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Transported Convicts in the New World: Runaways

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

Lots of convict servants tried to run away from their owners in an attempt to escape harsh treatment from them or to regain their freedom and possibly return to Great Britain, or both. Almost as soon as the practice of convict transportation started, convicts began trying to run away. Shortly after one of the first ships to transport convicts to America under the Transportation Act landed, seven of the convicts on board managed to escape. On November 25, 1718, Samuel Shute, the Governor of Massachusetts, issued a proclamation that described the convicts–who had been committing “many robberies, and other Enormities in the Places whether they are fled”–and offered fifty shillings each for their recapture.


Convicts tended to run away from their masters at a higher rate than indentured servants. Unlike indentured servants, convict servants did not choose to come to America, so they were more than likely resentful of being forced into servitude in a strange country against their will. They also had little incentive to serve out their terms of service, so running away could appear to be an attractive option. Early on in the period, owners of convict servants were required to provide some tools and seed to them once they served out their terms, much like indentured servants. But as the century progressed these rights were stripped from the convicts, so there was no reward waiting for them if they stayed until the end of their service.

The punishment for running away was not much of a deterrent either. Runaway convicts faced corporal punishment and additional service time if caught: roughly one extra week for every day, one month for every week, and one year for every month. But such punishments seemed trivial compared to the experiences the convicts had already faced.

Most of the convicts who chose to run away did so within two years of arriving in America, and they usually did so 6 months to a year after arrival, if they didn’t run away soon after they landed. As the years went on, the incentive to run away grew less as they neared the end of their usual sentence of 7 years. Most convicts ran away alone, but occasionally they would run away in pairs, often with someone who came from the same part of England. Some convicts were even known to run away with an African slave.

The Difficulty of Running Away

Convicts who ran away from their owners had a difficult time escaping detection due to the many mechanisms in place to bring about their recapture. For one, servants traveling through the countryside were required to carry papers that showed that they either had been discharged or had their owner’s permission to be wandering off of his property. Any servant caught traveling without such papers could be questioned and apprehended at any time to see if anyone made any inquiries about his or her whereabouts.

Property owners were vigilant in keeping an eye out for runaways, mainly because a generous reward was usually offered for their capture and return. Advertisements in American newspapers helped in the identification of runaway convicts and specified the reward offered. Many plantation owners kept descriptions of their servants and slaves on file in case any one of them decided to run away.

Convict servants who ran away in Virginia or Maryland not only had to contend with the vigilance of property owners, but also with the intersecting rivers that made travel extremely difficult. Even if a runaway convict managed to make it to a port, he or she would have had a difficult time securing passage back to Great Britain without any money or without being detected.

Runaway Ads

Colonial newspapers often carried advertisements for runaway convict servants that were placed by their owners, and these notices provide important information about the convicts and their lives in America. Runaway ads usually give the names of the convicts, a description or their appearance, their age, where they originally came from, and their occupation or skill set. The faces of many of the convicts are described as being pitted from smallpox, and some of the convicts are noted as wearing an iron collar or handcuffs.

The following runaway ad that appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette illustrates the kind of information that was generally included in runaway advertisements, even though it provides a more detailed description of the runaway convict than most did.

Bohemia, Maryland, April 9. 1752
Runaway, last night, from the subscriber, a convict servant fellow, nam’d Jacob Parrott, born in the West of England, and bred in the family of a gentleman in Devonshire. He is about 22 years old, of a fair complection, active and strong, but short for his bulk; he is very handy at any thing, so that he may pretend to be a groom, coachman, gardiner, barber, lawyer, shoemaker, &c. His apparel was a new felt hat, a new brown and an old grey wig, a new ash colour’d duffel great coat, with a large cape, and white metal buttens, a new darkish grey fine kersey coat, with a small black cape, and black button holes, with carved white metal buttons, double breasted short brown holland jacket, with wash’d yellow buttons, new leather breeches, two or three fine Irish linen shirts, white cotton stockings, and new footed grey yarn ditto, new pumps, and larger pewter buckles. He took with him a brown middle siz’d natural pacing horse, a good bridle, saddle and housing, with plenty of money, which ‘tis supposed will soon be spent, he being a very drunken idle fellow, and a lover of dancing, singing, carding, racing, cock-fighting, &c. he will cringe to those he thinks his superiors, but is quarrelsome and abusive to others, in whose company he will brag, chatter, fight, curse, swear, &c. has a scar on his left-thumb, occasioned by a cut with a broad ax: All persons, especially women, are cautioned to beware of him, for he is a great cheat, and a notorious villain. Whoever secures him in any prison, &c so that he may be had again, shall be paid Forty Shillings, Pennsylvania currency, and besides that reward, any person that will bring him home, shall be paid his reasonable charges, &c. by me, his master. Hugh Jones.
N.B. All masters of vessels are forbid to carry him off.

Dangerous Runaways

Runaway convicts could be quite dangerous. On September 7, 1738, the American Weekly Mercury carried a story about a coachmaker named Evans who was found murdered in the woods. Evans was traveling from Rappahannock to Hanover when he stopped at an inn for the night. Before retiring, he handed the innkeeper a handkerchief holding money in it for safekeeping. Unfortunately, someone witnessed the exchange and followed Evans the next day after he left the inn. Two days later, a convict was picked up as a runaway, and in his possession were Evans’s handkerchief, his clothes, his horse, and a considerable sum of money. The convict was the one who witnessed the exchange of money, but he was not known to be a runaway at the time. After his capture, he was committed to the public jail in Williamsburg, VA and charged with “barbarously murdering Mr. Evans.”

In July 1773, Archibald Moffman, a soul-driver from Baltimore, purchased a group of convicts with the intention of reselling them for a profit further inland. He managed to sell all but four of the convicts by the time he reached the town of Frederick and was continuing on to Hagerstown to sell the rest. About two or three miles outside of Frederick, one of the convict servants complained of fatigue, so the party stopped under a tree alongside the main road. When Moffman decided that they needed to continue on their journey, the convicts refused to move. Instead, they threw him backwards, dragged him into the woods, and cut his throat from ear to ear. They then stole Moffman’s pocketbook and proceeded to stop at every tavern they met as they continued the journey over the mountain.

At one of the taverns, a man who had earlier happened to spot them with their master asked them where he was. The group claimed that he was refreshing himself just a little way behind them, but after the enquiring man rode a couple miles back without meeting Moffman, he suspected murder. He notified the neighborhood, and the convicts were easily pursued and captured. They were brought to the jail in Frederick, where they confessed their guilt. This story caused quite a sensation at the time, for a number of newspapers from the Chesapeake all the way up to New Hampshire carried the story and followed up on it in later editions.

For their act, the four convicts received the death sentence, and they were executed in Frederick on October 22, 1773.

Resources for this article:

  • “Annapolis, July 29.” New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury August 9, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • 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.
  • “Extract of a Letter from Shippensburg, in Pennsylvania, Agusut 6, 1773.” New-Hampshire Gazette September 17, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Grubb, Farley. “The Market Evaluation of Criminality: Evidence from the Auction of British Convict Labor in America, 1767-1775.” The American Economic Review 91.1 (2001): 295-304.
  • —. “The Transatlantic Market for British Convict Labor.” The Journal of Economic History 60.1 (2000): 94-122.
  • 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.
  • The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words, of the Malefactors Who Were Executed at Tyburn, on Wednesday the 7th of November, 1744. London: John Applebee, 1744. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • “Philadelphia, November 10.” Boston Post-Boy November 15, 1773. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “Run Away from the Subscriber.” Pennsylvania Gazette October 28, 1742. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • “[Runaway Advertisement].” Pennsylvania Gazette May 21, 1752. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.
  • Shute, Samuel. “A Proclamation.” Massachusetts, 1718. Database: Eighteenth Century Collections Online, Gale.
  • “Williamsburg, August 18.” American Weekly Mercury September 7, 1738. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Newsbank/Readex.

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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