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Transported Convicts in the New World: The Buyers of Convicts

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

Convicts from Great Britain made up the largest number of forced immigrants from Europe to America in the eighteenth century, with kidnapping victims and forced political exiles trailing far behind. One of the ideas behind the creation of convict transportation was that while serving out their terms of punishment convicted felons could gain valuable experience and skills that they could then use to make something of themselves in America.

The truth is that convicts who served out their terms had a much more difficult time settling in America than those who came before them. The buyers of transported convicts were in a much better position to take advantage of the opportunities that the land afforded them, and even then they faced considerable challenges.

The Rise of Plantations

Most of the planters in Maryland and Virginia who purchased convict labor had roots in America going back to the mid-seventeenth century, well before convict transportation was institutionalized. They generally were the descendants of sons of middling English merchants who came to America in search of economic opportunity. These early settlers were rough and eager to get rich, but it wasn’t easy for them to establish themselves in America. Disease claimed the lives of many of them. Tobacco, their chief crop, offered them only moderate returns, and cultivating it required a lot of work. They lived in modest houses, because they didn’t have the time or money to spend developing their estates beyond the support of basic agriculture.

By the eighteenth century, however, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Because tobacco is such a labor-intensive crop, the income of planters was proportional to the number and efficiency of their laborers, not to the amount of land that they owned. Land was cheap in colonial America; labor was not. Wealthy planters were able to purchase slaves–a labor commodity that smaller planters were generally unable to afford–which allowed them to produce more tobacco. With the greater profits that came with growing more tobacco came the ability to purchase more slaves.

By the 1720’s, about the time when convicts began to be shipped to the colonies, some planters were rich enough to begin building the stately mansions that are associated with southern plantations today. Through the use of slaves, indentured servants, and convicts, the great planters were able to grow their business more quickly and came to dominate the area both economically and politically, although smaller tobacco planters continued to operate as well.

Plantation Owners

The great plantations functioned as self-contained communities run by a patriarch who had a strong sense of independence and was distrustful of outside help. His large house, the vast acreage of his plantation, and the number of workers who supported his enterprise all worked toward creating a self-sufficient enterprise.

John Mason, the son of George Mason, describes the self-contained world of the 18th-century plantation:

It was very much the practice with gentlemen of landed and slave estates in the interior of Virginia, so to organize them as to have considerable resources within themselves . . . Thus my father had among his slaves carpenters, coopers, sawyers, blacksmiths, tanners, curriers, shoemakers, spinners, weavers and knitters, and even a distiller. His woods furnished timber and planks for the carpenters and coopers, and charcoal for the blacksmith; his cattle killed for his own consumption and for sale supplied skins for the tanners, curriers, and shoemakers, and his sheep gave wool and his fields produced cotton and flax for the weavers and spinners, and his orchards fruit for the distiller (qtd. in Breen, Tobacco Culture).

Plantation owners were perceived to be arrogant, domineering, and greatly concerned with their social standing. One English traveler described planters as “immensely rich, and I think one of them, at this Time, numbers upon his Lands near 1,000 Wretches, that tremble with submissive Awe at his Nod, besides white Servants.” Another traveler noted their “litigious spirit” and was astounded by how many cases were brought before the courts at each session. Other contemporaries, however, described planters as being rather benign.

John Adams, in his diary entry for February 23, 1777, brought a Boston bias to his harsh assessment of the people of Maryland:

The Manners of Maryland are somewhat peculiar. They have but few Merchants. They are chiefly Planters and Farmers. The Planters are those who raise Tobacco and the Farmers such as raise Wheat &c. The Lands are cultivated, and all Sorts of Trades are exercised by Negroes, or by transported Convicts, which has occasioned the Planters and Farmers to assume the Title of Gentlemen, and they hold their Negroes and Convicts, that is all labouring People and Tradesmen, in such Contempt, that they think themselves a distinct order of Beings. Hence they never will suffer their Sons to labour or learn any Trade, but they bring them up in Idleness or what is worse in Horse Racing, Cock fighting, and Card Playing.

Smaller tobacco planters who could not afford to buy slaves would often turn to convicts or indentured servants to help work their fields, since they cost much less than slaves. Larger planters would purchase convicts to supplement their slave holdings, basically relying on the English-born servants to perform specialized functions that they brought with them from England.

The Carroll Family and Chesapeake Ironworks

The Carroll family from Maryland was one of the many employers of convict labor. Charles Carroll the Settler came from Ireland to Maryland in 1688 seeking an environment where his Roman Catholicism would not impede his political and economic advancement. The Glorious Revolution in England, however, jeopardized his plan, yet he still managed to accrue a fortune through land, slaves, moneylending, and mercantilism.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton
Image via Wikipedia

Carroll’s eldest son, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, continued to build the family empire and became one of the richest men in Maryland. His grandson, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. The latter two Carrolls purchased convicts both to work on their plantations and in their ironworks company.

Along with tobacco, iron was another popular commodity produced in the Chesapeake area in the eighteenth century. English capitalists, iron-masters, and merchants formed the Principio Company in Maryland by establishing an iron forge in 1715 and the Principio Furnace in 1724. At its peak, the Principio Company produced half the iron exported by Maryland.

The Accokeek Furnace was founded in 1725 in the Northern Neck of Virginia and was soon followed by many others, including the Baltimore Iron Works, which became the second largest iron enterprise in Maryland after the Principio Company. The Carroll family owned a fifth interest in the Baltimore Iron Works and made 400 pounds sterling from it a year.

Convicts were regularly purchased to work in the iron factories and mines. This form of employment was considered to be the worst and most laborious that a convict could land after arriving in America. Not surprisingly, advertisements for runaway convict servants placed by iron companies regularly appeared in local newspapers.

Resources for this article:

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).

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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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