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The End of Convict Transportation: After Servitude

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

Most transported convicts did not make it back to England. Escape was difficult, and the passage back to England was expensive. Even if some convicts were able to return to England after serving out their 7- or 14- year term, they would have found it a very different place from when they were first transported. With few to no connections left in England, and a reputation that would have followed them back, they would have had a difficult time finding employment and restarting their lives.

Freedom Dues

Convict transportation was modeled after indentured servitude, which was an attractive option for those who could not find work in England during times of falling wages and bad harvests. Up until 1660, a young man who was able to complete his indentured servitude in America had a good chance of creating a comfortable life for himself. After this time, however, as America became more populated and the price of land began to rise, a person with limited means found it more difficult to develop a prosperous independent existence.

Indentured servants who completed their terms were entitled to “freedom dues,” in the form of goods or money, to help them become planters themselves or to establish their own business once they left the plantation. These dues could be negotiated as part of the signed contract between the indentured servant and the plantation owner, although in Virginia indentured servants who completed their terms of service were entitled by law to a musket, ten bushels of corn, and 30 shillings (or the equivalent value in goods). Women were entitled to fifteen bushels of corn and 40 shillings. In 1748, the Virginia legislature set freedom dues at a standard rate of ₤3.10s for both men and women.

The question of whether convict servants were entitled to the same freedom dues as indentured servants was an open question in most colonies. During the first period of convict transportation, convict servants who served out their terms generally enjoyed the same right to collect freedom dues as indentured servants.

In 1749, the Virginia legislature formally decided that convict servants were indeed entitled to the same freedom dues as indentured servants. Four years later in 1753, the legislature reversed its decision and specifically excluded convict servants from the legal right to receive freedom dues. This action made it much more difficult for convicts to start new lives. It also removed one of the few incentives for them to serve out their terms and not run away.

What Happened to the Convicts?

A few of the convict servants who completed their terms of service soon after convict transportation began in 1718 managed to take advantage of cheap land and any freedom dues they were afforded to purchase seed and tools and become planters themselves. They even hired indentured servants and convicts. As one contemporary observer noted,

The Convicts that are transported here [Maryland], sometimes prove very worthy Creatures, and entirely forsake their former Follies; . . . Several of the best Planters, or their Ancestors, have, in the two Colonies [Maryland and Virginia], been originally of the Convict Class, and therefore, are much to be prais’d and esteem’d for forsaking their old Courses” (“Observations in Several Voyages and Travels in America,” 1746).

Ex-convicts who joined the elite planters were the exception, though, and only those transported early on would have been able to enjoy such success.

As land in the Chesapeake tidewaters became scarcer and fewer resources were given to convicts to begin anew, many of them headed for new frontiers, which were increasingly being settled by poorer people. White laborers generally left the Chesapeake area as soon as they got the chance, so laboring jobs came to be associated more and more with slaves, who were increasingly brought in to fill the labor gap. The association between heavy labor and slaves became so strong that even the poorest whites would not consider working such labor-intensive jobs.

The lack of opportunities and the degrading of laboring jobs meant that a white, agricultural proletariat–where convicts presumably would have ended up after their terms ran out–never developed in Maryland or Virginia. Most poor whites moved on to settle in other areas of the country that offered more opportunity.

Convicts who finished their terms were eager to leave their wretched past behind them. They often changed their names and moved to other parts of the country, so tracking their subsequent fates is quite difficult. However, a few contemporary accounts give some indication of what happened to convicts after they finished their sentence. One letter from Maryland printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751 claims that “I believe we have every Year three or four Hundred Felons imported here from London; and if, when their Times are out, or before, they were not many of them to move away to the Northward, and elsewhere, we should be over-run with them” (italics in the original).

Most likely, convicts who served out their terms headed for the pine barrens or west to the backcountry. Here, they faced few questions about their past and could set up their lives as they wished, even though the land was not as rich or as useful as in the tidewaters. Other convicts headed south to the Carolinas. A French traveler in 1765 noted that the area around Edenton, North Carolina “is the azilum of the Convicts that have served their time in virginia and maryland. when at liberty they all (or great part) Come to this part where they are not Known and setle here. it is a fine Country for poor people, but not for the rich.”

Few convicts who finished their terms would have been willing to stay on and hire themselves out to their old master, or to anyone else for that matter. With few opportunities available to them in the Chesapeake region, ex-convicts would have had to leave the area by necessity. Planters with convicts who served out their terms would have had to replace them either with slaves, who were quite expensive, or with transported convicts newly arrived from Great Britain.

Resources for this article:

  • Atkinson, Alan. “The Free-Born Englishman Transported Convict Rights as a Measure of Eighteenth-Century Empire.” Past and Present 144 (1994): 88-115.
  • Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains: A Social History of Forced Emigration to the Americas of Felons, Destitute Children, Political and Religious Non-conformists, Vagabonds, Beggars and Other Undesirables, 1607-1776. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1992.
  • Eddis, William. Letters from America, Historical and Descriptive, Comprising Occurrences from 1769 to 1777, Inclusive. London: William Eddis, 1792. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • Ekirch, A. Roger. Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • 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.
  • “Journal of a French Traveller in the Colonies, 1765, I.” The American Historical Review 26.4 (1921): 726-47.
  • Kaminkow, Marion J., and Jack Kaminkow. Original Lists of Emigrants in Bondage from London to the American Colonies, 1719-1744. Baltimore, MD: Magna Carta Book Co., 1967.
  • Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Middleton, Arthur Pierce. Tobacco Coast: A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay in the Colonial Era. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953.
  • Morgan, Gwenda and Peter Rushton. “Running Away and Returning Home: The Fate of English Convicts in the American Colonies.” Crime, Histoire & Sociétiés / Crime, History & Societies 7.2 (2003): 61-80.
  • “Observations in Several Voyages and Travels in America [from the London Magazine, July 1746].” William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine 15.3 (1907): 1-17.
  • “Philadelphia, May 9 ” The Pennsylvania Gazette May 9, 1751: 1-2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Maryland: From the Earliest Period to the Present Day. 3 vols. Baltimore: John B. Piet, 1879.

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.

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