Thanks, but Can’t We Just Go Home?

In December of 1651, Alister MacAllister, Daniel (probably Donal) MacAllister, and John MacAllister arrived in New England, becoming the first Macalister immigrants to the future United States on record, as far as I know.  This does not mean, of course, that they were the first to arrive:  Many 17th-century Scots who arrived in the colonies did so as indentured servants, and their arrival went unrecorded.

Emigrating was costly, and some of those who had the best reasons to leave were the very ones who couldn’t possibly afford to do.  Indentured servitude – essentially a form of temporary slavery – made emigration possible.  Indentured servants contracted with a master who would pay their passage for them; in return they would work for the master for a specified amount of time (often seven years).  There was no escape clause; the indentured servant was stuck no matter how bad the situation turned out to be.  Still, at the end of the indenture the individual usually would be given a small parcel of land and the basic tools to start his or her new life.  Many of those who hoped for a better or less uncertain future took the long view and decided it was worth the price.

But indentured servitude – even emigration itself – was not always voluntary.  When there were entire continents out there with land that cost almost nothing (to the Europeans, anyway), transporting undesirables to far-off places offered the authorities both a solution to crime and a workforce for the colonies.  It was a solution they made good use of.  In these cases, emigration itself was part of the punishment:  Those being sent to the New World didn’t necessarily want to go, and many of them would never be able to afford a return home.

Apparently the arrival of people headed for indentured servitude was not always deemed worthy of recording.  But those who were sent to the colonies for some crime or another were more likely to be noted, and the Macalisters who arrived in December of 1651 fall into this category.  They came not as criminals but as prisoners of war.  Like many of the West Highland clans, the Macalisters had fought for Charles II in Scotland’s civil war; evidently some of them followed the king into England to fight on in theirs. After the Royalists were finally defeated at Worcester, these Macalisters were among the many taken prisoner and transported.[1] How they felt about this is unknown.  They might have spent the rest of their lives as broken, disillusioned men.  Or they might have seen it as a wonderful opportunity to start anew.  But the fact that they came to the New World as prisoners of war may well be the only reason we know they existed at all.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1]Their arrivals specify that they were prisoners of war, but they might have been taken at Dunbar the previous year.  Most of the Dunbar prisoners seem to have been shipped out in 1650, though.

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