There are some places on the Internet that claim that The American were (at least at the start) colonized by criminals and unwanted populations:


North America was first colonized with criminals and the poor (Roanoke and The Jamestown Colonies-first attempt).

A question on Quora:

How extensively were the American colonies used to displace criminals as is the history of Australia?

The same claim about Latin America, but contradicts the claim about North America:

Lets discuss the colonization of the Americas. In a thread in Civil Av I said that one important cause for Latin America "developing" status was that it was colonized by criminals freed from jails in the Iberian Peninsula and there were never families like what the British did in North America. Then a Spanish a.netter backfired saying that the USA was a penal colony for Great Britain... I don't think the USA was a penal colony.

Is there any truth in those claims?

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    You might be thinking of Australia rather than America. It's certainly one of the popular myths about Australia. – DJClayworth Apr 4 '13 at 19:48
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    Show me a popular location where the claim is made and I'll withdraw the downvote. I should have explained that my reason was the lack of proof of notability ("I heard that..." is often a poor source for real claims). – matt_black Apr 4 '13 at 20:17
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    @Mella: do you also have source references for your claims about (A) crime rates and (B) criminal genes? N.B. If you steal bread (perhaps because your children are starving), do your children become criminals? "WOODWARD , Thomas 1 July 1850 Transported 7 yrs for stealing 1 loaf bread , 4 lbs bread from Joseph Bell." – RedGrittyBrick Apr 4 '13 at 20:23
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    +1 I suspect even Australians aren't familiar with convicts being sent to America. – Andrew Grimm Apr 4 '13 at 23:01
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    @Mella - one of my ancestors was convicted and sent to Australia for the crime of steal buttons. I can honestly say, that I have never stole buttons. – dave Apr 8 '13 at 5:46

when America was discovered by the Europeans, they sent criminals to colonize it.

Although this (unreferenced) claim has a tiny grain of truth in it, it is grossly misleading.

Numbers of convicts compared to non-convicts

According to one author around 50,000 convicts were transported to North America over a 58-year period before independence.

In 1776 the US population was estimated at 2.5 million. Most of these were not convicts nor the offspring of convicts.

So it is misleading to say that "convicts were sent to colonise [north America]" as most of the people that travelled from Europe to north America were not convicts sentenced to transportation.


Only Britain transported convicts to north America. So it is misleading to say that Europeans did so.

You too are criminal offspring

Almost all Europeans are descendents of Charlemagne and of almost everyone else alive 500 or more years ago. The reason is "if you go back 40 generations, you have over two trillion ancestors!". This also applies to other regions of the world.

Most Europeans share recent ancestors (Nature, 2013):

any two Europeans are likely to have many common ancestors who lived around 1,000 years ago. A genomic survey of 2,257 people from 40 populations finds that people of European ancestry are more closely related to one another than previously thought

Tracing the world's ancestor, Dr Yan Wong, 2012 (reported by BBC):

... imagine the simplest case of a population of a constant size - say a million ...

If people in this population meet and breed at random, it turns out that you only need to go back an average of 20 generations before you find an individual who is a common ancestor of everyone in the population.

If you go back on average 1.77 times further again (35 generations) everyone in the population will have exactly the same set of common ancestors

In fact about 80% of the people at that time in the past will be the ancestors of everyone in the present. The remaining 20% are those who have had no children

It is almost certain that every person on earth is a descendent of a criminal many generations ago.

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    Good answer, although the logic used in the "40 generations" article is terrible. They trivialise the most complex parts of the problem, waving away "duplications" (which takes the bite out of their exponential argument - good thing they stopped at 40, I was worried my anscestors would outnumber particles in the universe...) and only tangentally mentioning geography as a factor. The mental leap between "big number" and "effectively everyone, ever" is the fault here. Maybe I'm looking at it too closely, but then, this is Skeptics.SE :) – Daniel B Apr 8 '13 at 6:11
  • I have added a more scholarly article that makes a similar point about the relatedness of "recent" ancestors which I think also indirectly supports the idea of high probability of having a criminal ancestor. – RedGrittyBrick Jan 9 at 14:44

Yes and No

At least some of the original colonists were not convicts.

The colony of Jamestown was founded as a business venture by the Virginia company. Earlier, French colonists fleeing persecution for being Protestants attempted to colonize America (and were then slaughtered by Spanish soldiers).

However, Britain's Piracy Act of 1717 included provisions for sending criminals to North America as a penal transportation option:

The Piracy Act 1717 was an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain long title An Act for the further preventing Robbery, Burglary, and other Felonies, and for the more effectual Transportation of Felons, and unlawful Exporters of Wool; and for declaring the Law upon some Points relating to Pirates.) that established a seven-year penal transportation to North America as a possible punishment for those convicted of lesser felonies, or as a possible sentence that capital punishment might be commuted to by royal pardon. Transportation of criminals to North America continued from 1718-1776. When the American revolution made it unfeasible to carry out transportation, those sentenced to it were punished with imprisonment or hard labour instead. From 1787-1868, criminals were transported to the British colonies in Australia.

So yes, some criminals were deliberately transported to the colonies in the Americas, but that was far from all of the colonists.

  • Take this one ... "The colony of Jamestown was largely populated by those fleeing religious persecution". That is, their religious practices were illegal in Britain, so they were criminals. Even though they were not convicts. In England, they were subject to arrest at any time. – GEdgar Jan 9 at 15:25
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    Jamestown was not populated by people fleeing religious persecution. The two sentences from the link you provide: "The first colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607." Is not connected to the next sentence: "Many of the people who settled in the New World came to escape religious persecution." Jamestown was founded by the [Virginia Company] (a business venture) and was later turned into a royal colony: nps.gov/jame/learn/historyculture/… – JimmyJames Jan 9 at 16:33
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    Jamestown Church: "...with all of the men required to take an oath acknowledging the supremacy of King James and the lack of authority over him by the Pope before they set sail to Virginia." Pretty much the opposite of fleeing religious persecution. – JimmyJames Jan 9 at 17:04
  • regardless of rather or not Jamestown was a founded by those fleeing religious persecution, see JimmyJames comments, the fact is it still would not work as valid proof that the majority, or even a sizeable minority, of America settlers were fleeing religious persecution, as a single town does not equate to anywhere near sufficient population to conclude what the majority of the American settler's motives were. Some separate proof would need to be provided siting larger statistics to prove this claim, which is lacking. – dsollen Jan 9 at 17:21

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