Posted by Ancestry Team on May 25, 2018 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Through an incredible journey, Jon Cryer discovered that his 9x great-grandfather, James Adams, came to America as an indentured servant. After a disastrous attempt to repel the English from his beloved Scotland, James Adams and other Scots were captured, shipped to Massachusetts against their will, and compelled into approximately 7 years of indentured service for Saugus Iron Works starting in 1650. What happened to this man who came to America with nothing, not even his own freedom? How did his family ascend to prosperity, to the point where one of his descendants became an Emmy-winning actor?

Jon Cryer

The answer to discovering James Adams’s fate after his indenture was over is the same answer for anyone wishing to document their ancestors in Colonial America: historical deeds. Deeds are invaluable because many records used for genealogy (vital records, censuses, etc.) were nonexistent in colonial times. Deeds can name an ancestor’s relatives, and the size and value of their property. Deeds are made even more important as people sometimes chose to use deeds instead of wills as a mechanism to transfer land and personal property to their heirs.

Such was the case for James Adams. Thanks to a deed created in 1698, we see that he rose from indentured servitude to enough prosperity to own his own land and pass support to his children. On 12 May 1698, James Adams deeded his home and land to his son, James Adams Jr. The deed specified that James Adams Jr. was to provide a “suitable house” for James Adams Sr. and his wife, Priscilla. James Adams Jr. was also obligated to “maintain them both with a sufficiency of food, raiment, and what else is necessary for their comfort all during the time of their natural life and at death a decent burial.” Finally, the deed dictated that James Adams’s daughters were to each be paid twenty shillings a year, up to a total of twenty pounds. This record is a perfect demonstration of using a deed in place of a will: the deed bequeathed James Adams’s land and money as effectively as if he had done it through a will.

A complication arose when James Adams’ Jr. sold the land to a neighbor named John Heald — while James Sr. and his wife were still living. How would James Sr. and his wife be taken care of, if the land no longer belonged to the family? On 30 Nov 1700, James Adams Sr. secured his future by signing a deed with John Heald in which both parties acknowledged that Heald had made the purchase but was still committed to additional obligations to James Adams Sr. James Sr. made sure each of his daughters were still cared for, and required John Heald to pay four pounds to each of them after James Sr.’s death. The 1700 deed also clarified that James Sr. and Priscilla would live “in the dwelling house that said James Adams, Sr., hath built . . . and lived in.”

Thanks to these deeds, we see that James Adams came a long way from being simply one of “35 Scots” sold to Saugus Iron Works in America. Not only did he overcome the trials of capture, imprisonment, and forced servitude, he gathered enough land and wealth to remain in comfort the rest of his days. He also took care of the next generation, ensuring his children had support and would not suffer the same desperation he had faced. James Adams planted the seed of many prosperous generations in America, which would eventually make up Jon Cryer’s impressive legacy.

Tips from AncestryProGenealogists: When looking for deeds, ask these questions- 

  • Who made them? Determine the jurisdiction administrating land records for the location and time period you are interested in. For the Colonial period it could have been a local governmental body or a private business or person given land rights through the British Crown for example. Later they were most often kept at the county level, but remember county boundaries often changed over time. County histories and maps are very helpful for this.

  • Where were they kept? The answer to this question is usually a county courthouse, but not always. A jurisdiction shift or threat to the records for whatever reason may have caused a repository change. Again, check your historical resources.

  • What survived? Unfortunately, not all US land records have survived over time. Courthouses burn, blow away or just blow up. Clerks decide to clean house and water pipes burst. Things happen. Fortunately, land was a hot commodity and you had to prove that you owned it before you could sell or bequeath it. Because of this, deed records were very often recreated after a disaster, sometimes years after so give yourself a wide date range when looking for them.

  • How do I access them? The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has the largest collection of US land records on film and many have been digitized and are accessible on line. Local genealogical societies, states, and counties are also working to make their information more accessible. Ancestry has digitized many books containing indexes and abstracts as well as actual land records which are searchable by location.

Watch Jon Cryer’s full journey, download the TLC GO app or watch on Binge full episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? on, and discover more celebrities uncovering their family history on all-new episodes Mondays 9|8c on TLC.



  1. joseph schaffstall

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    • Sokolee

      You got exactly what was advertised; an ethnicity estimate and a regularly updated list of DNA matches. Did you bother to look in to what you would get or just assume there was more to it?

      • Lois Cook

        Whew. I understand your answer to this query, but your tone lacks a customer service attitude. Just omitting the word “bother” makes it sound like you at least are trying to help.

      • Karl O Mesander

        I’m pretty sure that if, in fact, you’re any part of the team at any level, at the very least, a Customer Service Representative, that you would’ve been taught to be much more professional in your responses towards any client, ESPECIALLY, in a public forum setting. This is absolutely one of the best examples of unprofessional conduct by someone in a corporate environment and I’ll be registering a complaint against you with your Human Resources, believe that. I can’t believe that would support this type of blatant disrespect towards a customer. I’m appalled at the sheer audacity that you have. EVERY client is allowed to state an opinion about the practices of ANY business, no matter what that opinion may be! And IF wishes to fully support you blatant disrespect of their clientele, I can promise them that I will definitely pass on, to many current clients, this conversation and the responses from, which will lose this company thousands of dollars. This is definitely not the last time anyone will hear of this. Thank you for being kind enough to publicize your disregard for the clientele of your company. Good day.

  2. Jane Killeen

    I tend to do research for family individuals within my Ancestry ‘comfort zone’ ~ searching mainly by names of indviduals. This article is a great reminder to use other Ancestry or Family Search tools, such as HISTORICAL DEEDS! Thank you for these search tips!

  3. Janice

    I enjoyed his story – especially as I have connection to Saugus Iron Works. My 8th and 9th great-grandfathers (both named Joseph Jenckes) founded/operated it. (I hope they treated men well.) I also have Scot ancestry and could appreciate the English/Scot troubles. The second episode was a major disappointment and I couldn’t finish watching it.

    • Denise

      So, sorry to let you know I thought Jon Cryer’s story was a little to boring for me and it seem to drag on to long … I love watching Who Do You Think You Are each season? Glad the story was helpful to your family history. I did think the second story of Who Do You Think You Are? was great! Seeing her being able to find the slave records on each stop was amazing because not everyone will find such records on their slave ancestors. She was very lucky to follow his paper trail. Seeing the records of very early voters in USA was great. Can wait till Monday for the new episode.

  4. Linda E

    Loved the article and you are so correct once you get passed your Civil War era ancestors making connections or finding information gets smaller and smaller. Tax and land records are your next choice if you don’t have a will to help in your search. But I must say I am finding it more and more expensive to keep all of these subscriptions in order to continue my family research. For many of us who were the early subscribers to, our expenses for keeping our subscription has done nothing but increase, with no benefit for our continued subscription and only minimal reduction in the subscription for adding our sites Fold3 and Speaking for myself who lives on disability this becomes harder and harder to work into my budget. I just wish you as a company would take loyalty into consideration when making your increases in subscriptions. I provide a workshop here in my area for family researchers as to how to get the most out of all your research subscriptions. Thanks for taking the time to listen to my concerns.

  5. Dale Reed

    My DNA shows no difference between Ireland and Scotland. I was classed 49% Irish however, and understanding the wars and changes in rulers over the history of the region it is not surprising. I just returned from a visit to Ireland and was able to get some web sites and other sources by visiting the Library of Ireland in Dublin. They will not do your research, but are helpful as to where to look. In your article you did not tell how you were able to connect the Adams to the more recent ancestors. Did you work forward following the report that x Scots were sold to a iron works or did you find by going back in chronological order? I took pictures of areas that people with my last name left for America thanks to lucky hits on Ancestry searches. I visited Larne N. Ireland where a ship left for Charleston SC in about 1772-3 carrying a Robert Reed. Now I am looking at land records and Revolutionary war pensioners in an attempt to connect. Forward is better than Backward in my case.

  6. Robert BJ Railton

    It was unusual for any rebels who were transported to America (or Virginia as the East coast of America was then known) to be indentured as servants hence the absence of James Adams’s indenture document. Most English, Irish and Scottish rebels were sent to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Research of the assizes after the Battle of Dunbar may reveal James’s status to be a rebel convict and therefore not have indenture papers. As a convict he and his fellow countrymen would have been either purchased by the Saugus Ironworks prior to their transportation from England or sold on the block in Massachusetts without indenture papers as convicts were not indentured. Indentures were made out in two copies; one was kept by the person to whom the servant was indentured, in James’s case the Saugus Ironworks and the other copy, kept by the servant. To prevent forgery, the indentures were printed on one sheet of paper and then cut in two with an irregular cut so that authenticity could be proved by matching both indentures along the unique cut line. Perhaps research may find James’s matching indenture copy if in fact he was an indentured servant and not one of the over 50,000 convicts transported to America during the period 1607-1776. I would be only too pleased to provide further information about this very interesting phase of Colonial American history to anyone who may be interested.

    • Laura Short

      Indeed. My (adopted) Father’s ancestor was transported to Barbados sometimes in the mid-to-late 1600s. From there, he and his three daughters were then transported to Maryland Colony around 1680 and upon their arrival 1) had their “conviction” communted and 2) given citizenship of the colony by an act of the “Generall Assembly”. All very interesting. Never once, was this ancestor described as indentured; he was a convict, transported for using his ship to aid those working against the Crown.

  7. Sue Williams

    What a shock to watch this episode and see my ancestor, Simon Wheeler, on Jon Cryer’s family tree. It turns out that James Adams is my 7th great grandfather. I never dreamed I would see my ancestor on your show. What a thrill. Thanks for the interesting shows you produce.

  8. Lois Hayden

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    Irene Wade Belcher

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  11. Kelly

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  12. Time to say thank you for all informations and comments on your website. Not easy to understand everything but most times very helpful. Especially the discuss abou dna concentration helps me a lot for university

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    On Homer Lee Daugherty I his grandaughter there is no Raymond s Daugherty just grand daughter

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