There are some places on the Internet that claim that The Americas 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. Commented Apr 4, 2013 at 19:48
  • 3
    BTW. What percentage of Americans are descendants of initial colonist, and not 19th and early 20th centuries immigration?
    – vartec
    Commented Apr 7, 2013 at 10:57
  • @Mella, if you want the original eugenics theory, check out Francis Galton's essay Hereditary Talent and Character. galton.org/essays/1860-1869/galton-1865-hereditary-talent.pdf. He attributes the restlessness of the "American race" to a variety of factors that selected for such people. It's nothing but wild speculation...but historically interesting.
    – adam.r
    Commented Jan 25, 2014 at 7:07
  • I think you are confusing the country with its government. ;-)
    – matt_black
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 13:30
  • Colonialism is a crime. Commented Jun 27, 2021 at 2:12

3 Answers 3


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
    Commented Apr 8, 2013 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. Commented Jan 9, 2019 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.

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    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
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 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
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 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
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 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
    Commented Jan 9, 2019 at 17:21

This 2015 Gizmodo article sheds some light on the situation.

In fact, experts estimate that over 52,000 British prisoners were shipped off to colonial America.

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    Please include quotes for the relevant details from the article in your answer as links suffer rot over time and we intend that this site should be a permanent record of valid questions and answers. Whilst external links are welcome, they should not be relied upon to answer a question, especially since it was not just Britain which colonized America, and the question references not just "North America" . (From review). Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 3:36

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