The Untold Lives of British Convicts Sold to America

Family History
7 November 2017
by David Wilson

Many know that Australia was once a colony of convicts hailing from Britain. But have you heard about America’s very own convict past?

One Australian scholar (and Ancestry member) set out to tell their story.

Captain John Smith's map of Virginia.

Settlers at Jamestown

When we think about some of America’s first settlers, the Mayflower landing in 1620 often comes to mind. But the colonization of North American began before the Pilgrims, with the founding of Jamestown in 1607.

According to Robert Railton, Australia-based scholar and Ancestry member, the success of the colony depended on “the labor of British convicts, vagabonds and waifs swept from the streets of British cities.”

What Were Their Lives Like?

Illustration of HMS Discovery.
HMS Discovery, a prison ship much like the ones convicts were transported on.

Railton’s in-depth research indicates that many British convicts traveled to their destination on uncomfortable, rat-infested cargo ships. Crimes that attracted banishment were ones against society, such as theft and deception. The most common crime committed by British convicts shipped to America was theft.

The gender ratio for males to females was 2:1. Ages varied wildly; one girl was aged nine and four boys were 10 years old. In contrast, 19 men and 11 women were in their nineties. The convicts’ sentences varied from seven or 14 years to life in prison.

Sometimes converted from slave-trading ships, the 100-plus transport vessels carried up to 300 convicts, in appalling conditions.

Convicts who survived the horrendous passage were cleaned. Then they were advertised in newspapers and sold, with men priced at up to 20 British pounds and women up to 9 pounds. The human cargo trade made fortunes for those involved on both sides of the Atlantic.

Illustration of tobacco plantation.
Cultivation of Tobacco at Jamestown, 1615.

Traded females usually worked in the homes of tobacco plantation “masters,” Railton says. Their male counterparts mainly worked on the plantations or did other manual labor.

In Railton’s view, the viable colonies that convicts helped establish in the Chesapeake area enabled further colonial expansion, which would have been impossible without their toil:

“Despite all the privations endured by convicts, transportation gave them a second chance at making an honest, useful life and even prospering in their new environment. Harsh as it was for them, the alternative was worse!”

Australians and Americans More Alike Than They Think

Between 50,000 and 120,000 British convicts were transported to America, a fact that makes many Americans “incredulous,” says Railton. This is often because convicts were politely referred to as “servants.”

In addition, the scarcity of distinct record sets for convicts decreases the odds of Americans knowing about their British convict ancestors.

Railton is an advocate for Americans discovering their similarities to Australians, “I also think it is important for people to understand that Australians are not unique in having convict ancestors.”

Convict Records A Rich Resource

Register of prisoners document.
A register of the prisoners held at Booth-Hall in Gloucestershire, England. Could they have been sent to America, just like those in Jamestown?

You don’t have to be a Mayflower descendant to have a fascinating colonial past.

Ancestry’s record sets such as U. S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s,  All, Gloucestershire, England, Prison Records, 1728-1914, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Runaway Servants, Convicts, and Apprentices, 1728-1796 are a few places in Ancestry’s database of more than 10 billion family history records you can find those ties.

Could your ancestors have been some of the many sent from Britain as convicts to start anew on the shores of the Atlantic? Find out with Ancestry today.