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Atlantic crossing

The Atlantic world: the colonies

Over the years, researchers have proposed a variety of credible destinations for the Dunbar prisoners. It is said that some were sent to fight in Ireland, others to Crete, but there is no hard proof of this. The Caribbean islands of the West Indies are a more likely possibility, especially Barbados after January 1652 when the Royalists there capitulated, but so far the evidence is only circumstantial. One party of prisoners was certainly intended for Virginia but they did not sail because of illness and fears over the security risk. Like Barbados, Virginia had declared itself Royalist and only finally surrendered to the Commonwealth in March 1652.

Of all the Scottish prisoners, we know most about those who were transported to New England in North America. Their fate was to be controlled by a group of colonial investors headed by John Becx, a speculator with interests in ironworks and sawmills. By 1650 labour across the Atlantic was in short supply; the flood of willing settlers inspired by the possibilities of the New World had dried to a trickle. The Scots captured at Dunbar became part of the solution.

The men were initially sent by sea to London and held at Blackwall on hulks (ships afloat but not fit to go to sea) on the River Thames before being delivered to Augustine Walker, master of the Unity, a two masted ‘ketch’ very probably built in Boston, Massachusetts. Walker was an experienced sailor, originally from Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The Unity finally set sail with 150 prisoners on 11 November 1650. Walker made good time and arrived in Boston before the end of December. Their Atlantic crossing took around 6 weeks. As inexperienced sailors the prisoners faced seasickness, treacherous winter seas, piracy, cramped conditions (very probably being locked below deck), and diminishing food and water supplies, not to mention the uncertainty of what lay ahead. As far as we know, all of the men survived the long voyage, although one died shortly after arrival in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In New England, the Scots would first have been examined by potential owners who bid for them, and then the group was dispersed.

  • 63 went to the Hammersmith Ironworks at Lynn in Massachusetts (now Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site). This ambitious enterprise belonged to the Company of Undertakers for the Iron Works in New England. Here the men became blacksmiths, miners, carters, woodcutters (for charcoal-making) and even farmers. 37 men were still there in 1654 by which time the ironworks were in financial difficulties. Of the initial 63, 17 went to work at the Company of Ironworkers’ warehouse in Charlestown and 9 were sent to an ironworks at Braintree (New Quincy).

  • 7 were bought by Valentine Hill for his sawmills on the Oyster River and Lamprey River near Durham (New Hampshire).

  • about 17 men worked at the Great Works sawmill near South Berwick (then called Kittery), Maine

Others went to different mill-owners and at least 17 more became domestic or general servants, sometimes in privileged and prominent households. One Dunbar survivor, for example, was indentured to Thomas Dudley, the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

© Durham University
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Archaeology and the Battle of Dunbar 1650: From the Scottish Battlefield to the New World

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