Tag Archives: colonial united states

Our Embarrassing Colonial History

So there’s this “Make America Great Again” meme, and it’s all about keeping out immigrants, and the irony of the descendants of European immigrants wanting to stop immigration is largely lost in the crossfire, but there’s another problem with the “Make America Great Again” meme, which is this: when was America great?

We do have a lovely little story about American history, appropriate maybe for kids six and under, in which the American colonists wanted religious freedom and so we hopped onto the Mayflower and set up a free country.

But the reality is that a large percentage of our immigrants, white and nonwhite alike, were transported here forcibly.

According to Anthony Vaver, author of Bound With an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America:

From the time of the first settlers to the American Revolution, close to three quarters of all immigrants to the thirteen American colonies arrived on American shores without their freedom, coming over as slaves, convicts, or indentured servants. Even during the seventeenth century only 33 percent of immigrants to America were free. The vast majority of immigrants who arrived without their freedom were African slaves, accounting for a full 47 percent of all immigrants during the eighteenth century. About 150,000 immigrants, or 27 percent of the total, arrived as convicts or indentured servants during the same time.

British convicts formed a significant proportion of immigrants to early America. One quarter of all British immigrants arriving in the American colonies in the eighteenth century were transported convicts, most of them ending up in the labor-hungry colonies of Maryland and Virginia.

So the actual history is this: Before 1775, a fair number of our ancestors came as convicts dumped from British prisons and as vagrant children scooped off the streets, where they were pressed into four or five or seven or eight years of slavery, with more years tacked on for women if they got pregnant. Life expectancy was low for both groups. Then, when the revolution of 1775 hit, Britain was no longer allowed to send convicts or political prisoners to the US, and the plantation owners who needed cheap, disposable labor were out of luck. Except of course they weren’t out of luck, because by then laws were being passed to make slavery lifelong and heritable, for black people only. As for Britain, it kept on sending convicts–but to Australia instead.

Here’s an excerpt from an article written in 1896 about convict labor, “British Convicts Shipped to American Colonies,” J.D. Butler, American Historical Review
Vol. 2 No. 1 (Oct. 1896), pp 12‑33.

In 1769 Dr. Johnson, speaking of Americans, said to a friend, “Sir, they are a race of convicts and ought to be content with anything we may allow them short of hanging.” In the latest edition of Boswell, who chronicled this saying, it is explained by the following footnote: “Convicts were sent to nine of the American settlements. According to one estimate, about 2000 had been sent for many years annually. Dr. Lang, after comparing various estimates, concludes that the number sent might be about 50,000 altogether.”1

This history was suppressed, denied, or ignored, immediately after the Revolutionary War. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson (a slaveowner) expressed his opinion that “The Malefactors sent to America were not sufficient in number to merit enumeration. . .  I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000 & being principally men eaten up with disease, they married seldom & propagated little.” (From The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume IX, p 254.)

Back to J.D. Butler, writing in 1896:

Bancroft, in 1887, conversing with the present writer, freely admitted that, when speaking of felons among our settlers, he had been very economical in dispensing the truths he had discovered. Having a handful, he had opened only his little finger. He wrote too early to expect that American eyes could bear the light of full disclosures.

(George Bancroft was a prolific and influentual historian who also, by the way, helped start the Mexican War.)

More than a hundred years after the forcible transportation of convicts to the U.S. was “too early” to tell this history? Is it still too early?

It’s never too early to stop lying to ourselves.

America was never “great.”

Americans are not better than the immigrants who want to come in. By choice, this time!

We’re all just people. It’s high time we start treating ourselves as such.

Further reading

The website “Early American Crime” has a section on convict transportation.

The Gettysburg College website “Atlantic Migration” also has a section on forced migration, including convicts from Portugal, France, and England.

 

 

 

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Learning the actual history of the U.S. colonies

I’ve been interested in genealogy and family history for a while now. I like to learn more than the names and dates — I like their stories, and the “why” of where they moved, what religion they were, etc. And there is a LOT of information online. I can trace some branches of the family back to the 1600s. (One problem with that is there are “non-parental events” — that is, kids who have been assigned by history to the wrong parents, whether by adultery or adoption or who knows what all. Errors are bound to multiply as you go back in time. All the same, I feel attached to these ancestors.)

Anyway, about a month ago I got interested in some of the names in my family tree. In one set of great-great-great grandparents and their ancestors, I saw names like Zenos or Zenas, Electa, Hannibal, Sylvanus, Israel, Abraham, Sarah, Tryphena . . . there are Hebrew names, Greek names, New Testament names, names of emporers, and even full names of two U.S. Presidents. How on earth did these names get in my family tree?

I was able to trace some of those families back by their paternal lines to arrival in the early U.S. colonies. Then I looked up the history of their churches and the towns they lived in, and ultimately the history of Protestant sects from 1630 to 1840.

Found out some fascinating tidbits! I’ll list a couple of them here, with the caveat that I learned all this from surfing the Web, which is notoriously unreliable. Most of this came from Wikipedia and the rest from random places.

1. The first two Puritan colonies were very different. The Mayflower Pilgrims were separatists — they wanted to break completely with the Church of England. The Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to reform it instead. Both established theocracies, which survived at first only because there was a civil war distracting the King of England. Power and influence of these two colonies waned as England settled its civil war and took a greater role in colony governance, more Europeans moved to the U.S. (giving people a chance to flee the Puritan colonies), and  ultimately England revoked the charter of one or the other or both.

2. Puritans had Hebrew names and modeled their theocracies after laws in the Hebrew Bible. They identified strongly with the persecution of the Jews, since they had been persecuted as well.

3. Puritans were from the beginning very invested in democracy — that is, of the male members of the church.

4. By the 1690s, the influence of the Puritans had waned, but a lot of the beliefs and traditions carried on in other religions until at least the 1840s. This is where it gets super interesting, though — there were no less than three revival movements, called “Great Awakenings,” where everything got turned on its head. They took place in approximately the 1730s, the 1790s, and the 1820s (give or take a couple of decades).

With that context in mind, here are a couple family stories.

John Mathew Noah came to the U.S. in colonial times as an indentured servant and eventually worked his way up to being fairly wealthy. He left Massachusetts for Ohio in the early 1800s, where he participated in the founding of a church called Bethesda.

Like Puritan churches, it had covenants to enforce church attendance and personal behavior. A decade or so later, the church was rocked by the Third Great Awakening and a schism developed. Some members wanted to keep the covenants, and some, including John Noah, wanted to throw them out entirely.

The notes of church meetings were kept, so I got to read an account of the schism, which was fascinating! There were a series of votes that kept getting overturned, and eventually, John Noah and ten to seventeen others were excluded from the church. He went on to help found a second church in another town. Meanwhile . . .

. . . his daughter, Margaret Haynes Noah, and her husband joined the Mormon Church, along with several other members of the Bethesda church. Her husband was . . .

. . .  Charles Hulet, a descendent of Puritans, including the Hathorne family, and a distant relation of the leader of the Salem Witch Trials and of Nathaniel Hawthorne. His father, Sylvanus Hulet, had fought in the Revolutionary War, then disappeared from historical records for seven years and emerged married to . . .

. . .  Mary Ann Lewis, whose parentage has not been traced, aside from a family story that her grandmother was a Native American named Running Deer and her grandfather was a white man referred to as Charles Sq**man (that’s a derogatory term that was used for whites who married Native Americans). This history, connected to the fact that the LDS church had a focus on converting Native Americans, adds up to something, but I can’t for the life of me tell what!

Here are the names that Charles Hulet and Margaret Ann Noah, my great-great-great-great grandparents (if I counted right!) gave their children: Anna Maria, Melvina, Catherine, Electa Fidelia, Sylvanus Cyrus, Elizabeth, Jane, Sarah, Dorcus, Tabitha, and Warren.

I see so many recurring patterns. Idealism, the desire to throw out all the old rules, restlessness, the willingness to pick up and move your entire family for the sake of religion, and interest in new forms of government. The desire for theocracy and the desire for its opposite.

That’s just one small segment of my family. This is the family of my great-great-great grandparent and beyond, and she (Catherine Hulet) is only one of thirty-two great-great-great grandparents. (If I counted right!) It contains so much drama and so many different kinds of people!

Folks, the history of the U.S. is so much stranger and more complicated than we could ever imagine.