Transportation - Colonial America

Forced expulsion from a country accompanied by a mandatory labor term issued as a penalty for criminal behavior. The British and Irish courts commonly decreed this form of punishment between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The infractions usually included theft of insignificant amounts of money or goods, but murderers, rapists, and traitors also escaped the death penalty by this means. Convicted felons were sent to America (mainly Virginia and Maryland) between the mid-1600s and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Following American independence, Australia was selected as a penal colony and convicts were shipped there between 1787 and 1868.

In his ground-breaking study on convicts, Peter Wilson Coldham identified over 50,000 criminals in British, Irish, and Colonial American sources sentenced to be transported to America. This collection, published as British Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1788, has recently been released on CD-ROM. For more information, visit

In Colonial America, convicts were sold like indentured servants to plantation owners and others in need of labor. A. Roger Ekirch's Bound for America: The Transportation of British Convicts to the Colonies, 1718-1775 (Clarendon Press, 1987) is the most authoritative account of this episode in American history. Although colonists were not always pleased to have criminals dumped on their soil - Ekirch found a statement by Benjamin Franklin recommending that the colonies return the convict ships to England filled with rattlesnakes to repay the favor - they usually acquiesced and purchased their service. One key fact that Ekirch uncovered for genealogists is that ship captains who sold the convicts in America often disguised them as normal indentured servants so that colonists would not fear purchasing their labor. That being the case, genealogists should check sources for both convicts and indentured servants when they attempt to trace the origins of individuals identified as servants in Colonial America.

Convicts served a master for either seven or fourteen years, depending upon the severity of their crimes. They worked without wages and were not allowed to marry or own land during their term. At the end of bondage, unlike indentured servants, they were not entitled to freedom dues, and had to begin a new life in the New World in dire circumstances. Genealogists can often trace these men and women during their term of servitude through colonial newspapers, such as The Maryland Gazette and The Virginia Gazette, where they appear in runaway advertisements. In addition, they can be found in local court cases identified as convict servants. The men and women who survived their labor terms went on to marry, accumulate estates, bear children, and integrate into the American population.

See also The International Centre for Convict Studies, Servant, and Transportation to America and the West Indies, 1615-1776.