Battle of Dunbar, 1650

Scottish Prisoners of War

Listen to the podcast of this article at Scottish Prisoners of War

In the mid-17th century, the English were in the depths of a civil war. The monarchy was abolished, Oliver Cromwell took control of the kingdom, and there was fighting throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Much has been written about this period of English history, but what is less known is the aftermath of two battles of the English Civil War. I stumbled upon this chapter of Scotland’s history while researching my own family.

On the third of September 1650, Cromwell’s army defeated a hastily assembled force of Scottish Covenanters at the Battle of Dunbar. Between 2,000 and 3,000 Scots were slain in the battle and thousands were taken prisoner. The prisoners were marched south to Durham, with only a few stops along the way. Many died on the march. Those who survived were housed at Durham Castle. In crowded and squalid conditions, disease ran through the prisoner population, killing an untold number. The skeletons of several prisoners, discovered in a mass grave on the castle grounds in 2013, reveal much about the lives of these prisoners before their defeat in battle.

Durham Castle, view from the courtyard, wikipedia commons

Not wanting to let the Scottish prisoners return to fight again, the English decided that the best course of action was to ship the surviving prisoners to the American colonies to be sold as indentured servants. The Unity departed London in November of 1650 with 150 Scottish prisoners of war on board. Most were sent to the Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts. A handful of prisoners were sent to mills in Maine and New Hampshire, and a few were sent to Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

One year after the Battle of Dunbar, the English met the Scots again at the Battle of Worcester. On the third of September 1651, Cromwell again defeated the Scots, taking thousands of prisoners. This time, the prisoners were marched straight to London. Thousands were sent to East Anglia, Guinea, Barbados, and Virginia. About 272 Scots were forced on to the John and Sara and sent to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Descendants of these prisoners live all over the United States today. My ancestor that was aboard the Unity, John Sinclair, was indentured to Nicholas Lissen. Lissen was a Scot himself and ran a sawmill in Exeter, New Hampshire. He purchased the indentures of at least 4 Scottish prisoners of war between 1650 and 1651. One of the prisoners aboard the John and Sara, John Bean, was sent to Exeter, New Hampshire, where his indenture was also purchased by Nicolas Lissen. After their indentures, both John Sinclair and John Bean built new lives for themselves in New Hampshire. John Sinclair married and had at least one child, a son named John. John Bean married Hannah Lissen, the daughter of Nicolas Lissen. They had 3 children before she died in childbirth and he remarried Margaret Rees, who may have been the adopted daughter of Nicholas Lissen. Together they had several children, one of whom, Elizabeth Bean, married John Sinclair, son of Scottish POW John Sinclair. I am a descendant of John Sinclair and John Bean.

John Sinclair and John Bean’s second great-grandson, Sinclair Fox, would go on to serve in the American Revolution in New Hampshire. These prisoners of war lost their battle with the British, but their descendants once again took up the cause of liberty, and this time, they won.

For relatives who would like to know the connection, here is the information:

My father’s mother was Iris Elizabeth Fairleigh (1917 – 1980).

Her mother was Ruah Susannah Felkel (1897 – 1986).

Her father was John William Felkel (1872 – 1952).

His father was George W. Felkel (1847 – 1905).

His mother was Diantha Clifford (1815 – 1864).

Her mother was Lois Fox (1799 – 1842).

Her father was Sinclair Fox, Revolutionary War Soldier (1759 – post 1836).

His mother was Elizabeth Fullonton (1737 – 1808).

Her mother was Abigail Sinclair (1710 – 1778).

Her parents were John Sinclair (1668 – 1730) and Elizabeth Bean (1678 – 1730).

His father was John Sinclair, Scottish Prisoner of War (about 1630 – 1700).

Her father was John Bean, Scottish Prisoner of War (1634 – 1718).


I am a mom, small business owner, and lover of all things. I have a variety of interests and obsessions and use this website as an outlet for my eccentricities. I live in Missouri on a small farm, that was originally one of the first homesteads in Laclede County. I enjoy volunteering, gardening, foraging, knitting, canning, local history research, and genealogy. I am a member of Mensa, Phi Alpha Theta, Daughters of the American Revolution, Society of Indiana Pioneers, First Families of the Twin Territories, United States Daughters of 1812, Daughters of Union Veterans, Clan MacBean, Clan Sinclair, and the list continues to grow.