Emigrants in Chains — The Truth be Told

Did your ancestors emigrate to the American colonies? If so, why? Was it their choice? The popular view of colonization suggests the majority of pre-revolutionary settlers came for religious freedom, to own and work one’s own land, to satisfy an adventurous heart, or other seemingly noble and culturally acceptable reasons.

Emigrants in Chains, by Peter Wilson Coldham, examines in detail an often overlooked piece of history. The forced colonization of the American colonies by English prisoners. The book outlines the social, economical, and political reasons England forced as many as 50,000 prisoners to emigrate.

The book’s subtitle, “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,” well describes the contents of this unique history book.

Referring to those individuals sentenced to colonial life, the author states, “Their untold story may lack the romance of the cavalries of Virginia and Maryland—the heroic ring of a dispossessed aristocracy— but is has the distinct advantage of being true. Without diminishing or debunking the past, it is a story that nevertheless challenges our perceptions and our attitudes.”

The more we know about history, the better we can understand, know, and appreciate our ancestors. Emigrants in Chains tells of the less glamorous side of human nature in history but is all-together important for us to explore and understand.


Table of Contents

Chapter I: The Convicts and Their Background

  • Poverty and crime encouraged by legislation
  • The growth of villainy and criminal gangs
  • Environmental and economic inducements to law-breaking

Chapter II: The Prisons

  • Contemporary descriptions of London and provincial prisons
  • Punishments inflicted
  • Exactions of prison keepers
  • The power of money to relieve punishment

Chapter III: The Dispensers of Justice

  • The development of criminal justice system
  • The power of judges
  • The prevalence of political corruption and venality
  • Humanitarian reliefs

Chapter IV: The State Monopoly—Early Days

  • State-administrated schemes for transporting pardoned felons to the colonies
  • The extension of such schemes to vagrant children, beggars, drunks and political and religious misfits
  • Private enterprise and the practice of spiriting
  • The  American colonies begin to protest
  • The collapse of the early system of transportation

Chapter V: The Age of the Contractors

  • New law on criminal transportation of 1718
  • Appointment of Contractors for the Transports
  • Reactions of the colonies
  • Free trade and introduction of the Hulk Act in 1776
  • Some dismal experiments after the Peace of 1783

Chapter VI: Transportation as a Business

  • The official contractors, their commercial and maritime affairs
  • Difficulties at home, at sea and in the plantations
  • Profits and losses
  • A contractor’s summary of his activities

Chapter VII: The Scottish Experiment

  • Widespread practice of kidnapping in the Scottish Highlands
  • The complicity of civic authorities
  • Exposure of the illicit trade in plantation servants
  • Poverty the cause of a tidal wave of Scottish emigration
  • Government alarm

Chapter VIII: His Majesty’s Seven-Year Passengers

  • Conditions of shipboard life for transported felons
  • Personal reminiscences
  • Brutality of captains and crews
  • Shipboard security measures
  • Dangers to women at sea

Chapter IX: The New Immigrants

  • Accounts of living conditions for transported “servants”
  • The preparation and sale of human cargoes
  • Escapes and punishments
  • Monied exiles, impostors and cheats

Chapter X: Some Thumbnail Sketches

  • Biographies and autobiographies of transported felons
  • Their experiences in the American colonies
  • Their life and times in England

Chapter XI: The Twilight Years

  • Objections to the Hulk Act
  • Frustrated attempts to revive the transportation trade
  • American and British reflections on the effects of criminal transportation


  1. Pardons on Condition of Transportation
  2. Summary List of Principal Gaol Delivery and Assize Records
  3. An Act…for the More Effectual Transportation of Felons
  4. Specimens of Legal Documents
  5. Convict Ships Contracted from London to the American Colonies 1716–1775
  6. Convict Ships Contracted by Assize and Quarter Session Courts
  7. Convicts Pardoned for Transportation 1660–1699
  8. Convicts Pardoned for Transportation 1700–1775 (graph)
  9. Benjamin Franklin on the Subject of Transportation

Select Bibliography


Order today, Emigrants in Chains by Peter Wilson Coldham, available at Family Roots Publishing Item #GPC1109.

The National Parks – Where the Soul of Our Families Are Restored

Update Oct 2, 2009: Patty and I watched the entire series on PBS. We learned a lot, while bringing back numerous memories of our trips to the National Parks scattered around the United States. Thanks, Ken Burns, PBS, et al…

Patty and I spent a couple hours this evening watching The National Parks: America’s Best Idea 1851-1890 – The Scripture of Nature – directed by Ken Burns and co-produced by Dayton Duncan. What a treat. This was only Part 1, and it covered the establishment of Yosemite, and Yellowstone National Parks, also touching on the creation of Sequoia National Park and the General Grant National Park. Much of the film dealt with John Muir, who had such an influence on our park system.

You might wonder what National Parks have to do with family history. The National ParksWell, think about it. These parks have played a huge part for our American families for nearly a century and a half. It’s where our families, and those of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents went for relaxation and appreciation of nature’s beauty. The parks have been a place where our souls were restored, giving us the strength to go back to our toil – until we could return.

I grew up at the base of Mt. Rainier near the town of Orting, Washington. Mt. Rainier was one of those areas to which John Muir was attracted. In 1991, we bought a home on the Nisqually River, just outside the Paradise entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park. During my first 43 years of living in Washington State, I spent many happy hours hiking and climbing throughout the area, first with my parents and church friends, and later with my own family and climbing buddies. I’ve climbed the mountain itself a couple times and scared myself silly on a few of the crags scattered throughout the park. The memories made during those sojourns are imprinted on my mind – and those of my family.

PBS has established a remarkable website to go with the series. If awards are given out for fantastic websites, this one surely should take top honors. It’s extremely detailed and it looks to me like it touches on just about everything that’s covered in the film itself.

The program tonight was only the first of six in the series, so we’re looking forward to many more fascinating hours taking in the wonders of America’s National Park System.

The WPA in Minnesota

Did your ancestor work for the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the great depression? Mine certainly did. My own father, Theodore Canfield Meitzler, worked for the WPA in Oregon for at least a short period. I remember hearing him talk about it as a child. With Congress and President-elect Obama seriously considering a massive economic stimulus package which is meant to employ Americans, looking back at the WPA era seems reasonable. Iric Nathanson has an article at MinnPost.com dealing with the WPA era in Minnesota. It’s a good read.

Following is a short excerpt:

The image has become part of American political iconography. It shows a man in a slouch hat leaning against his shovel. He is earning a few dollars a day during the 1930s working for the Roosevelt administration’s WPA — the Works Progress Administration.

To its conservative critics, the WPA was just another big government boondoggle. But to its supporters, this federal jobs initiative brought a modest weekly income and self-respect to millions of out-of-work Americans who were the chief victims of the Great Depression.

A centerpiece of the Roosevelt administration’s “second New Deal,’ the WPA was enacted in April 1935 as a replacement for direct federal relief — known as “the dole” — that was considered demeaning and demoralizing for its recipients.

Read the full article, “The WPA in Minnesota: economic stimulus during the Great Depression,” by Iric Nathanson, in the January 7, 2009 edition of MinnPost.com.