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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Proctor

A Brick Wall---For Now

Updated: Mar 4

Brick wall with cracks

Every family historian runs into one at some point: a brick wall. That impossible ancestor, the one you can’t figure out. Sometimes, it’s early in the research. One of my great-grandmothers was an orphan, raised by unidentified grandparents. That’s one of my research questions: who were her parents? Traditional document-based research supplemented with DNA matches might answer that question. Other brick walls feel firmer.

Using online sources (like FamilySearch,, and, I was able to trace one line of my family back to a “bonded emigrant,” transported from England in 1757 as a sentence for a minor offense, rather than imprisoned. Prior to the Revolutionary War, England relied on the Colonies to punish petty criminals, sending over 54,000 people to labor in the Colonies.[1] Some returned to England once their sentences were completed; others stayed.

It is likely that my fifth great-grandfather Moses Joseph was sentenced to transportation, shipped across the ocean, and worked on a Virginia plantation for fourteen years.[2] While searching for records that might shed light on what he had done to be sent so far from his home, I came across the website, “Blacksheep Ancestors” ([3] It was twice voted one of the best genealogy websites in the United States, but it's not confined to the States—it includes Canada, the United Kingdom, and international piracy records.

I also found a link to the historical proceedings at Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court ([4] On the search page, you can narrow the records by any one of a variety of fields, including surname, date range for the proceeding, or sentence imposed. A search for records of those sentenced to transport in 1756–1757 returned 351 records, with theft offenses like stealing cloth, washing tubs, or even bricks.

Other records can be found by searching the United Kingdom’s National Archives ( It was in the U.K. National Archive database where I found my probable ancestor. Moses Joseph committed a burglary and was sentenced on 12 January 1757 to transportation.[5] He arrived in Annapolis, Maryland later that year. [6]

I still don’t know on which plantation he worked, but transcripts of James Madison’s post-war correspondence mention obtaining books for a Moses Joseph, which might place my ancestor in Orange County, Virginia.[7] Footnote 5 on one transcribed letter indicates Moses Joseph was a small-scale farmer in Orange County, which tracks with his descendants’ later occupations as farmers. By 1792, Moses Joseph and his sons (including my fourth great-grandfather) were taxed in Rockingham County, Virginia.[8]

Although I think I found my ancestor, my research is far from complete. More records may be available at FamilySearch affiliate libraries or in books at the FamilySearch library in Salt Lake City. My library task list grows each time I dive in. And to find Moses Joseph’s parents, I may need to work with a genealogist in the United Kingdom or spend some time there myself.[9]

A professional genealogist can help you break past those brick walls with training, expertise, and knowledge. You can read more about hiring a professional genealogist at the Association of Professional Genealogists’ website, If you have a research project that might benefit from professional assistance, please contact me.


[1] Encyclopedia Virginia ( : viewed 19 June 2023), “Convict Labor During the Colonial Period.” Once the Revolutionary War started, transportation to the Colonies ceased. In 1786, England began shipping people to Australia. [2] Coldham, Peter Wilson, The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 (Baltimore, MD, USA: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1988), p. 460, Moses Joseph; digital images, ( : viewed 17 June 2023). [3] The term “black sheep” is problematic. Jeremy Hilligar, “12 Everyday Expressions That Are Actually Racist,” Reader’s Digest ( : viewed 28 April 2023), 9 December 2022. [4] Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, Clive Emsley, Sharon Howard and Jamie McLaughlin, et al., The Old Bailey Proceedings Online, 1674-1913 (, version 7.0, 24 March 2012. [5] The National Archives (U.K.), “Records Assembled by the State Paper Office,” Discover Our Collections ( : viewed 5 August 2023), Folios 2. Mr. Baron Legge’s certificate recommending the following persons, tried and . . .;” citing catalogue reference SP 36/137/1/2. [6] “U.S. and Canada, Passenger and Immigration Lists Index, 1500s-1900s,” database, ( : viewed 6 August 2023), entry for Moses Joseph. [7]“From James Madison to James Madison, Sr., 27 May 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives, ( : viewed 6 August 2023). “From James Madison to James Madison, Sr., 5 June 1783,” Founders Online, National Archives ( : viewed 6 August 2023). Unfortunately, James Madison, Sr.’s correspondence from this period was not preserved. [8] Harry M. Strickler, compiler, Tenth Legion Tithables (Rockingham division) Rockingham County, Virginia Tithables for 1792 (Luray, Virginia, 1930), p. 21, entry for Moses Joseph; digital images, FamilySearch (,%20moses : viewed 6 August 2023), p. 21. "Virginia, Bureau of Vital Statistics, County Marriage Registers, 1853-1935," database, FamilySearch ( : viewed 6 August 2023), Moses Joseph in entry for Samuel Joseph and Mary Ann Gibson, 26 Sep 1854; citing Marriage Registration, Rockingham, Virginia, United States, Virginia State Library and Archives, Richmond. [9] Online family trees generally attribute a 1743 London baptismal record to this Moses Joseph without resolving the conflict that the same infant apparently died six months later. “England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975,” database, ( : accessed 10 August 2023), entry for Moses Joseph, baptized 17 Apr 1743, died 7 Aug 1743).


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