Gunston Hall Docent's Association
Convicts or “King’s Passengers” were the third group of white indentured servants who came to the colonies with time to serve. As punishment for crimes committed in England, more convicted transported felons were sent to Maryland and Virginia than other American or Carribean colonies. The primary purpose of transportation was to free Britain, Scotland and Ireland of non-capital felons rather than to bolster the labor force in British colonies. Exiling the convicts from Britain for their time to serve also enforced the power of judges to intimidate through penal transportation. Approximately 50,000 felons were transported to the Chesapeake between 1718 and 1775.
|Maryland Gazette, June 16, 1767|
Lightly loaded ships sailing to Maryland and Virginia to pick up tobacco could be filled with convicts. The chain of ownership for the servant-convict was jailer - merchant - ship captain - local dealer - and finally the buyer. British jurisdictions paid a flat fee to the merchant to take all prisoners, regardless of their physical condition, the jailer received a kickback for choosing a particular merchant, and thereafter each on the chain received a cut of the final sale price. Henry Piper, Robert Adam, and John Fitzgerald of Alexandria, and John Graham of Dumfries, among many other Northern Virginian merchants, dealt in convict servants. On Mason Neck, the agents were Barnes & Ridgate at Colchester. The local dealer could be assured that he would receive 7.5% of the selling price, or about 10 to 20 shillings per convict. [note: 20 shillingsƒ equaled pound £]. Generally, men sold for about £10, women for £6-8, and skilled craftsmen about £15.
This could be a profitable enterprise.
When Barnes and Ridgate went bankrupt in 1771, they transferred all of their debt at their Colchester store to George Mason and Martin Cockburn, acknowledging their indebtedness to Mason and Cockburn in the deed. As well as being in the tobacco trade as consignment merchants the company also dealt in African slaves and British convicts.
Of course there were circumstances that interfered with the profits, such as loss of the ships at sea, on board deaths of some of the King’s passengers, or inability to sell old or infirm convicts. While on some ships the mortality rate was as high as 50%, the average was about 10%. Ships were quarantined for a short time before the servants were sold. Most often the sales took place on board the ship. Some servants were purchased by so called “soul drivers” who came on board, bought a quantity of prisoners, shackled them together, and marched them towards the Valley of Virginia where, in the words of free-will indentured servant John Harrower, they were “drivin [sic] through the country like a parcell [sic] of Sheep until they can sell them to advantage . . .”5 A way station on the road to the valley for both convicts and slaves was what is now Centreville, then called Newgate.
While many on both sides of the Atlantic thought buying convict servants was profitable, many including the Virginia legislature did not. The legislature tried unsuccessfully several times to tax and thereby limit both the convict and slave trade and each time they were defeated by the British government. Benjamin Franklin observed that the returning convict ships should be filled
with rattlesnakes to make the trade equitable. The Maryland and Virginia Gazettes alerted colonists of the arrival in the Chesapeake of ships carrying convict or seven year servants. The trade stopped during the war, although the British attempted to send convict ships to Virginia after the Revolution, they were turned back.
|Virginia Gazette, Rind, June 15, 1769|
added to the indenture to compensate for time lost and cost of recovery. Samuel Bailey appears in Buckland’s 1774 probate inventory with a value of £16. As a indentured servant of Buckland’s, Bailey was considered valuable property.
Because there is no surviving probate inventory, if indeed one was even taken, for George Mason, of Gunston Hall, it is unknown if at his death, in 1792, he had any type of indentured servants. By the time of Mason’s death, Irish redemptioner servants, Hanly and Conner’s time of service was complete. However, indentured servants, with time to serve, are listed in the 1735
inventory of his father, George Mason III. It is interesting to note that Pamela duPont Copeland in her study, The Five George Masons, notes that George Mason III’s principal income was derived from leases and the tobacco produced on leased land rather than his own worked plantations.
By looking at the names of some of the servants, with time to serve, in the accounts of George Mason III’s 1735 inventory, we are able to identify two men whose names are recorded as King’s Passengers. The inventory lists John Webb (John S. Webb) who was most likely transported in 1731 on the Forward to Maryland or Virginia and John Davis who was transported in 1728 on the Elizabeth to the Potomac. In the inventory, Davis is listed with three months to serve, making him a seven year servant.
There are several “King’s Passengers” who are associated with George Mason, although we do not know if he purchased them individually, or if they were contracted to him by another purchaser, or how he came to know them during their servitude to someone else. The outstanding one is William Bernard (sometimes Barney or Barnabe) Sears, a twenty year old carver from Middlesex
England who was found guilty of grand larceny for stealing several items of clothing and trying to pawn them. He and his accomplice, also a carver were sentenced to transportation for 7 years, leaving London on the ship Tryal bound for Maryland in August 1752. We do not know if Sears was purchased by Mason or by another person. We do know that Sears was responsible for the intricate wood carvings at Gunston Hall and that he and William Buckland worked together in 1759 when both of their indentures were completed. In 1772, with newly acquired gilding tools, he was working on two churches, one of which was Pohick Church, the other most likely Payne’s Church. Payne’s Church, on the Ox Road, was destroyed during the Civil War.8 Sears was doing the wood carvings and painting George Washington’s little dining room at Mount Vernon in 1775. Sears’ 1818 obituary states that “Mr. Sears lived for a considerable time in the family of Col. George Mason of Gunston, who ever spoke of him in terms of highest respect, and his good name is yet upheld by a large family of children.”
In conclusion, from the scant evidence available, it appears that George Mason had contact with some convict servants, either through the property acquired with the bankruptcy of Barnes and Ridgate or the association with William Bernard Sears. At least six other former convict servants appear to have been leaseholders on Mason’s scattered Northern Virginia properties. Part 3 will examine that aspect of his business arrangements. In keeping with George Mason’s advice to Robert Carter, he most likely did not rent his lands to strangers. As an astute businessman, he placed known men on his land, not only to improve it but also for the extra rent income. By looking at some of the lease holders on Mason’s land, the words of former convict servant William Bernard Sears’s obituary sheds light on a few of those, who bound for Maryland or Virginia “left the oppressions of Europe.”
This study would not have been complete without the work of:
Sherry F. Solow’s graduate school theses presented to George Mason University in 1977:
“Tenantry in Virginia: Fairfax County, 1742-1776.” (available in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library)
John Cantwell’s Master Thesis for George Mason University, 1986: “Imported Indentured White Servitude in
Fairfax and Prince William Counties, 1750-1800.” (available in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library).
Beth Mitchell’s extraordinary map and documentation in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1760 an interpretive Historical
Map. (available in the Gunston Hall Gift Shop)
Defoe, Daniel. Captain Jack or Moll Flanders
Riley, Edward Miles, ed. The Journal of John Harrower, an indentured servant in the Colony of Virginia 1773-
1776. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1963.
Coldham, Peter Wilson. Emigrants in Chains . . . . Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1992.
--------- King’s Passengers to Maryland and Virginia. Westminster, MD: Family Line Publishers, 1997.
Copeland, Pamela duPont and Richard K. McMaster, The Five George Masons Patriots and Planters of Maryland
and Virginia. Lorton, VA: Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 1975.
Ekrich, A. Roger. Bound for America: a Profile of British Convicts Transported to the colonies, 1718-1775.
London: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Morgan, Kenneth. Bristol and the Atlantic trade in the eighteenth century. London: Cambridge University, 1993.