were
transported he could not make restitution. As for himself, he would
rather go abroad, having lived in credit before this unhappy mistake, as
he called it. He hoped the gentlemen of the University, several of whom
he believed to be present, would intercede for him.
The Deputy Recorder, in a very handsome speech, commiserated his case, -
telling him that his education, profession, etc., greatly aggravated his
crime. After which he pronounced sentence - that he must be transported
to some one of his Majesty's plantations in America - there to remain
seven years, - and be put to death if he returned, etc.
It will be observed that the particular colony to which this legal
luminary was doomed is not mentioned. Possibly, however, it is not
beyond discovery. Seven days afterward, May 17, the Gentleman's Magazine
chronicle is: -
A hundred felons-convict walked from Newgate to Black-fryars, and thence
went in a close lighter on board a ship at Blackwall. But Weathercock
the attorney, Messrs. Ruffhead, Vaughn, and Bird went to Blackwall in
two hackney coaches, and Henry Justice, Esq., Barrister at law, in
another, two hours after the walking felons, attended by Jonathan
Forward, Esq. These five gentlemen of distinction were accommodated with
the captain's cabin, which they stored with provisions, etc., for their
voyage and travels.
The above-mentioned Weathercock, Ruffhead, and Bird had been condemned
to death, but their sentence was commuted to
transportation for life.1 The transatlantic career of Henry Justice has
not been as yet ascertained. There is a possibility that he became the
instructor of our foremost man. Jonathan Boucher, rector at Annapolis in
1768 and for many years before the Revolution, and tutor to Washington's
step-son, Parke Custis, relates that George Washington, with whom he
claims "very particular intimacy and friendship," had no other education
than reading, writing, and accounts, which he was taught by a convict
servant whom his father had bought for a schoolmaster.2 "Not a ship
arrives," adds Boucher, "with either redemptioners or convicts, in which
schoolmasters are not as regularly advertised for sale as weavers,
tailors, or any other trade; with little other difference that I can
hear of, except perhaps that the former do not usually fetch so good a
price as the latter."
A similar felon, perhaps a pedagogue, had been advertised thus in 1722:
"Ran away from Rev. D. Magill, Upper Marlborough, Maryland, a servant,
clothed with damask breeches and vest, black broadcloth coat, broadcloth
cloak of copper color lined and trimmed with black, and wearing black
stockings."3 This runaway, having absconded so far that his antecedents
were unsuspected, may then, thanks to his imposing outfit, if his
demeanor did not belie the promise of his clothes, have secured a
position which his reverend Presbyterian master would have envied.
In 1737, the next year after the advent of Henry Justice, when a vessel
with transports arrived at Annapolis, she was found to have on board no
less than sixty-six indentures signed by the mayor of Dublin (to serve
as testimonials), and twenty-two wigs. Both wigs and indentures were
denounced as "an arrant cheat detected, being evidently brought for no
other purpose than to give a respectable appearance to the convicts when
they should go ashore."4 Supercargoes, who had bought as cheap as they
could, sold as dear as they could. For this purpose, like other sellers,
they used every art to make their wares as tempting as possible in the
eyes of possible purchasers. Not a few of the involuntary immigrants had
been kidnapped and spirited away, - and so were martyrs and innocents.
More were gentlemen in
1 Gentleman's Magazine, January 29, 1736.
2 Notes and Queries, 5th Series, V. 503; Boucher's Thirteen Sermons, a
volume of selections from his Maryland discourses, throws much light on
the convict element there. In one of them, penned and prepared to be
preached before the governor, etc., in 1773, he laments that two-thirds
of the Maryland schoolmasters were convicts who were serving out a term
of penal servitude; p. 182.
3 Neill, Terra Marię, 213.
4 Ibid., 203.
manners and scholars in culture. This fact made buyers more credulous
regarding the certificates of good moral character and the forged
affidavits which sellers were always ready to furnish.
The destination of convicts is frequently unmentioned, and they were
doubtless sent to those of the American plantations to which conveyance
could be procured at the cheapest rate. The sheriff invited bids for
transportation and shipped off convicts by the lowest bidder, and cared
not where they were carried. But occasionally, as in 1753, July 13, when
upwards of one hundred transports were shipped, it is added, "from
Newgate for Virginia and Maryland."1 The record of Old Bailey sentences,
except in capital cases, is usually, as printed in the Gentleman's
Magazine, a monotonous formula, - a numerical figure, then "cast for
transportation." Frequently only this and nothing more. The most
frequent addition is "to the American plantations." Further
specifications are either to Virginia or Maryland, or both. But
exceptional felons are shown up in characteristic details. Among these
are such as follow.
In 1740, February 10, William Duell was transported for life. He had
been hung at Tyburn, November 24, but when laid out for dissection at
Surgeon's Hall, came to life. September 18, 1751, Philip Gibson, who had
been condemned to death for a street robbery, would not accept the offer
of fourteen years' transportation, and insisted on his former sentence,
which was that he should be hanged. After the court had argued with him
some time, he was continued to consider of it till the next sessions.
October 21, Gibson accepted the commutation. September 19, 1750, Escote,
a tobacconist, for buying 40,000 pounds of tobacco at sixpence a pound,
was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation.
"1767, Feb. 10, fourteen transports from Durham, Newcastle, and Morpeth,
were put on board the Jenny, Captain Blagdon, bound for Virginia, at
which time ten young artificers shipped themselves for America [paying
for passage by selling themselves into bondage for a long time after].
One of these indented servants has enlisted into 46 regiments, been
whipped out of 19, sentenced to be shot six times, been confined in 73
jails, appeared under the character of quack doctor in seven kingdoms,
and now is only in the thirty-second year of his age."2
1 This record is the more notable as being the first one in which the
word "transport" is used to mean a convict sent beyond sea.
"Felons-convict," or "convicts," were the words before used. The word
"transportation" is older, dating from 1597. - Blackstone, I. 137.
2 Gentleman's Magazine, 92.
Not all felons shipped for America arrived there. "In 1748, Feb. 28,
thirty-seven convicts, being the remains of 135 that suffered shipwreck
in the Downs, bound for Maryland, made their escape out of a lighter in
which they were brought back above London Bridge. The jailer has refused
to receive them back." No doubt he was of the same type with watchman
Dogberry who, when a vagrom man would not stand at his bidding, "called
the rest of the watch together and thanked God that he was rid of a
The following transported felon's adventure deserves to be classed with
truths that are stranger than fiction: On May 13, 1773, a correspondent
wrote the London Magazine as follows: -
Some time ago one Sarah Wilson, who attended upon Miss Vernon, sister to
Lady Grosvenor, and maid of honour to the queen, having found means to
be admitted into one of the royal apartments, took occasion to break
open a cabinet, and rifled it of many valuable jewels, for which she was
apprehended, tried, and condemned to die: but through the interposition
of her mistress, her sentence was softened into transportation.
Accordingly, in the fall of 1771, she was landed in Maryland, where she
was exposed to sale and purchased. After a short residence in that
place, she very secretly decamped, and escaped into Virginia, travelled
through that colony and through North to South Carolina. When at a
proper distance from her purchaser, she assumed the title of the
Princess Susanna Carolina Matilda, pronouncing herself to be an own
sister to our sovereign lady the queen. She had carried with her clothes
that served to favour the deception, and had secured a part of the
jewels together with Her Majesty's picture. She travelled from one
gentleman's house to another under these pretensions, making astonishing
impressions in many places, affecting the mode of royalty so inimitably
that many had the honour to kiss her hand. To some she promised
governments, to others regiments, with promotions of all kinds in the
treasury, army, and the royal navy. In short, she acted her part so
plausibly as to persuade the generality that she was no impostor. In
vain did many sensible gentlemen in those parts exert themselves to
detect and make a proper example of her; for she had levied heavy
contributions upon some persons of the highest rank in the southern
colonies. At length, however, an advertisement appeared, and a messenger
arrived from her master, who raised a loud hue and cry for her serene
highness. The lady was then on an excursion of a few miles to a
neighboring plantation, for which place the messenger had set out when
the gentleman who brought this information left Charles-town
"1773, Jan'y 19. Five convicts were executed at Tyburn. John Lowe was to
have been executed at the same time for returning
1 London Magazine, XLII. 311.
from transportation. He was, however, reprieved because he had been
transported for receiving a shilling for the carriage of a goose that
had been stolen, of which theft he declared that he was ignorant" (p.
The last record I discover of a transport chronicled in the Gentleman's
Magazine, is in October, 1774. Then the Hon. Mrs. Elizabeth Grieve was
sentenced for seven years. "Her offence was defrauding divers persons
under pretence of procuring them places under the government. She had
before rendered herself famous by pretending to be cousin to the Duke of
Grafton, and to have various other connections of the first rank" (p.
492). It was very convenient for those who were pestered by poor
relations to be able to ship them off over sea. In 1775 the self-same
felons, who if convicted the year before would have entered America as
slaves, came over as belligerent soldiers. At an earlier date their
sentences had been sometimes commuted from transportation to enlistment.
Notices of the landing of convicts beyond the seas are not wanting,
though not so frequent as the accounts of their shipment. American
newspapers were few, and reporters fewer. But the Boston Gazette (May 8,
1753), says: -
Arrived at Severn, Maryland, April 5, the Greyhound with 90 persons
doomed to stay 7 years in his Majesty's American plantations.
April 19, arrived from Biddeford 27 men and women for the well-peopling
this or some other American plantation.
A report that a vessel with servants from Ireland was ashore at the
Capes, and that the servants had mutinied and killed all the crew.
Again, 1755, July 10, "More than 100 seven year passengers have arrived
at Annapolis." Now and then, Virginia and Maryland editors, as Scharf
shows, exchanged ironical congratulations on safe arrivals of cargoes of
king's passengers, and seven-year recruits. In a few instances we
discover in Scharf the names of those who bought each convict in a
The names of felons transported are seldom mentioned in the Gentleman's
Magazine, except in those cases when they returned and were sentenced to
be hanged. Those names, however, I have ascertained to be all preserved
and accessible by American genealogists who go abroad for tracing their
ancestry. Accordingly, I have urged Mr. H. F. Waters, who has been
employed in London for years in searching out the lineage of Bostonians,
to betake himself to the Old Bailey. Its proceedings fill 110 manuscript
volumes.1 Here Mr. Waters may be sure of a harvest; elsewhere,
1 Notes and Queries, 7th Series, IV. 395.
at Somerset House, the Herald's office, the records of archiepiscopal
Canterbury, and so forth, he has gathered only gleanings, and those
scanty by comparison. I have myself tested the Old Bailey archives.
Reading in the Gentleman's Magazine, that on July 17, 1731, "3 were
burnt in the hand, and 32 ordered for transportation," I asked London
Notes and Queries to publish the names of the thirty-two transports. My
request was printed October 15, 1887.1 The very next month, November 12,
the names of the thirty-two were all published. They were John Aidridge,
Elizabeth Armstrong, alias Little Bess, Richard Bennet, Martha Brannan,
John Brown, Hugh Cambell, Elizabeth Camphill, alias Cambell, William
Carnegy, John Coghill, Henry Cole, Mary Coslin, Catharine Cox, John
Cross, Eleanor Davis, George Emly, James Emly, John Haynes, James Hobbs,
Thomas Jones, Antonio Key, Thomas Macculler, Martin Nanny, John Payne,
Thomas Petit, Luke Powel, Daniel Ray, Elizabeth Roberts, John Rogers,
Mary Row, Thomas Taylor, Anne Todd, Jane Vaughn. In the Old Bailey
archives, then, the Japhets who seek for their fathers cannot fail to
find a mine little explored and well-nigh exhaustless.
This chain of research is, however, weakened by a broken link. We
discover John Smith's name in the Old Bailey books; but who can prove
that when sold in America he did not go by another name? The master who
had bought a wig for his chattel, would not grudge him an aristocratic
name in keeping with that dignifying decoration, especially as it might
make a plebeian more salable. It is also possible that the name John
Smith, even on the Old Bailey books, is itself a misnomer, and should
have been written quite otherwise. Through such a series of aliases
genealogical confusion is raised to a second power.
Our countrymen of Scotch descent, however, will at the Old Bailey meet
with less genealogical helps than those of English origin. The reason is
that the statute of 1718, thanks to which so many Englishmen left their
country for their country's good, was not extended to Scotland until
half a century afterward, in 1768. Dr. Franklin describes himself as
protesting to the British Parliament against this extension. The old
law, Franklin said, had been a great grievance, but if English felons
were to be reinforced by Scotch, the burden would become intolerable. At
all events, he claimed reciprocity. If Scotland must send her felons to
the plantations, let the plantations send their felons to Scotland. But,
speaking seriously, Franklin2 called the emptying of English jails
1 Notes and Queries, 7th Series, IV. 307.
2 Works, X. 121.
upon the colonies the most cruel insult ever offered by one nation to
No question regarding convicts shipped to America is so hard to answer
as that which relates to the particular colony in which each gang of
them was put ashore. Mention of Virginia, Maryland, and Jamaica or
Barbadoes is not infrequent, but I could find no notice of any single
transport landed in New England except the Scotch and Irish of whom I
have spoken. When I wrote to Notes and Queries asking for the name of
such a New England convict, the name "Elizabeth Canning" was given me.
Concerning Elizabeth Canning the notice in the Gentleman's Magazine1 is
1754, July 28. Elizabeth Canning is ordered to be transported to some of
his Majesty's American colonies, and has been delivered to the merchant
who contracted with the court, to be transported accordingly. And 'tis
certain that in case she be found at large in this Kingdom before the
expiration of seven years, she will be liable to the pains of death.
There is here no evidence that Elizabeth Canning was shipped to New
England, rather than to some other American plantation. In a later
volume, however, of the Gentleman's Magazine,2 it is stated that "she
died at Wethersfield in Connecticut in the year 1773, after having been
married to a person of the name of Treat, or some name sounding like
that." It is added that notice of her death appeared, in 1773, in Say's
Weekly Journal. Writing once more to Notes and Queries in order to
ascertain the name of the vessel in which Elizabeth Canning was
transported, I received the following answer:3 "If we can take the
London Journals of 1754 to have been correctly informed, the name of the
vessel in which Elizabeth Canning had her passage was the Myrtilda,
Captain Budden, which cleared from Deal Aug. 26, and her destination was
Philadelphia." The names of nineteen others who were sentenced to
transportation at the same time with her were also furnished. But it
still seems odd that a transport who was to be landed in New England
should be put on board a vessel bound for Philadelphia. No doubt this
vessel's homeward voyage was by way of New England.4
The present article is by no means so complete as the writer hoped to
make it. His sources of information have been limited
1 XXIV. 338.
2 LXXXIII., part 2, 337.
3 Notes and Queries, 7th Series, V. 457. From a descendant of the Treat
family I learn that according to the record in an old family Bible,
Elizabeth Canning, born in London, was daughter of Joseph and Elizabeth,
and was married in 1756 to John Treat, and died at Wethersfield, Conn.,
on July 22, 1773.
as well as his ability to make full proof of them. His gleanings, picked
from the wormholes of long-vanished days, may be material to serve
future inquirers. The fragments he has gathered may lead to the
discovery of complete reports. His research has filled him with surprise
that our colonial convict element was so large. He is inclined to
confess that English views on this matter have been more correct than
those prevalent in America. He cannot wonder that Johnson, who, as one
employed in editing the Gentleman's Magazine, had hundreds of times
chronicled the reprieve of gallows-birds that they might be made
American colonists, should hold in low esteem the regions they pervaded
and peopled. It now seems more natural that he should speak as he did,
and declare he could love everybody except an American, than the writer
could at first believe. Nor can it do us any harm to see ourselves as
others see us, looking to the hole of the pit whence we were digged as
well as into the rock whence we were hewn. A new point of view must
reveal new phases of truth.
We may reasonably come back from the byway of history we have been
tracing, with optimistic feelings. How much of good has been evolved
from evil! How many a lily, the perfection of purity and fragrance, has
sprung up out of.the mud of a marsh! "Saplings," says a Chinese proverb,
"are crooked, but they will straighten as they grow up, - and the higher
the straighter." That our country has become what it is, notwithstanding
so much of baser matter was mixed with its pilgrims and martyrs, gives
reason not only for thankfulness and astonishment that we behold such a
survival of the fittest. It countenances a better opinion of human
nature than has often been rife. Its testimony is in keeping with that
of Siberia and Australia, but vastly more conclusive. It proclaims that
many who have fallen will rise again if they have a chance, and more
frequently and surely the more encouraging and stimulating their new
"And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
Their reformation, glittering o'er their fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes,
Than that which hath no foil to set it off."
James Davie Butler.
Dinsmore Documentation presents Classics of American Colonial History
to Scots in America