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Forced removals to America

Reader Nonna Good came across a reference and just couldn’t believe it. So she asked for clarification.

transport“Could a child aged 6 be sent as an unaccompanied child in bondage in the 1700s from England?” she asked. “And that’s exactly what it says — a child without an adult who is bound out?”

It may be hard to imagine in modern times, but the answer, simply, is yes.

In fact, many thousands of children were taken from England to the American colonies, as convicted criminals, as indentured servants and, all too often, without any legal process in England — kidnapped off the streets and sent off as merchandise to be sold as servants in the New World.

We start with the fact that, in 1718, an English statute institutionalized the concept of transporting someone to the colonies as an alternative to jailing that person for crime. Under that statute:

Transportation quickly became the preferred form of punishment for lesser felonies. At the Old Bailey session on April 23, 1718–the one immediately following passage of the Transportation Act–27 of the 51 people convicted of crimes were sentenced to transportation. They would be the first of the roughly 50,000 who were transported to America under the Transportation Act and who together represented a quarter of all British emigrants to this country during the eighteenth century. Transportation no longer involved simply banishing a criminal offender from England’s borders: it now became an institutionalized practice of emptying jails and forcibly ridding the country of undesirable elements, and the way it was carried out made it a unique American phenomenon.1

Because, under the law, children as young as eight years old could be convicted of crimes,2 children that young could be and were sentenced to transportation, bound out at one end of the voyage or the other to serve as indentured servants until they were adults.

In 1720, the law even made transportation more likely by authorizing payments to merchants who handled the transportations.3 Though the American Revolution forced a halt to transportation from England, before it ended, “approximately 52,200 convicts sailed for the colonies, more than 20,000 of them to Virginia. … An investigation of the skills held by one shipload of convicts revealed that of ninety-eight felons, forty-eight possessed no recognizable trade: sixteen of them were too young to have learned a trade”4 — in other words, children.

These convicts weren’t the only children brought to America. Children were sent off to the colonies indentured as servants by parents or guardians — and some were sent off simply by being swept up off the streets. Looking at colonial laws, we can see that Virginia legislated for indentures of children under the age of 12 as early as 1642-43.5

And children arriving without indentures — contracts that fixed time limits for servitude — could face much longer terms of service. Many of those children were simply kidnapped off the streets in England, Ireland and Scotland.6

To learn more about these transported children — with and without legal process — there are two really good books (among others):

• Peter Wilson Coldham, 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); and

• Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D., Without Indentures: Index to White Slave Children in Colonial Court Records (Maryland and Virginia). (Baltimore, Md. : Genealogical Publ. Co., 2013).

Not a pretty part of our national history, is it? But one we need to kbow.


  1. See generally “The Need for a New Punishment: The Transportation Act of 1718,” Early American Crime ( : accessed 20 Feb 2014).
  2. Edward Christian, editor, Blackstone’s Commentaries on The Laws of England, Book I: Of the Rights of Persons (Portland : Thomas B. Wait & Co., 1807), 4653-464; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 20 Feb 2014). Note that the pagination cited is drawn from the original.
  3. Punishments at the Old Bailey: Transportation,” The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913 ( : accessed 20 Feb 2014).
  4. Emily Jones Salmon, “Convict Labor During the Colonial Period,” Encyclopedia of Virginia ( : accessed 20 Feb 2014).
  5. Brendan Wolfe and Martha McCartney, “Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia,” Encyclopedia of Virginia ( : accessed 20 Feb 2014).
  6. See Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D., Without Indentures: Index to White Slave Children in Colonial Court Records (Maryland and Virginia). (Baltimore, Md. : Genealogical Publ. Co., 2013).
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