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The Business of Convict Transportation: Maryland and Virginia

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

If transported British convicts weren’t sent to Georgia, then where did they go?

The vast majority of transported convicts were sent to Maryland and Virginia, with the remaining few going to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and the West Indies. Between 1718 and 1744, 7,010 convicts were transported from London to America, and of those, 6,815 (97.2%) were sent to Maryland or Virginia. In all, eighty percent, about 40,000, of the total number of convicts transported to America from Great Britain ended up in Maryland or Virginia.

More than one quarter of all immigrants to Maryland between 1746 and 1776 were convicts, and most of them ended up on Maryland’s Western shore. In 1755, convicts accounted for 12 percent of productive adult laborers in Baltimore, Charles, Queen Anne’s, and Anne Arundel counties. The number of convicts and indentured servants–who freely bound themselves for a set number of years in exchange for the possibility of setting up a new life in the American colonies–was so great in these counties that white strangers traveling through these areas had to be careful so as not to be mistakenly identified as bound servants who had run away from their masters.

Why did so many convicts end up in the Chesapeake region?


The Chesapeake Bay - Landsat photo
Image via Wikipedia

Most of the convicts transported overseas ended up working on tobacco plantations in Maryland and Virginia, and the success of the tobacco industry in these two colonies rested mainly on geography. The numerous natural rivers and tributaries that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay allowed for rapid settlement of the region and large-scale production of tobacco. Tobacco can be grown in other climates, but it was the ease of transportation provided by the area’s waterways, more than soil and climate, that was responsible for tobacco’s growth in Maryland and Virginia. Tobacco is susceptible to damage when transported, especially over land, but the vast water network of the Chesapeake made the area the perfect place to grow tobacco and transport it over water with less potential damage.

Tidal wetlands of w:Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA.
Image via Wikipedia

The Chesapeake did not initially start out as a center for tobacco cultivation. The main purpose for settling the area was to grow crops that England normally had to import from foreign countries. The theory was that if England could grow these crops in the colonies for use at home, it could improve its balance of trade and increase the country’s overall wealth. Early settlements in Virginia struggled, however, since the crops and goods that were produced could not be supplied on a sufficient scale to make the colony profitable. Once it was discovered that tobacco could be grown in great quantities and that there was a large market for it back in England, planters started planting and growing tobacco anywhere and everywhere they could. Tobacco quickly became king.

Tobacco cultivation is not physically taxing, but it requires constant attention throughout the year, with at least 36 separate operations to produce one crop. Each step in the process was considered so crucial that it was only carried out by skilled workers. Given the ease with which tobacco could be damaged during transport, cooperage was also an important part of the operation, although, unlike the cultivation of tobacco itself, it was generally carried out by unskilled workers.

The Need for Cheap Labor

The complexity involved in cultivating tobacco meant that larger scale operations did not offer special advantages over smaller ones. The difference between the large plantations and the smaller ones was mainly due to the amount of land owned by the planter and the number of people employed. If a tobacco planter wanted to grow his business, he could only do so by increasing his land holdings and employing more people at a dear price.

The intensive care needed to cultivate tobacco was one reason why the need for labor was so great, but there were others. The great planters of tobacco insisted on an independent existence, which came at a high cost. In order to maintain their autonomy as much as possible, the great plantations became self-contained communities, where every need–cooperage, blacksmithing, carpentry, shoemaking, etc.–was carried out by those who lived on the plantation. Plantations such as these required a vast labor supply.

Over the course of the eighteenth century, Maryland and Virginia also experienced a growth in manufacturing and a diversification in its agriculture, adding wheat and corn to its staple of tobacco. The need for skilled labor for non-plantation work, which generally could not be performed by slaves given cultural and language barriers, was particularly acute during the first part of the century. Rising wages and improved conditions in England created a great demand for skilled labor in the American colonies as fewer indentured servants, who would have traditionally filled the need for skilled and semi-skilled workers, crossed the ocean to work in the colonies. Convict labor became the only viable solution to this shortage of labor, and many transported felons ended up working in manufacturing industries, such as iron works.

Of the three major staple-producing regions based on black slave labor, the Chesapeake was the only one where white servants were also an important part of the immigrant labor force (South Carolina and the West Indies being the other two regions that did not regularly employ white servants). The high demand for cheap labor, the already accepted use of white indentured servants, and the ability of convict merchants to fill up their ships with tobacco and grains to take back to England after selling off their human cargo, made Maryland and Virginia the preferred destination for transported felons.

Resources for this article:

  • Breen, T. H. Tobacco Culture: The Mentality of the Great Tidewater Planters on the Eve of Revolution.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.
  • Ekirch, A. Roger. “Bound for America: A Profile of British Convicts Transported to the Colonies.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 184-200.
  • Fogleman, Aaron S. “From Slaves, Convicts, and Servants to Free Passengers: The Transformation of Immigration in the Era of the American Revolution.” The Journal of American History 85.1 (1998): 43-76.
  • Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era
    . Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. “The Organization of the Convict Trade to Maryland: Stevenson, Randolph and Cheston, 1768-1775.” The William and Mary Quarterly 42.2 (1985): 201-27.

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.


  1. Amanda Al-Selman wrote:

    Did any transported convicts become slave owners and plantation owners in West Virginia?

    Saturday, November 19, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  2. Hi Amanda,
    Unfortunately, we do not know much about what happened to transported convicts after they served out their terms. They were eager to hide their former criminal identities and were at the very bottom of the economic ladder, so they did not leave behind many records to tell us one way or another. We believe that many moved to the Carolinas or headed out west in Virginia, where land was a lot cheaper, but this belief is mostly speculation. Even if they did move to western Virginia, it is unlikely that they became slave holders, since slaves were expensive. If former convicts even had money to purchase labor, and that’s a big if, I am guessing that they would purchase indentured servants or even transported convicts, and that’s if they had access to such markets. Hope that helps.

    Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  3. George Williams wrote:

    I have an ancestor who I believe arrived in Maryland in 1773 as a convict indentured servant. Would the outbreak of the Revolutionary War have affected his status as an indentured servant or the length of his indenture?

    Sunday, November 27, 2016 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

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