Patrick C. Cook, History senior and History Society Vice President
This is a public presentation written as part of HIST4001, Professional Practices in History
The following is a condensed version of John Harrower’s story, a Scottish indentured servant living in Virginia at the time of the American Revolution. Today he is remembered as an indentured servant who kept an extensive personal journal during his time in Virginia. Upon first inspection, one may not notice the peculiarities in his writing. Though the further one may read, they may come to understand that Harrower’s experience was unique and valuable to further study. People of high status would treat Harrower as a friend rather than a servant in the colonies, due to his significant educational and social skills. These skills distinguished him from his fellow indentured servants. Harrower’s ability to write poetry and prose, speak in a gentlemanly fashion, and conduct himself properly among the elite all ensured him greater social mobility than the average servant.
Indentured servitude was not uncommon during the colonial period, it was used as another means to populate the overseas colonies. Harrower’s experience was unique and valuable to further study. People of high status would treat Harrower as a friend rather than a servant in the colonies, due to his significant educational and social skills. These skills distinguished him from his fellow indentured servants. Harrower’s ability to write poetry and prose, speak in a gentlemanly fashion, and conduct himself properly among the elite all ensured him greater social mobility than the average servant.
The intricate and enormous Atlantic slave trade often overshadows what we know of indentured servant trade, yet nearly half of all European Americans during the colonial era held indentured servant contracts. (Smith, 4) Labor was a commodity that could be bought and sold in the new world. Labor being one of the first commodities from Europe American colonists were desperate for. (Smith, 4) As agricultural production in the colonies thrived in early America, labor was becoming increasingly hard to obtain. The colonies were still considered an unforgiving place, rife with rampant diseases and death. Yet, so were the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland during the 18th century, alongside the added problem that economic opportunities were scarce. (Graham, 2) Similar to slaves when servants arrived in the colonies they were stripped of their rights, as most owners of indentured servants had complete control over the servants. Indentured servants would come from all walks of life, and from all across the world. Some were prisoners exiled instead of hanged, some were prisoners of war, others escaping religious persecution. Whether they were Irish, Scottish, German, or French many found their new life in the colonies by way of indentured servitude. Many upon arrival came to find little pay and poor living conditions. Whether it be because of their perceived “laziness”, their masters being unwilling to pay, or contracts falling through. The English government saw this cheap labor as a great source of building a colony and fully backed the effort. Whatever countless reasons an immigrant had for coming to the colonies the most common was to escape their country.
John Harrower of Lerwick, Shetland was an educated family man. Today not much is truly known about Harrower before his life in Virginia. Records of him in the Shetland Isles are scarce, only two have ever been found. Life on Shetland, the islands north of Scotland, was not easy nor rife with opportunity. Many Scottish natives, including Harrower, began to find themselves battling increasing rent, and unstable renting properties. Like other Scots during the 18th century, John Harrower would choose to leave his family, home, and life behind to find what better-paying work was available. His search would take him overseas to the vibrant thriteen colonies, where he would find himself amid brewing trouble and tensions. Yet, among people who treated him as equal, among a town that welcomed him and his work ethic. John Harrower would come to see that the life he desired for him and his family was among the riverbanks of the Rappahannock, among the people of Fredericksburg.
A map of Virginia. John Harrower would be located in Fredericksburg living 7 miles outside of town (red star). From: Matthew Carey, “The State of Virginia from the best Authorities” (1795).
Upon his arrival in Virginia, in May of 1774, Harrower’s servant contract was sold to Colonel William Daingerfield. Harrower would find himself set up to be a tutor for the children of Daingerfield’s plantation for the next four years. At the plantation, he would teach not only Daingerfield’s children but also the children of other local farmers and planters. Through all of it, he journaled and logged his daily life. Often Harrower remarked on the town of Fredericksburg, writing fondly about the area and the beautiful countryside he called home.
This day at church in Fredericksburg and at the same time settled a Correspondence at Glasgow for getting letters from home – This place is verry pleasantly situated on the Banks of the River Rappahannock about seven miles below the Toun of Fredericksburgh.Harrower, 78-81
Harrower lived a pleasant life on the plantation, where he would enjoy the benefits of his hard labor. He often dined with the family at their table and ate twice daily. For his hard work as an educator on Daingerfield’s farm, he would be rewarded handsomely.
“At Noon I asked the Col. for a bottle of rum – which he verry cheerfully gave and desired me to ask him for one anytime I wanted it and told me to take them to the howse to dinner with.”Harrower, 106
His extensive teaching capabilities would be the reason why more and more residents of Fredericksburg would bring their children to Harrower. Because of his work as an educator in the community, Harrower became a trusted and valued member of Fredericksburg, despite the fact that he was still a servant. Harrower’s daily life consisted of teaching his boys on Daingerfield’s plantation or other students from Fredericksburg. In a letter to his brother-in-law, he wrote of worsening tension between the colonies and Great Britain. Speaking of the British blockade in Boston and the General Congress in Philadelphia. Harrower had a clear interest in the events and Patriots, although at this time did not lean towards being a Loyalist or Patriot. Still, he spoke of the rebel’s resolve.
And it is my opinion that the laboring part and poor of Boston are well supplied at present by contributions sent free to them from the other colonies as when their trade was open. Mr. Daingerfireld this year for his own hand gives them fifty bushels of wheat and one hundred bushels of Indian corn, by which ye may judge the rest.Harrower, 90
By 1775, Harrower did not seem concerned with the cause of freedom, yet he still followed the tensions. Though he wished for the conflict to end, Harrower still attempted to send money to his family overseas, though the conflict with Great Britain had no certain outcome. When his diary ends abruptly in July of 1776 in one of his final entries he spoke fondly of the celebrations of the Declaration of Independence.
“returned home and soon after heard a great many guns fired towards toun. About 12 pm the Col. Despatched another Frazer there to see what was the cause of it who returned, and informed him that there was great rejoicing in Toun on Account of the Congress having declared the 13 United Colonys of North America Independent of the Crown of Great Britain.”Harrower, 107
After one final entry on Thursday, July 25th, 1776, the writing ceased. Today historians can only wonder about the fate of John Harrower, with sickness being agreed upon as the likely cause of him passing away suddenly in 1777. His wife and family would never join their father in America, becoming lost to the pages of history until their father’s journal was discovered among the belongings of the Corbin family in the early 20th century. (Harrower, 65-67)
The business of trading labor across the Atlantic became profitable quickly. Along with it came the merchants who began to advertise life in the colonies, accept any volunteer to cross, or capture servants by forceful means. John Harrower’s experience is exempt from such harsh conditions, often being valued as a friend of his captain or master. When comparing Harrower to other indentured servants the oddities are easy to spot. Though Harrower would leave for the same reason many others were, escaping to find a new life. He would live in the colonies as if he was a free man, allowing him to understand that a better way of life was obtainable in the 13 colonies. Many others would come to a similar conclusion within the coming years during the Revolutionary war. Deciding that man can and should govern themselves, all are created equal, and that no one person has absolute power over others.
- Fogleman, Aaron. “The Peopling of Early America: Two Studies by Bernard Bailyn A Review Article.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no. 3 (1989): 605-14. http://www.jstor.org/stable/178773.
- Graham, Ian C. “Colonists from Scotland: Emigration to North America, 1707-1783.” United States: Clearfield Company, 2009.
- Harrower, John. “Diary of John Harrower, 1773-1776.” The American Historical Review 6, no. 1 (1900): 65-107. doi:10.2307/1834690.
- Smith, Abbott Emerson. “Colonists in Bondage: White Servitude and Convict Labor in America, 1607-1776.” United States: Omohundro Institute and University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
- Abramitzky, Ran, and Fabio Braggion. “Migration and Human Capital: Self-Selection of Indentured Servants to the Americas.” The Journal of Economic History 66, no. 4 (2006): 882–905. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4501107