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Arrival in America

Gypsy’s To America

Arrival of Gypsies in America

Extracts written by Ian F Hancock
Romani people, commonly known as Gypsies, have been in the Americas since 1498, when Columbus brought some on his third voyage to the West Indies. Their subsequent forced transportation brought most Gypsies across the Atlantic.
During the colonial period, western European nations dealt with their “Gypsy problem” by transporting them in large numbers overseas; the Spanish shipped Gypsies to their American colonies (including Spanish Louisiana) as part of their solución americana; the French sent numbers to the Antilles, and the Scots, English, and Dutch to North America and the Caribbean.
Cromwell shipped Romanichal Gypsies (i.e.,Gypsies from Britain) as slaves to the southern plantations; there is documentation of Gypsies being owned by freed black slaves in Jamaica, and in both Cuba and Louisiana today there are Afro-Romani populations resulting from intermarriage between freed African and Gypsy slaves.

Roma in the United States have been called the “hidden Americans” because they remain by choice largely invisible.There are two reasons for this:

  • FIRST The United States is made up of minority groups of all complexions, and so it is easy for Gypsies to present themselves as American Indians, Hispanics, or southern Europeans, and they usually do this rather than identify themselves as Gypsies.
  • SECOND Most Americans know very little about actual Roma but a great deal about the Hollywood “gypsy” (with a small “g”), and since people fitting the romantic gypsy image are not actually encountered in real life, the real population goes unnoticed.

The most complete list of gypsies sentenced to transportation appears in “Directory of Scots Banished to the American Plantations, 1650-1775”, by David Dobson,1984,Baltimore, MD Genealogical Publishing Co. includes 16 Scottish Travelers forming 3 groups sentenced in 1682, 1715 and 1739.

From the outset of their arrival in Britain, the Romanies were regarded with fear and suspicion, no doubt because of their dark complexion and foreign appearance that was far different to the local English population in the 16th century. England began to deport Romanichal Gypsies as early as (1544), principally to Norway,  a process that was continued and encouraged by Elisabeth I and James I.  In (1603) an Order in Counsel was requested to transport Romanichal to Newfoundland, the West Indies, France, Germany, Spain and the Low Countries. European countries forced the further transportation of the British Romani to the Americas.

In the years following the American Wars of Independence, Australia was the preferred destination for Romanichal transportation, as it’s use as a penal colony.

In the 17th century Oliver Cromwell shipped Romanichal Gypsies as slaves to the American southern plantations and there is documentation of English Gypsies being owned by freed black slaves in Jamaica, Barbados and in both Cuba and Louisiana. Gypsies, according to the legal definition which was anyone identifying themselves to be (Egyptians) or Gypsies.

The last form of enforced servitude (villeinage) had disappeared in Britain by the beginning of the 17th century.

Slavery resurfaced in that century as a form of punishment against Catholics. As many as 100,000 Irish men, women and children were forcibly taken to the colonies in the British West Indies and British North America as indentured servants after the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. In the 17th century, slavery was used as punishment by conquering English Parliament armies against native Catholics in Ireland. Between the years 1659 and 1663, during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland by the New Model Army, under the command of Oliver Cromwell, thousands of Irish Catholics were forced into servitude. Cromwell had a deep dislike of the Catholic religion, and many Irish Catholics who had participated in Confederate Ireland had all their land confiscated and were transported to the British West Indies as indentured servants.

Scottish Highlanders and other Scotsmen were forcibly taken and transported abroad at this time. The need for labour in the Virginia plantations and West Indies encouraged planters and their agents to “press gang” unwary or naïve locals onto ships, bound for the Americas. Once at their destination, these people were indentured to plantation owners against their will. They were released eventually, unlike Africans similarly employed. Many made enough money to buy passage back to Scotland, whence they had come. These actions were justified on the basis that the persons in question were labelled as indigent, and under a 1652 law such people could be deported to overseas colonies.

It is also on record that a considerable number of Highland Jacobite supporters, who had been captured in the aftermath of Culloden and subsequently the rigorous Government sweeps of the Highlands to root out Jacobite fugitives and transgressors of the new laws against Highland culture itself, languished in fetid prison hulks on the River Thames for months, until sentenced to transportation to the Carolinas as indentured servants/slaves.


Gypsies came during colonial times, often forced by European Countries at religious & undesirable outcast, to move to the Colonies of America.

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Gypsies also came during World War I and World War II. Most of them settled in the metropolitan area of Barranquilla.


Several groups, all known to outsiders as “Gypsies,” live today in the United States. In their native languages, each of the groups refers to itself by a specific name, but all translate their self-designations as “Gypsy” when speaking English. Each had its own cultural, linguistic, and historical tradition before coming to this country, and each maintains social distance from the others.

The Rom arrived in the United States from Serbia, Russia and Austria-Hungary beginning in the 1880’s, part of the larger wave of immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Primary immigration ended, for the most part, in 1914, with the beginning of the First World War and subsequent tightening of immigration restrictions (Salo and Salo 1986). Many people in this group specialized in coppersmith work mainly the repair and retinning of industrial equipment used in bakeries, laundries, confectioneries, and other businesses. The Rom, too, developed the fortune-telling business in urban areas.

Two subgroups of the Rom, the Kalderash (“coppersmith”) and Machwaya (“natives of Machva,” a county in Serbia) appear in the photographs in Carlos de Wendler-Funaro’s collection. De Wendler-Funaro identified some, but not all, Kalderash as “Russian Gypsies.” Another group he identified as “Russian Gypsies” seem to be the Rusniakuria (“Ruthenians”), musicians and singers who settled in New York.

Ludar The Ludar or “Romanian Gypsies,” also came to the United States during the great immigration from southern and eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914. Most of the Ludar came from northwestern Bosnia. Upon their arrival in the United States they specialized as animal trainers and showpeople, and indeed passenger manifests show bears and monkeys as a major part of their baggage. Most of de Wendler-Funaro’s photographs of this group were taken in Maspeth, a section of the borough of Queens in New York City, where the Ludar created a “village” of homemade shacks that existed from about 1925 to 1939, when it was razed. A similar settlement stood in the Chicago suburbs during the same period.

Romnichels The Romnichels or English Gypsies, began to come to the United States from England in 1850. Their arrival coincided with an increase in the demand for draft horses in agriculture and then in urbanization, and many Romnichels worked ashorse-traders. After the rapid decline in the horse trade following the First World War, most Romnichels relied on previously secondary enterprises, “basket-making,” including the manufacture and sale of rustic furniture, and fortune-telling. Horse and mule trading continued to some extent in southern states where poverty and terrain slowed the adoption of tractor power (Salo and Salo 1982).

Black Dutch

Gypsies from Germany, generally referred to in the literature as Chikeners (Pennsylvania German, from German Zigeuner), sometimes refer to themselves as “Black Dutch.” (While the term “Black Dutch” has been adopted by these German Gypsies, it does not originate with this group and has been used ambiguously to refer to several non-Gypsy populations.) They are few in number and claim to have largely assimilated to Romnichel culture. In the past known as horse traders and basket makers, some continue to provide baskets to US Amish and Mennonite communities. The literature on this group is very sparse and unreliable.

Hungarian Gypsies

The Hungarian (or Hungarian-Slovak) musicians also came to this country with the eastern European immigration. In the United States they continued as musicians to the Hungarian and Slovak immigrant settlements, and count the musical tradition as a basic cultural element. The sparse literature on this group begins in 1921. Curiously the proportion of scholarly efforts is higher than for the literature on other groups: three sociological studies (although two are unpublished master’s theses), and one survey focused on music.

Irish Travelers

The Irish Travelers immigrated, like the Romnichels, from the mid to late nineteenth century. The Irish Travelers specialized in the horse and mule trade, as well as in itinerant sales of goods and services; the latter gained in importance after the demise of the horse and mule trade. The literature also refers to this group as Irish Traders or, sometimes, Tinkers. Their ethnic language is referred to in the literature as Irish Traveler Cant. Harper’s ethnographic and sociolinguistic studies and Andereck’s in the sociology of education are the few serious studies of this group. The popular literature on Irish Travelers includes articles in Catholic periodicals.

Scottish Travelers

The present population of Scottish Travelers in North America also dates from about 1850, although the 18th-century transportation records appear to refer to this group. Unlike that of the other groups, Scottish Traveler immigration has been continuous. Also unlike the other groups, Scottish Travelers have continued to travel between Scotland and North America, as well as between Canada and the United States, after immigration. Scottish Travelers also engaged in horse trading, but since the first quarter of the 20th century have specialized in itinerant sales and services.

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