Home Massachusetts How Scottish POWS Were Sold as Slave Labor in New England

How Scottish POWS Were Sold as Slave Labor in New England

What happened when their side lost battles in the 1650s


As many as 400 Scottish POWS captured in the Battles of Worcester and Dunbar were shipped to New England in the 1650s as temporary slaves to work in iron mills, saw mills and farms.

The Great Migration of Puritans had ended, and the colonists badly needed workers. Across the sea, Oliver Cromwell’s new government had the costly and vexing task of managing thousands of Scottish POWs. One solution: deport them to New England, Virginia and Barbados.

Some of the Scottish POWs sent to New England were sold as a group to work in the Saugus Iron Works or the saw mills of Berwick Maine.  Others went to York as servants. Still others were sold individually.

The Puritan minister John Cotton defended the practice. He wrote, “The Scots, whom God delivered into your hands at Dunbarre, and whereof sundry were sent hither, we have been desirous (as we could) to make their yoke easy. Such as were sick of scurvy or other diseases have not wanted physick and chyrurgery. They have not been sold for slaves to perpetual servitude, but for 6 or 7 or 8 yeares, as we do our owne [indentured servants] …”

As one historian noted drily, “Cotton’s sanction deadened the New England conscience.”

Cromwell Captures Scottish POWs

Cromwell and his Puritan followers executed King Charles I in January 1649. The Scottish people had largely sided with Cromwell, but they turned on Cromwell and declared Charles’ son king.

In the summer of 1650, Cromwell and his forces invaded Scotland. The Scottish Parliament, in response, conscripted thousands of young Scottish men between the ages of 19 and 25, though some were as young as 12. They clashed at the short, brutal Battle of Dunbar. Within an hour, 12,000 Parliamentarians defeated 11,000 Scots, killing as many as 2,000 while losing only 20 men.


Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Dow

Cromwell’s army released thousands of sick and wounded Scotts, but marched the Scottish POWs like cattle to Durham, 100 miles away. Many perished of hunger or disease on the march, though some escaped. Some were executed.

In Durham, the English imprisoned the Scottish POWs in the castle and cathedral. About 1600 died of dysentery, disease or starvation. The English had them buried in mass graves, only recently discovered.

The Unity

Two months after the battle, 150 Scottish POWs boarded the Unity and sailed to London, then to Charlestown, Mass. The shipmaster, Augustine Walker, paid five pounds for each man and sold them for 20 to 30 pounds.

Technically they signed contracts agreeing to ‘indentured servitude,’ but in reality most spoke Gaelic and many couldn’t read or write.

About 50 went to the Saugus Iron Works, the first successful iron works in the colonies. It produced much-needed iron bars for tools, building materials and cooking implements. The Scottish POWs worked 12-hour days at hard, dangerous labor. They worked as woodcutters to supply the wood to make charcoal, or as forge hands, as blacksmiths, as miners and farmhands.


Saugus Iron Works

Another 25 Scottish POWs were taken to the Newichwannock River, now the Salmon Falls River in Berwick, Maine. They went with an Englishman named Richard Leader, who got hold of an abandoned mill. Leader put the Scottish laborers to work sawing Maine white pine trees, needed for the British Navy.

Valentine Hill also bought some of the Scottish POWs from the Battle of Dunbar, and worked them in his sawmills at Durham Falls and the Lamprey River in New Hampshire.

Battle of Worcester

Exactly one year after the Battle of Dunbar, Cromwell’s much larger force defeated 16,000 mostly Scottish army at Worcester, England.

It was the last battle of the English Civil War. Three thousand men died in battle, and 10,000 taken prisoner.


The Battle of Worcester.

According to tradition, the English lined up the Scottish POWs in order to shoot every tenth man. A Highlander named Micum McIntyre saw his number would soon be up, broke rank and ran for his life. A horseman chased after him and wounded him, but spared his life.

The English then drove the Scottish POWs like cattle to London.

A witness described them.  

…all of them [were] stript, many of them cutt, some without stockings or shoes and scarce so much left upon them as to cover their nakedness, eating peas and handfuls of straw in their hands which they had pulled upon the fields as they passed.

In London, the English confined them outdoors on artillery fields.  Again, many died of disease, starvation and exposure while the government debated what to do with them.

John and Sara

About 275 Scottish POWs were sent to Boston about the John and Sara, where Thomas Kemble, a Charlestown merchant, took them on consignment.

Kemble found a ready market among planters and mill owners for the human cargo, as the news spread about the first shipment of Scottish POWs. So when the second shipment arrived, Kemble easily sold the Scottish POWs in the Massachusetts towns of Boston, Charlestown, Cambridge, Dedham, Concord, Hingham, Ipswich, Reading and Salem.

Kemble sold others in Exeter, N.H., and in Durham, where he partnered with Valentine Hill. So many ended up in York, Maine, that for years the town had the nickname ‘Scotland.’


Some of the Scottish POWs were sold individually as servants.  Alexander Gordon, for example, ‘agreed’ to seven years of slavery under Samuel Stratton of Watertown. Under his contract, he could never leave his master’s premises without his permission and he couldn’t marry. He had to do everything Stratton told him to do, so long as it was legal.

Gordon complained to the court of ill-treatment and petitioned for his freedom, apparently without success. A sawmill owner in Exeter, N.H., named Nicholas Lissen bought him and six other Scottish POWs. His slavery did end, however, and he married the boss’s daughter, Mary Lissen. Alexander Gordon died in Exeter in 1697, and his children had many descendants.

Daniel Blacke, who came over on the John and Sara, probably got sold to the son of the Rev. Zechariah Symmes, one of Charlestown’s most prominent citizens. In 1654, Blacke assaulted and beat up his master, and a court sent him to prison in 1654. Blacke apparently left prison, married and had children. New York Gov. Frank S. Black traced his ancestry to the Scottish POW.

Freedom for Scottish POWs

The Scottish POWs were all still of marriageable age when freed from bondage, and many did marry. Some married Irish housemaids, also brought to the colonies as slaves. Few ever returned home to Scotland.

The lucky ones married the bosses’ daughters, won land grants and appeared on tax rolls.

Seven of Valentine Hill’s Scottish POWs, for example, were listed as taxpayers in Dover, N.H., after their slavery ended.

David Hume, who came over on the John and Sara, settled in Dedham, Mass., where his name morphed into Holmes. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the poet, was sixth in descent from him.

William Furbish (probably Farrabas, which became Forbes in Massachusetts) bought land in Kittery sometime before 1664, but was punished in 1681 for calling the King’s officials, ‘Divills and hell bound.’ Furbish apparently had not forgiven the English for the Battle of Dunbar. He had seven children and many descendants. Micum McIntyre, the Scottish POW who ran for his life, worked in Cocheco Mills and then got a land grant in Kittery, Maine.

2nd Class Citizens

The less lucky Scottish POWs drifted to Boston when their slavery ended, destitute and without jobs. Bostonians viewed them with scorn and classed them with African-Americans and Indians. On Jan. 6, 1657, several Scottish POWs formed the Scots’ Charitable Society for the relief of Scotsmen, the oldest charity in the Western Hemisphere.

By the 19th century, the Scots’ Charitable Society maintained the Scots Temporary Home in Boston and a burial plot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.


Scots’ Charitable Society burial plot at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

Some of the Scottish POWs like David Hamilton survived Cromwell’s forces only to die at the hands of  Indians. Hamilton came over on the John and Sara and got sold to a saw mill owner in Southern New Hampshire. Then he was moved to York, Maine, where he was killed on Sept. 28, 1691.

In 1656, Thomas Kemble spent two hours in the stocks for kissing his wife on Sunday. His daughter, Fanny Kemble Knight, took a famous horseback ride alone along the Boston Post Road.

End Notes

Note: We deliberately chose the words ‘slave,’ ‘slavery’ and ‘slave labor’ because we view any kind of forced labor as slavery. That includes sex trafficking, forced labor, debt bondage, domestic servitude or unlawful recruitment. There are tens of millions of slaves in the world today. If you want to comment that it’s racist to call white indentured servants slaves, we suggest a better use of your time would be to help one of the many anti-slavery organizations in the world today. A list of them can be found here

Descendants of the Scottish POWs from the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester have a web site. The Saugus Iron Works is now a national historic site.

Images: Saugus Iron Works By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16192079; Mt. Auburn burial plot, By Bill Ilott from Boston, USA – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bostonphotosphere/4185723469/ Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10902508.  Battle of Worcester By Published by Machell Stace – http://www.learningcurve.gov.uk/civilwar/g5/cs2/s5/, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1943037. This story was updated in 2024.


John Gordon May 17, 2018 - 12:18 pm

Indenture was not slavery. Indentured servants had rights, and had an agreed end to the terms, Slaves did not. Your history of Alexander Gordon is wrong. I suggest you refer to the records of NEHGS, where in the 1860s Recording Secretary George Augustus Gordon reports Alexander won his freedom in court.

Leslie Landrigan May 21, 2018 - 8:25 am

In our view, ‘indenture’ was a euphemism used by John Cotton and others to disguise the cruel fact that the Scots were (a) sold and (b) had no freedom under their masters and had to do everything they were told. In our book, that’s slavery, whether temporary or not. For information about Alexander Gordon, we relied on A. J. Gordon: An Epic Journey of Faith and Pioneering Vision By Kevin Belmonte.

Jonathan Tucker August 1, 2018 - 1:05 pm

There is a profound difference between indenture and slavery. Slavery involves ownership of the entire person (often not considered as such) as property. Indenture is ownership of the labor of a person, usually in the form of payment of a debt, and, as the article above indicates, almost always under written contract. Slavery is forever. Indentures end, and the person is then free to pursue their own lives.

As the descendant of at least two Dunbar prisoners, I strenuously object to confusing indenture with slavery out of emotion and ignorance, or for dramatic effect. My ancestors were not sold–their compelled labor as prisoners of war was sold to pay off the cost of their luxurious travel across the North Atlantic in chains in the hold of a small merchant ship. It was unfair, it was abusive, and it was misused, but they were never, ever, slaves. Each and every Dunbar and Worcester prisoner who made it to New England and survived their indenture was then free to create their own lives–lives that were in almost every case better than they could possibly have had in Scotland.

It is a profound and self-serving insult to the enslaved Native Americans and Africans who, along with their children and family members, were truly slaves and disposable property for generation. Your “book” is dead wrong.

Leslie Landrigan August 5, 2018 - 12:30 pm

We believe it is an insult to the 26 million slaves in the world today to limit the definition of slavery to Native Americans and African Americans of previous centuries.

Kari November 17, 2019 - 4:33 pm

“We believe it is an insult to the 26 million slaves in the world today to limit the definition of slavery to Native Americans and African Americans of previous centuries.”

Yes! Yes! Yes!

hondosfh November 17, 2019 - 11:17 pm

As Jonathan Tucker framed his reply in the context of early New England colonies in North America and our history in the USA, I believe your reply to him was more of a personal attack and off point.
Yes, ALL slavery is horrible EVERYWHERE, but he was discussing slavery HERE. If you are out to educate people, being confrontational doesn’t work.

Mary November 18, 2019 - 5:46 pm

Yes, indenture WAS slavery. You can call it whatever you want, being wined by someone else and doing forced labor is slavery.

Mary November 18, 2019 - 5:47 pm


Brian Montgomery May 18, 2018 - 3:07 pm

Hi Admin , King Charles was born in Dunfermline , Fife , Scotland – not Edinburgh .

le mise le meas


Leslie Landrigan May 20, 2018 - 6:50 am

Thanks for pointing out the error! We’ll correct.

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Tom Maude May 21, 2018 - 1:41 pm

The Scots Did have a bad time;however the Irish had a much Worse time. If all of the Kelts From Ireland, Scotland,Wales and Cornwall fought together, Cromwell would have been defeated and Charles 11 would have kept his head!

Janet Beech May 24, 2018 - 5:00 pm

Leslie, I agree with your view on “indenture”. These men had in fact no civil rights, could not marry, were not allowed to leave their master’s property without consent, and were shown as collateral on the owner’s inventory list. Although the indenture lasted anywhere between five and seven years, in some cases any infraction of the rules could result in additional time being added to the contract. Doesn’t matter how we try to dress this up, it was definitely slavery.

J. S. Ragman July 7, 2018 - 9:02 pm

Much the same happened in 1715 and 1745. Many of those captured Scots were sent to the American colonies.

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