Narratives on Colonial Life

Although the social structure of British America did not reproduce the formal divide between nobles and commoners that had existed in Europe since the Middle Ages, by the eighteenth century there was plenty of de-facto social inequality in the colonies—between landowners and laborers, men and women, and freemen and slaves, to name a few. Because, as the old adage says, history is written by the winners, we have mostly one side of this story—first-person historical accounts by educated white men. Comparatively few primary source documents from this time by women or poor people exist, so those that we have are noteworthy.

A few early eighteenth-century writings by women—all of them well-to-do—stand out as especially useful. From 1704 to 1705, Sarah Kemble Knight of Boston traveled on horseback to New York City and back—a remarkable feat for a woman of that time—and kept a journal of the whole trip, with detailed notes about the variations in manners and customs in the rural and urban areas she visited. The Journal of Madam Knight, as it was later published, has become an important source for observations on, particularly, race and class at this time in the history of British America.

Writing in another section of the colonies, Eliza Lucas held the remarkable status of a woman managing three South Carolina plantations while her father was out of the country and prior to her marriage. Her Letters on Plantation Life record the perspective of a privileged woman of the southern planter class who, in addition, had a profound influence on southern agriculture by proving that indigo, a plant valuable for making blue dye, could be profitably cultivated.

Yet a third example of women’s writing in the early eighteenth century was the autobiography of Elizabeth Ashbridge, a woman who came to America from Great Britain as an indentured servant, became a Quaker, and composed her autobiography in the form of a conversion narrative, a fairly common autobiographical genre at the time. The work stands out as one of the few existing full autobiographies of a colonial American woman.

While Ashbridge successfully worked her way out of indentured servitude and into an active life as a member of a spiritual community, the experience of large numbers of Europeans who came to America as indentured servants—bound by contract to years of work to pay off the cost of their voyage from Europe—was not so successful. Again, the narrative of America as the land of opportunity was crafted largely by people who did experience success, since those who did not usually lacked the skills to record their stories. But one example of a counternarrative to the rags-to-riches tale comes from Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German who spent four years in Pennsylvania before returning to his homeland with sharp warnings about the hazards of indentured servitude. In Mittelberger’s experience, many indentured servants died before their contracts were up, suffered terrible working conditions, and regretted ever leaving home.

No one narrative can ever tell the “story” of life in colonial America; the best a student of history can hope for is to get a multifaceted composite view from as large a variety of sources as possible.