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British Convicts In American Colonies

convicts- leave englandThe British were noted for transported prisoners out of England to be made to work at their numerous colonies. From 1615 to 1870, more than 200,000 criminals were conditionally pardoned, exiled, and transported to penal colonies. Before 1775, more than 50,000 prisoners were sent to America—primarily to Virginia and Maryland. With the American Revolutionary War, then from 1788 to 1869, more than 160,000 prisoners were sent to the British Colony of Australia.

What most Americans do not realize is that from 1718 until 1775, convict transportation to the American colonies flourished. Some estimates claim that almost 10 percent of migrants to America during this time were British convicts. This means, if you had ancestors in the American colonies during that time, they might have come as unwanted convicts, against the will.

What was done by the British was to banish a convict to America was for a term of either seven or fourteen years, after which the convict could theoretically come back the Britain. Escaping on a ship to return to England early, however, was punishable by death. This was not just a sentence for men. Some female convicts were transported to the American colonies as well, for crimes such as being “lewd” and “walking the streets after ten at night.”

Going back to the early 1600s, convicts had been sent to America. In 1670 authorities in Virginia passed an act that prohibited convicts from being sent to the area. That act was overruled by King. By the early 1700s British convicts were sent over in droves, and free Americans weren’t too happy about it. In fact, even before the Transportation Act of 1718 really opened the doors for Britain’s dumping of undesirables in America, some colonies tried to pass laws that would prohibit the practice.

Many of those sent to the American colonies were put to work doing manual labor. Or in time of battles – French-Indian War, served as soldiers. Criminals could have been convicted of any type of crime, this included debtors. Those who had murdered were just hung in England and not sent.

convict-workers in VAAbout 20,000 convicts were sent to Virginia and settled along the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. Knowing where many did originate can help in your own family research. A reminder they were convicts not indentured servants who worked in exchanged for their passage to America. Indentured servants choose to come, convicts did not.

Another problem with this practice was that 5,000 or so convicts may have perished en route to America, many of them from smallpox and typhus. A ship sailing from England & Ireland to Philadelphia in 1729 lost 100 of its 190 passengers and crew to starvation.

The colony of Georgia was originally started as a debtors colony. The English seeing the other colonies of Virginia and Maryland were upset with the convicts sent to their land had James Edward Oglethorpe establish such a colony in Georgia (named for King George II) on February 1, 1732. It got some 50,000 convicts alone. Same purpose, for the English to empty their jails of petty criminals and debtors in the hope that they would never return to their shores. It was a profit making scheme since they were sold off to plantation owners as indentured servants and also brought economic relief since they did not have to feed and house them in English jails.

Here is a sampling of convicts sent ‘transported was the term’ to the Americas and for what crime:

There was Anthony Carnes, convicted of stealing goods valued at forty shillings; Timothy Featherstonehaugh Scutt, convicted of taking two letters from the post office; Henry Porte, imprisoned for taking ten pence worth of goods; and Edward Coleman, who had ripped a lead pipe from a house belonging to the East India Company, William Gritton sent to Virginia Colony for theft of a shirt worth 3 shillings in 1749 and James Wingfield, convict in 1746 from Norfolk, England, sentenced to 14 years for stealing a mare.

For a few convicts such as Philip Gibson condemned to death for a street robbery on Sept. 18, 1751, would not take the offer of 14 years sentence in America, but stated he would rather be hung. He felt such a life in America was living in ‘No Man’s Land’. The English court argued with him and by October he accepted the move to America.

Many arriving were shabbily dressed, often looking haggard and sick, with sullen or contemptuous expressions, most transports were young men, although as many as a fifth were women; nearly all of them had been convicted of small-time theft. Very few were professional criminals from London’s underworld or persons of consequence.

What is strange was a writing by Thomas Jefferson in 1786, where he insisted that even if British criminals had been sent, they must’ve been small in number. Yet, in fact they did exist in the early colonial and up to the American Revolutionary War.

Photos: Convicts chained leaving England and convict workers in colonial Virginia tobacco fields.

Related genealogy blogs:

Any Black Sheep in the Family?

New Sources for Prison Records

Ancestors in American Revolutionary War


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