When did the Romanies first arrive in America?

25 June 2024
The Banishment of Romanies to America from England, Scotland, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands

The Banishment of Romanies to America from England, Scotland, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands from the early 17th century onwards - by Professor Ian Hancock.


Professor Ian Hancock, a Romani Scholar, is one of the founding members of the academic discipline Romani Studies. Now in his eighties, Ian was born in England but is now living and continuing to study in the USA.

Appalled by prevailing attitudes of Anti-Gypsyism in British society, and in particular an incident of police brutality that led to the deaths of three Romani children, Ian Hancock first became involved in Romani activism in the 1960’s. 

In this essay, the second of a series that the TT will be publishing, Ian Hancock argues that the idea that the Romanies only arrived and settled in the USA in the mid-19th century is wrong. We need to look 200 year further back than that into America's colonial past to when many Romanies where forcibly transported to the colonies to work on the plantations as slaves and servants. 

But what happened to them?

So, dear readers, make a cup of tea – or even a whole pot – and sit down and immerse yourself in the second of a series of eminently readable essays - some old and some new - by Professor Ian Hancock.

*This essay has been edited by the Travellers' Times to simplify the strict academic requirements for citations.


It was widely believed during much of the 19th century that no Romanies had ever come to North America. Grellmann wrote in 1807 that “America seems to be the only part of the world where they are not known.” Crabb confidently wrote in 1834 that while they inhabited “many countries of Europe, Asia and Africa … on the continent of America alone are there none of them found." Only two years later Griscom wrote “[t]hey have never appeared in America,” and a story published in the United States in 1843 in The Lady’s Book, reprinted from Chamber’s Journal included the remark that “you must be deceived! There never has been a gipsy in North America!” As late as 1874, the American Cyclopedia told its readers that it was “questionable whether a band of genuine Gipsies has ever been in America.".  Even Matt Salo and Sheila Salo, who have collected the most extensive documentation of North American Romani ancestry, have stated more than once that the “Romnichels began appearing in the U.S. in the 1850s," while Wikipedia's May 2022 entry says: “The first Romani group arriving in North America … [came] at the beginning of the 19th century.” It is clear from existing records, however, that those first to arrive from Britain did so nearly two centuries before that.

Graham Seal, in his important and long-overdue book on British transportations, wrote that Romanies. . .  "were banished from England as early as 1531 and a few years later, in 1544. These unfortunates were sent to continental Europe, but as the empire established its foundations and banishment evolved into transportation, the Americas proved new destinations. In 1665 an Edinburgh merchant, George Hutcheson and his business partners were empowered by the Privy Council to transport loose and dissolute persons, including ‘Egyptians,’ to Barbados and Jamaica. A similar privilege was granted to an Edinburgh syndicate in 1669. Nearly fifty years later, in 1715, nine male and female Gypsies were sent to Virginia."

Linebaugh and Rediker also wrote in 2000 that:

Banishment legislation was aimed at the Irish, the Gypsies and the Africans after the 1590s; … by an Act of Mary, any Gypsy who remained in England longer than one month could be hanged; an Act of Elisabeth expanded the capital laws to include those who ‘in a certain counterfeit speech or behaviour’ disguised [i.e., presented] themselves as Gypsies. In 1628 eight men were hanged for transgressing these laws, and their female companions transported to Virginia. In 1636 another band of Gypsies was rounded up; the men were hanged and the women drowned at Haddington."

In 1865, Simson devotes several pages to this, maintaining that the fact that:

"many Gipsies were banished to America in colonial times, from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, sometimes for merely being ‘by habit and repute’ Gipsies, is beyond dispute  . . .  Gipsies may be said to have been in America almost from the time of its settlement."

Anti-Romani policies towards the end of the 19th century probably derived their impetus from the increase in discrimination evident at the beginnings of Reconstruction following the abolition of slavery in America; there are several references to Romanies as a “people of color,” i.e. as a visible minority, in the literature of that period; Lincoln’s successor President Andrew Johnson vetoed the right to vote for Romanies, expressing his fear that the requirements of the Civil Rights Bill were designed “to operate in favor of the colored, and against the white, race [because they] comprehend  . . . the people called Gipsies as well as the entire race designated as blacks” 

In 1915, Hall noted that “[t]hickly sprinkled with Gypsy names are the ‘transportation lists’, 1787-1867, reposing on the shelves of the Public Records Office in London”, while Brown, in 1929, quoted one Romanichal verbatim who told him that he remembered his grandfather telling him that his great-uncle fought in the American Revolution in 1776. Paine’s History of East Harwich, a town in Vermont, mentions a Romanichal family named Cahoon living at Grassy Pond during the mid-1700s, also referred to briefly in Kipling’s Captains Courageous. But the earliest actual document known to us dates from the time of the administration of Oliver Cromwell’s successor, his son Richard, when the first trans-Atlantic expulsion of Romanies was instituted:

In 1661 ‘Commissions and Instructions’ were issued anew to justices and constables, by Act of Parliament, with the view of arresting Gypsies … A great many Gypsies must have been deported to the British ‘plantations’ in Virginia, Jamaica and Barbadoes during the second half of the seventeenth century. That they had there to undergo a temporary, if not ‘perpetual’ servitude, seems very likely."

A reference dated November 1665, comments upon the motives for indenturing Romanies and others in this way:

"The light regard paid to the personal right of individuals was shown by a wholesale deportation of poor people at this time to the West Indies … out of a desire as weel to promote the Scottish and English plantations in Gemaica and Barbadoes for the honour of their country, as to free the kingdom of the burden of many strong and idle beggars, Egyptians, common and notorious thieves, and other dissolute and looss persons banished and stigmatised for gross crimes."

In 1714, British merchants and planters applied to the Privy Council for permission to ship Romanies to the Caribbean, avowedly to be used as slaves, and in the following year, according to a document dated January 1st, 1715:

"Prisoners … were sentenced … to be transported to the plantations for being [by] habit and repute gipsies. On the said gipsies coming here the town was brought under a burden [and] they had used endeavours with several merchants who have ships now going abroad [i.e., to transport them as slaves], for which they are to receive thirteen pounds sterling."

Among the family names of those individuals were Faa, Fenwick, Lindsey, Stirling, Robertson, Ross and Yorstoun.

Romanies, according to the legal definition which was in effect throughout this period in England, included “all such persons not being Fellons wandering and pretending [i.e., identifying themselves to be] Egypcians, or wandering in the Habite, Forme or Attyre counterfayte Egypcians” 

Barbados served as an entrepôt for the distribution of slaves to other British territories in the western hemisphere for many years. Whether ultimately bound for Virginia, Jamaica or elsewhere, large numbers of the enslaved passed first of all through that island. However, while the designations Egyptian, Gypcian, Gypsy, &c., turn up in the records of transportation located in Britain, nothing similar appears anywhere in the documents examined in Barbados, visited for this purpose by this writer in the Spring of 1979.

Nevertheless, an examination of the lists of transportees found in these works and in the Barbados Records indicated that a great number of individuals bearing Romanichal (British Gypsy) surnames did in fact arrive in Barbados: the names occurring include Boswell, Cook/Cooke, Hern/Herne/Heron, Lee/Leek, Locke, Palmer, Penfold/Pinfold, Price, Scot/Scott, Smith and Ward, ranging from one Pinfold to nine Boswells to over a hundred Smiths. Only a small percentage of these were likely to have been Romanies, of course. Sometimes, a further clue was provided by the county of origin of the individual, where given (Cookes from Middlesex and Kent), or by occupation (Boswell, a blacksmith), but these must also be considered non-conclusive.

Alexandre Exquemelin remarked upon a number of “Egyptian wenches” among the bondservants in Tortuga, when he visited that island in 1666, but we cannot be sure that Romanies were meant here. So far, only one reference to Romanies as a discrete group in the West Indies, and referred to as such, has been located, and that from Jamaica Moreton wrote in 1793:

"I have known many gipsies [to be] subject from the age of eleven to thirty to the prostitution and lust of overseers, book-keepers, negroes, &c., to be taken into keeping by gentlemen, who paid exorbitant hire for their use."

The censuses themselves do not mention Romanies, although Jews are listed separately from other whites, according to Dunn. This omission may not be significant, however, since the First Nations slaves brought in from South America, and possibly from New England, are not listed either—a fact remarked upon by Gunkel and Handler. Robert Rich, a resident of Barbados writing in 1670, noted that the population there consisted of English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, French, Jewish, coloured and black slaves.

This leaves four possibilities: firstly, that Romanies were counted together with the white population, perhaps because of a common point of origin at time of shipment, and were therefore not officially registered separately; secondly, that most were shipped on to the North American colonies, and did not remain long enough in the West Indies to become a recognized, established community; thirdly, that by some means, some of them at least were able to return to Britain, and lastly, that the population was ultimately bred out of existence.

Against the first stands the fact that Romanies, being of Asian origin, are ultimately not ‘white’, despite the presence in modern times of many fair-complected Romanichals, resulting from the mixing of bloodlines over centuries with Europeans. Such genetic mixture would, in any case, have been far less apparent in the 17th century, and even today, it would be difficult to attribute the white Barbadian’s “sickly white or light red” complexion (Price, writing in 1962) to the British Romani population. Furthermore, the fact that the Romanies who were brought to the West Indies were not native speakers of English would have served to distinguish them from other non-African bonded labourers. Their speech, which “none could understand” was often referred to in 17th century descriptions of Romanies in England.  Von Uchteritz, in 1652 (before the first-known trans-Atlantic English or Scottish shipments of Romanies) noted that among the slave population, “Those who are Christian speak English; the Negroes and Indians, however, have their own strange languages”. An article in the February 27th 1746, Boston Weekly News-Letter referred to a band of soldiers in Massachusetts whose “language seem’d to be as if [they were] a Herd of Hottentots . . . or vagrant Gypsies.”

These factors, together with the deeply-entrenched Romani cultural restrictions on over-fraternizing with gadže, must certainly have made them an easily-recognizable group. The second possibility is supported by the fact that we do have a concrete reference to the presence of British Romanies in North America during this period, turning up in Virginia in 1695 from Henrico County. Although Ostendorf (writing in 2017) sees the woman in question as the guilty party, it is on record that what appears to have been a charge of rape made by a Gypsy woman was dismissed by the magistrate, “it being the opinion of this Court that the Act ag’st ffornication does not touch her, she being an Egyptian and noe Xtian woman”. The family name of the woman, Joane Scot, occurs in the Barbados annals, and survives among American Romanichals today. The Colonial Entry Book during the same period contained a law which provided that “all … gypsies shall either be acquitted and assigned to some settled aboade and course of life here, or be appointed to be sent to the plantations for five years”.

Much documentary evidence to support the third possibility has been provided by Ostendorf (2018); investigation of court records, transportation certificates and the local British press of the period, together with compilations published in the United States (such as Boyer, 1979), indicate not only extensive shipment of Romanies, but the subsequent return of numbers of these to the country of origin. The late British historian David Smith’s conclusion, that “there was a fairly regular traffic of [Romani] returnees, both legally and illegally”, has much to uphold it, though with more relevance, perhaps, to the penal colony at Botany Bay in South Australia. This was established after America’s achievement of independence closed Georgia as a place to send England’s unwanted. Numbers of Boswells, Lees, Skeltons, Scarretts and Smiths were shipped there from the Midlands counties during the first quarter of the 19th century, though as felons rather than as slaves or bondservants.

In the same way as the Texas law that refers to “‘Prostitutes, gypsies and vagabonds’ in the same breath, and [which] charges the Romany people $500 to live there”, in his book on indentureship, Abbot Smith includes references to the arrest and shipment of “Egipcyans” and “Egiptians” in long lists of other offenders without comment, all of whom are defined only by their behaviour. He was clearly unaware that they constituted an ethnically-defined, not a socially-defined, demographic.

Works on British Romanies contain references to Romanies being bitcheno pawdel or bitchady pawdel, “sent across” to America or Australia, a period of Romani history by no means forgotten by Romanies in Britain today. One term in contemporary Angloromani for “magistrate” is bitcherin’ mush, the “transporter.” Some factual references to the American situation are to be found in Pinkerton (1880), and to the Australian situation in Langker (1980), but much work remains to be done in these areas.

The notion of gypsy is well-established in the West Indian folk tradition, though no more accurately here than anywhere else in the world. Wright, writing in 1938, tells of the panic the arrival of Romanies in Jamaica caused earlier in the preceding century. The word itself turns up in several of the island creoles, variously meaning “playful,” “frisky,” “meddlesome,” “mischievous” and “bossy.” In Trinidad, it also refers to “pig Latin,” a secret way of talking; Pollard reports that “in Jamaica, all Creole-based cryptolects of this type are called Gypsy”. In the related variety spoken in Sierra Leone, where Jamaican Maroons went to settle in 1800, it has come to mean a “short person.” Similarities between some proverbs in the same creole with those in Romani have also been noted. In Guadeloupe, Le Gitan is a name with which drivers commonly christen their taxis and trucks, while in their introduction to Jekyll’s collection of Jamaican folktales, Werner, Jekyll and Myers draw parallels with Gypsy themes.

A search for the existence of Romani words in the Caribbean creoles has so far turned up only two, the items bul “buttocks” and kori “penis.” The former is known in Barbados, Tobago, Trinidad and probably elsewhere. It is unlikely that the word which, like the Romani language itself, is of Indian origin, came in with the thousands of indentured East Indian labourers, since they did not go at first to Barbados. In any case, the word is unknown to them in their own speech, mainly Bhojpuri, which uses instead the terms bunda or gar. The latter has so far only been found in Trinidad. Its form is specifically Angloromani, i.e., the type of Romani spoken only by Romanichals, and again differs from the equivalent term in Bhojpuri.

The world-famous pre-Lenten carnival in Trinidad traditionally has a Gypsy section, and the costumes colourfully and accurately represent the Hollywood stereotype. Indeed, it is quite possible that this portrayal owes more to modern fictional literature imported from Britain than to any unbroken continuum with the 17th century. There is also currently a popular calypsonian called ‘Gypsy’.

The Gypsy slaves may have been absorbed into the (mainly Irish, Scottish and south-western English) white bondservant population, though it is hard to imagine this happening voluntarily. This is, however, the argument maintained by Marchbin, writing in 1893. More likely intermixture with the general free coloured population took place as a result of the forced concubinage described by Moreton above—the same process which has produced, though not by force, the ‘Black Irish’ of Jamaica and the Afro-Romani communities at Atchafalaya and in Cuba. Bercovici, writing in 1928, with a fair amount of imagination, has speculated that:

"It is very possible that these Gypsies, then In Barbados, sought refuge with the Indians, intermarried, and were completely assimilated by the aborigines … perhaps this might account for some customs common to the American Indians and the Hindus."

Shoemaker (1924) has also referred to the interaction of the two peoples, rather anticlimactically: “the first contact between Gipsy and Indian, a romantic and historic foregathering of oppressed peoples … as one old man from the Little Sand Hills of Dauphin County said in describing it, ‘they hated one another”.

Evidently this was not everywhere the case; Cotton Mather records the massacre of the inhabitants of an English settlement in Amesbury and Newberry Falls, Massachusetts in July, 1677, when common cause brought an alliance between the local Indians and some Romanies:

"[T]here were about twenty Indians that killed our men, and about twenty Indians that [a survivor] saw in all, and that she knew the most of those that she saw if not all of them to be Indians that dwelt formerly hereabouts and at Newbury Falls. Although she did not know all the names of the Indians but some she knew by name; and named Symon; and Pookey John, so called, now named Andrew; and one Gypsy now called Samuel and one named Joseph as she thinks. And that it was Symon that knocked her on the head, whom when he came to her, she desired him not to kill her. “Why,” said he, “Goodwife Quinby (which was her name), do you think that I will kill you?” Said she: “Because you kill all English.” Said he: “I will give quarter to never an English dog of you all,” and gave her a blow on the head, whereupon she called him “rogue” and threw a stone at him. And then he gave her two more [blows] and settled her for dead (Mather, 1702)".

It was also the case that intermarriage between Romanies and First Nations people were not entirely uncommon. In 1836 the first president of the Louisiana Historical Society, Natchitoches Judge Henry Bullard, wrote that: “There are, in the Western District [of his precinct] some families of Gipsey origin, who still retain that peculiar complexion and wildness of eye, that characterize that singular race”.

There is a local poor white population in Barbados, known as the Redlegs, whose members are distinct in their appearance from other whites in the country. A similar white West Indian population is found in Montserrat, and there are numbers also in Bequia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Jamaica and elsewhere, but none has yet been investigated with Romani genealogy in mind. The list of Barbadian Redleg families (Bradshaw, Davis, Dowding, Edwards, Gibson, Gooding, Graves, Harris, Hinkson, King, Marshall and Medford) contains a few surnames also found among North American Romanichals (e.g., Davis, King and Marshall) but Hotten, who was well-acquainted with Romanichal language and history, made no reference to Romanies in his standard work on transportations to the islands (1874). The two most easily-available and complete sources on the Redlegs, Price (1962) and Sheppard (1977), also make no mention at all of Romanies.

There are a great many Romanichals in the United States, especially in the South. Salo believes that they may constitute “the largest among the Gypsy groups” in the whole of the country (1977), although estimates within the population put their own numbers at ca. 180,000, compared with over 750,000 Vlax-speaking Romani Americans. While descendants of the Romanies sent there by the Germans and the French are still sometimes to be found in the areas they were taken to, Romanies from Britain, being in greater numbers, have spread out over the country, but statements about their history since coming there are speculative at best.

American Romanichal families are aware of the circumstances of their arrival, and an examination of their oral tradition will surely help complete the picture. Such internally-transmitted tradition is being gathered by Harry Bryer, whose family arrived in North America in the mid-1800s; meanwhile, non-academic speculation will surely also continue to find a place on the printed page, such as that by Burnett, who believed that the ancestors of the Melungeons, a tri-racial isolate living mainly in Appelachia, “may have entered the country as Portuguese or gypsies, and afterwards some families may have intermingled with the negroes or Indians or both” (1889; see also Griggs, 2000). Until Romani history is documented by Romanies themselves, recording this kind of information will proceed slowly, and inquisitiveness from outside will continue to be discouraged. The editor of a privately-circulated evangelical newsletter sent out monthly to some 600 American Rominachals, cautioned his readers, in 1986, that two gadze specialists were "gathering information and doing research on our people".

It is tempting, perhaps, to look for Gypsy elements in North and South American and West Indian music, dress, folklore and cuisine; this is a justifiable line of pursuit and one which has not received the attention it should have. There are several reasons for this: the inaccessible nature of the Romani communities, the vagueness of the documentation available, and the strength of the fictional image which confuses the perception of the reality. False leads are many: “gypsies” in the American theatre have nothing to do with Romanies; there are “gypsy cops” and “gypsy academics;” there is no connection whatsoever in Romani culture with Hallowe’en, though non-Romanies perceive one; in Cuba, a kind of cake called brazo gitano turns out to be an importation from Spain; in the United States, the “Gypsy Taco” offered by the Foodhead Company contains nothing at all that would make it distinctive.

Writing nearly ninety years ago about the West Indian islands, MacRitchie wondered “to what extent the people of those places today are possessed of seventeenth century Gypsy blood … an interesting, though perhaps delicate, question.” Irving Brown too, writing of the situation in the United States in 1927, believed that “Some of the oldest Dutch families of Manhattan, and some of the most aristocratic Creoles of the South, must have a dash of Romani blood in their veins”. But until the British, Caribbean, and North and South American sources are re-examined at first hand, and recollections from and by the people themselves are systematically gathered, it will be difficult to guess, and little more is likely to be forthcoming in this chapter of Romani history. Esmerelda too got a Caribbean re-make in the Jamaican version of Hunchback, the scenario being the 17th-century takeover of Jamaica from Spain by the British, although this for the first time rather than having been appropriated, the Romani inspiration was acknowledged by Rowe in 2016: “the audience is often reminded, subtly, that the injustice and alienation meted to the Gypsies, parallels modern Jamaican society”.

In 1648, Sweden’s Queen Christina proposed to The Council of the Realm that the ‘sikeiner’ be rounded up and shipped to its short-lived colony, New Sweden, which had been established in North America along both sides of the Delaware Valley between 1638 and 1655. It is not known whether this was put into effect.

Germany had been trying to rid its territories of Romanies since their arrival there in the early 15th century, and found a convenient dumping ground in their colony in Pennsylvania. Shoemaker (1926) wrote of the havoc caused by the Thirty Years War which devastated the Rhineland, and which resulted in a wave of Palatine migration—individuals who ‘sold’ themselves to redemptioners for the price of their fare to America. “This species of servitude, and the selling of emigrants for their passage, had not a few of the features about it of involuntary chattel slavery, and it was characterized at the time as the ‘German slave trade’”. Shoemaker indicated that numbers of Romanies from Germany were indentured and shipped out during this same period, although they were not allowed to obtain passports, which would presumably have given them the legal means to return to Europe. Their language, he adds, examples of which he provides, was “a blending of Romany terms with archaic German and Dutch words”. Shoemaker also described the circumstances of an attempted passage to America:

"On a number of occasions Gipsy bands endeavored to charter whole ships at Rotterdam, but as they were watched with the same argus-eyed authority as are bootleggers today, their efforts were always at the last minute frustrated. It is related that one ship, the ‘Stein-Awdler’, giving it its Pennsylvania Dutch pronunciation, got away under cover of darkness, but during an unfavorable tide, it still lay in the harbor at daybreak, when the papers were scrutinized and declared invalid by the port authorities. Several boat loads of port wardens went in pursuit, but the boats were not to carry the unfortunate Chi-kener back to dry land, but to order them off the ship–- they were driven overboard, men, women and children, like a plague of rats, and had to jump out in the mud up to their waists, and get ashore as best they could, leaving their possessions behind, which were seized as a fine levied against them as a body. On shore, the mud-saturated refugees were attacked by a mob armed with boat hooks and soundly beaten, and probably quite a few died of their wounds and exposure afterwards."

He also said that of those “hundreds of Romanies” who were able to sell themselves in return for passage, “most of the Chi-kener families were broken up … as some were dumped on the inhospitable New England coast, others in New Jersey and still others in the Far South, instead of at the ports along the Delaware”.

A letter published in the National Gazette on May 19th, 1834, tells of the indiscriminate flogging of Romanies, called “Yansers,” in neighbouring New York state, apparently as a means of sport for whoever could afford it:

"There is yet another tribe, at or near Schenectady, called Yansers, although their patriarchal name is Kaiser. A gentleman appointed some years ago to some town office there, states that he found a charge of four pound ten shillings for whipping Yansers; the amount, being small, was allowed. A similar charge being brought the next year, he asked what in the name of goodness it meant? Behold, it was for chastising Gypsies whenever occasion presented, which was done with impunity and for some profit … it is supposed by the best informed of my neighbors, that they came over with the early settlers in the German Valley . . . they are everywhere manufacturers of baskets, brooms and other wooden wares."

Legislation against Romanies in the United States dates from at least this time, and continues sporadically to be enforced. In 1976 “a band of gypsies was arrested on entering Washington County, Maryland from neighboring Pennsylvania. Since one of the gypsies was suspected of stealing ‘a few hundred dollars’ from a Pennsylvania gas station, all the band’s property was confiscated and sold”, even though the charge was never proved. A list of some of the existing anti-Romani laws in the United States may be found in Karanth (2010).


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By Ian Hancock (edited from the original academic paper to simplify the reference citations by the Travellers' Times)

(Main photograph by Damian Le bas)

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