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Transported Convicts in the New World: Adjusting to America

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

Most of the transported convicts who ended up in Virginia lived north of the York River, mainly in the Northern Neck between the Rappahannock and the Potomac Rivers. About three quarters of Maryland’s convict population lived in four of the colony’s fourteen counties: Baltimore, Charles, Queen Anne’s, and Anne Arundel. Maryland by far had the highest concentration of transported convicts, since it received more felons from Great Britain and its total population was half that of Virginia.

A Different Climate

Transported convicts, especially those coming from London, would have been immediately struck by the open spaces and the lushness of the American countryside. Even Baltimore and Annapolis would have seemed sparsely populated to them, since they functioned more as towns than cities during this time. John Harrower, an indentured servant who arrived in Virginia in 1774, noted in his diary that while moving up the Rappahannock “all along both sides of the River there is nothing to be seen but woods in the blossom, Gentlemens seats and Planters houses.”

Baltimore in 1752

Baltimore in 1752

The change in environment could actually become a source of misery for the convicts. The climate of the Chesapeake offered them greater temperature extremes than what they were used to in England. In recounting his experience as a transported convict, William Green notes that the falls and winters in Maryland are exceedingly cold and the summers hot and sultry. During the summer, servants in Maryland were generally allowed three hours of rest during the high heat of the day.

If adjusting to the new climate wasn’t enough, convicts also had to contend with exposure to new diseases once they reached the American shore. Some convicts already arrived with an illness that they may have picked up either before or after stepping onto the ship in Great Britain, such as gaol fever (i.e., typhus).

Skill Sets

Unlike convicts transported to Botany Bay, Australia, who were made to work in a state-run penal colony, transported convicts in America were sold as servants to private individuals soon after they landed. In buying them, planters looked for particular skill sets held by individual convicts that could prove useful on their plantations.

In general, convicts possessed fewer identifiable skills than indentured servants. Convicts who did possess skills, however, engaged in a broad number of trades and occupations. The most frequent occupations for both convicts and servants were shoemaker, weaver, blacksmith, carpenter, sailor, and tailor, with other top occupations for convicts being barber, joiner, gardener, butcher, and bricklayer. Convicts could also be engaged as soldiers, silversmiths, coopers, chimney sweeps, perukers, and fishermen.

George Washington
Image via Wikipedia

Transported convicts who possessed some form of education could try to pass themselves off as schoolteachers. Planters who had a number of children would purchase convicts or indentured servants to educate their young. When George Washington was a boy, he reportedly was educated in reading, writing, and accounts by a convict servant his father purchased for that purpose. (Later, as a plantation owner, Washington purchased four convicts in 1774, and he possibly employed others.) Convicts who served as schoolmasters generally received better treatment from their masters than other servants, as did those convicts who possessed skills valuable to a plantation owner.

Unskilled Laborers

Most convicts, however, were originally from the lower orders and were laborers with no identifiable skills. These convicts were generally forced to work as common field hands alongside slaves. Unskilled convicts also engaged in the laborious tasks of clearing trees and brush and in turning soil to create farmable land. Servants dreaded these grueling tasks the most. Falling timber was a skill that was rarely brought over from Europe and had to be learned on the fly in America, but once acquired it was considered highly valuable.

Unskilled convicts who did not end up working as common laborers on plantations could end up working in the iron mines. Sometimes companies bought up whole groups of convicts to labor in their iron works. William Eddis, an Englishman living in the colonies, called working in the iron mines in one of his letters describing America “the most laborious employment allotted to worthless servants.”

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.
  • 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.
  • Ford, Worthington Chauncey. Washington as an Employer and Importer of Labor. Brooklyn, NY: Privately printed., 1889.
  • Green, W[illiam]. The Sufferings of William Green, Being a Sorrowful Account, of His Seven Years Transportation. London: J. Long, [undated, but after 1774]. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • Grubb, Farley. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” The Journal of Economic History 60.1 (2000): 94-122.
  • Harrower, John. “Diary of John Harrower, 1773-1776.” The American Historical Review 6.1 (1900): 65-107.
  • 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.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
  • “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.
  • Smith, Abbot Emerson. Colonists in Bondage : White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776. The Norton Library; N592. New York: Norton, 1971.

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.

Amazon.com: 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.

3 Comments

  1. Peter Say wrote:

    In Australia it is no longer considered shameful to have descended from a convict. Indeed we have begun to take some pride in it. Both my great-grandparents on my father’s side were convicts transported to Hobart around 1845, one from England, and the other from Ireland. I wonder what the attitude to such convict ancestry is in the united States today.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 4:03 am | Permalink
  2. Judging from some of the interactions I have had with my readers, some are eager to find out more information about their connection to a transported convict, but others are still uncomfortable with the idea. I think if the latter group understood the circumstances that led to the transportation of most of the convicts to America, they might not consider it to be so shameful.

    Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  3. Jennifer Hock wrote:

    This post answers some questions I had in researching eighteenth century Anglo-Cherokee conflicts. Thank you for taking time to report these studies.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 6:22 am | Permalink

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