A. An indentured servant was “bound” to a property owner in exchange for passage to America. Many people indentured themselves. Your ancestor was part of a popular criminal justice trend in England: Punishment by “transportation,” or exile to work in America (after the Revolutionary War, Australia became the primary destination).
After England passed the Transportation Act in 1718, courts there sent approximately 60,000 convicts—called “the King’s passengers”—to America.
It sounds like you found the information on Nathaniel Tenpenny’s conviction for stealing tools online at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London, 1674 to 1834. That site has accounts of more than 100,000 trials at London’s central criminal court.
Look for your ancestor’s name in two books by Peter Wilson Coldham:
The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 and Emigrants in Chains, 1607-1776. Both are $45 from Clearfield Co. You may learn the port where his ship arrived and other details, giving you a starting point.
There’s a good chance your ancestor served his sentence in Maryland or Virginia. According to a 2004 NPR report, 90 percent of the King’s Passengers served their sentences in Maryland and Virginia.
Laws governed indentured servitude (servants who tried to run away or became pregnant, for example, might have their contracts extended), so look for contracts and other documents among court records where your ancestor served. If you learn whom he was indentured to, check the local historical society and university archives for collections of personal papers—they may mention Nathaniel.
To narrow Nathaniel’s place of service, research him backward from his most recent known location—North Carolina in the 1790 census. Look for Colonial censuses, land and tax records. Presumably Nathaniel would’ve been released in the early 1770s. Could he have returned to England temporarily? Stayed in America and fought in the Revolutionary War?
Look for his will, too, which would likely give the names of his children and wife. For additional resources, see the Colonial research article in the February 2006 Family Tree Magazine.
To learn more about prisoners and indentured servants, explore these sites:
- Almost Chattel: The Lives of Indentured Servants at Hampton-Northampton, Baltimore County
- British National Archives: Prisoners and Transportation
- Colonial Williamsburg: Lusty Beggars, Dissolute Women, Sorners, Gypsies, and Vagabonds for Virginia
- History Detectives: Indentured Servants
- Immigrant Servants Database: Links
- Slavery and Servitude in the Colony of North Carolina
- Understanding Maryland Records: Indentured Servants