Scottish Prisoners

Transported Scottish Prisoners of the Civil Wars (1650s)
  • 219 members

About us

This Y-DNA Project aims to discover descendants of the Scots captured in the battles of Dunbar and Worcester (1650-51) by Oliver Cromwell's army, and transported to the Americas.

Who may join the project?

This project will be of interest to people who have tested Y-DNA (for themselves or a family member) and who are, or believe you may be:

  • descended from Scottish prisoners transported to New England on board the Unity (1650)
  • descended from Scottish prisoners transported to New England on board the John and Sarah (1651)
  • descended from Scottish prisoners who may have been transported on other ships or to other colonies (1640s-50s)
  • descendants from other Scottish exiles from the Commonwealth or Restoration (1650s-60s) eg. Covenanters
Genetic matches (from Y-DNA) of descendants of the above are also welcome to join the project, especially those still living in Scotland or whose ancestors emigrated from there in more recent times - one of the goals of the project is to try to pinpoint possible places of origin for the transported prisoners in Scotland. See Joining this Project below.

Many people ask if they may join the project using a popular autosomal DNA test like Family Finder, or ones from other companies.  Unfortunately this type of DNA test is not useful for researching ancestors alive in the 1650s.  See Why this is a Y-DNA Project below for more information on this.

The Battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651)

In 1650-1651 the Third Civil War of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms was fought largely on Scottish soil when Cromwell's English Parliamentary Army invaded Scotland.  The Scottish Covenanters' army was heavily defeated by Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar (3rd Sept 1650), and some 5,000 prisoners were marched south of the border by the Parliamentary army to Durham. During the infamous death march some escaped, some were shot as a warning to the rest, some were set to work around Newcastle and many died of famine fever at Morpeth after eating cabbage raw from the fields.  Just 3,000 survived to be ordered into their temporary prison of Durham Cathedral, where the dying from infection and fever continued.  The order was given to transport 900 of the healthiest prisoners to the American colonies in New England and Virginia to undertake compulsory indentured labour, for terms of around 5 years. 

It is not clear how many of these were in the end transported, but on 7th November 1650, about 150 Scottish prisoners of Dunbar were transported aboard the Unity.  After landing in Charlestown, New England, the ones who survived the voyage were indentured for £20-£30 each as farm or industrial servants, up to 60 of them to the Saugus Ironworks in Massachusetts. Up to 300 more may have been sent to Virginia too, although shipping records have not survived.

A year to the day from Dunbar, the Royalist army under Charles II went down to its final defeat at Worcester, and again several thousand Scottish soldiers supporting Charles found themselves prisoners of war in England.  Again, many were ordered for transportation – and on 8th November 1651, the John and Sarah took sail with around 300 Scottish prisoners on board.  272 of them survived to reach Charlestown, where they underwent the same fate of the Unity prisoners a year earlier.  The names of these 272 prisoners have survived – in time, many of those who survived their terms of indentured labour would settle in the colonies, and have living descendants today.

This project aims to research and discover more about the fates and descendants of those Scottish prisoners captured and transported in these two battles of the English/Scottish Civil Wars - the Battles of Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651).  In America today there are many who believe themselves descendants of these men, and DNA will be used to explore family links between them.  It is hoped that DNA can also help to identify relatives of the transported men who still live in Scotland today, to help answer the questions Where in Scotland had these men been taken from?  And Who were the shared Scottish ancestors of the transported men and their modern Scottish relatives.

The first goal of the project is to work on discovering more about the Unity and John and Sarah groups who reached New England.  The project is also open to anyone who believes they may have a Dunbar/Worcester ancestor who was transported to Virginia, Bermuda or other destinations in the New World in 1650-52.

Further information

Joining this Project

Membership is open to:

  1. All those who are descended from the Scottish transportees who arrived around 1650 (with reasonable documentary evidence)

  2. Any of their Y-DNA matches who may be discovered (with the same surname or different surnames)

  3. Any Scottish/UK resident testee who has a Y-DNA result close enough to the prisoners’ descendants’ Y-DNA to suggest that they could share a common ancestor in Scotland from before the key year of 1650.

  4. Others who have some evidence to support a possible connection to the Dunbar or Worcester prisoners.  Those who believe they may be descended from Scottish Civil War prisoners sent to other colonies – e.g. Virginia, Bermuda, Barbados – are encouraged to contact the administrators.

Because of the specific nature of this project, we ask all those interested in joining to request membership, and the administrators will discuss your connection with you before acceptance.  Please note, if you believe you have Scottish ancestry but no connection to the Civil War prisoners, the Scottish DNA Project at is open to DNA testees who wish to explore their possible Scottish connections.

Why this is a Y-DNA Project

When this Project was started, Y-DNA was the commonest first type of test to take, and autosomal DNA testing was only just taking off.  Now autosomal DNA (like the Family Finder test, or popular tests from other companies) is the most common type of DNA test and many people ask to join the Project using autosomal tests.  Unfortunately, this type of DNA test is not useful for researching ancestors from the 1650s, or from colonial New England.  Firstly, this era is generally something between 8 to 13 generations back in time for today's family history researchers.  It is likely that most descendants will not have any detectable autosomal DNA from ancestors this far back in time.  Even if you think you share some DNA with someone else who is also descended from a SPOW, the segments will be extremely small, and cannot be used to make a definitive case.  Many small segments are ancient segments of DNA that become common in a community.  If you are descended from a SPOW, you are likely to be descended from other colonial Americans too, and so you cannot be sure which colonial ancestor you may have received a small segment from.  Autosomal DNA is most powerful when looking at ancestors born since 1800.

But the Y chromosome is very powerful for earlier ancestry because it changes very little as it is passed from father to son.  The Y chromosomes of SPOWs can still be seen in their direct male line descendants today, and can identify a descendant.  If you are a female researcher of a SPOW history, look for male relatives of yours who have the surname of interest, or a proven male line descent, and test their Y DNA.  If they can prove a SPOW descent, then that is your descent as well.  All this means that this Project is a Y DNA project, and we cannot use autosomal DNA (but you can use it to prove relationship to a proven Y line SPOW descendant).

Can we use mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)?

Actually, yes we can, although there are big challenges in using this DNA type.  FTDNA sells a popular mtDNA full sequence test.  To use mtDNA you would be looking at descent from one of the SPOW's daughters, who would have his wife's DNA.  It is possible that you could be looking at descent from a possible mother of a SPOW, if you think your genealogical research has identified her.  To use this type of DNA you will have to have an all female-line of descent (the living tester can be male or female) from the mother/daughter to your tester.  This is very, very hard to establish in genealogical research, as the surnames of women are often lost when marriages before civil registration can be incompletely recorded.  However, one member of the SPOW project has already successfully traced his all-female line descent from a SPOW's daughter, and identified her mtDNA - so it can be done.  If you have managed to do this, you are welcome to share that outcome with this Project.

What to do when you join

For this kind of project, the genealogical information you provide is as important as the DNA you test.  Therefore we ask members of the project to supply the following:

  1. Enter your earliest known ancestors in the form Name + Key date (e.g.birth or marriage) + Place (origin if known, or residence)

  2. Add a pedigree (GEDCOM) to your FTDNA account.  This is essential so that your matches and you can begin to work out who your shared ancestors may be.  If you do not know how to do this please contact the administrators for advice. Please keep this updated as you discover new information.

  3. Check your matches regularly.  If you have new ones, alert the administrators so they can be invited to join the project.

And one don’t:

Please don’t leave the project if you think you have few results.  The best practice is to leave your results in the project to accumulate matches over time. If you feel you are not gaining much from your membership, please contact the administrators first – and don’t just leave!