The John Harrower Diary, 1773–1776

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The John Harrower Diary, 1773–1776


By: John Harrower

Date: 1773–1776

Source: Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

About the Author: John Harrower was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in America in 1774 as an indentured servant. After his arrival, his contract was sold to Colonel William Daingerfield, and Harrower worked as a tutor to Daingerfield's children and other local students at his plantation, Belvidera, in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Harrower kept a journal in which he recorded both details of everyday life and the major events taking place as the revolutionary movement grew and the American colonies eventually declared their independence from Great Britain.


The British North American colonies were established in the seventeenth century; over the next three hundred years they absorbed a great wave of emigrants from Europe. Most came to escape poverty and unemployment caused by rapid population increases combined with the social and economic upheavals that were destroying traditional rural societies and occupations. Although the English formed the majority of the earliest settlers, in the eighteenth century Scottish and Scots-Irish formed the largest group; by 1790 there were around 260,000 people of Scottish birth or descent in the new United States.

John Harrower had originally left the Scottish Highlands to seek work in London, but was unsuccessful, and accepted instead a four-year appointment as an indentured schoolmaster. At this time, many poor Europeans who could not pay their own fares to the New World readily accepted posts as indentured servants, some going to work there as manual laborers, others as clerks, bookkeepers or storekeepers, and some, like John Harrower, as schoolteachers. Merchants and businessmen often used the indenture system to recruit and train young men who would eventually assist them in running their enterprises.

Within Britain, agents representing the colonies, such as the Virginia or Massachusetts Bay Companies, actively promoted the opportunities available there. Under the indenture arrangement, the employer normally paid the emigrants' fares and living expenses in return for a specified number of years' service. After that time, the servants would usually be given their freedom and sometimes a piece of land on which to settle. As many as half the settlers living in the colonies south of New England came to America under this system, given the high demand for labor in the colonies and the scarcity of employment in Britain at the time. Many indentured servants later became very successful businessmen themselves.

The primary source included here retains the original spellings and grammatical choices of the author.


The John Harrower Diary, 1773–1776

Thursday, 28th. This morning I reed, from Benjamin Edge by the hand of his daughter two Dollars, one half and one Quarter Dollar being in all sixteen shillings and Sixpence in part payment for teaching his son and daughter. Same day I seed a Compy. of 70 Men belonging to one of the Regiments of Regullars raised here for the defence of the rights and liberties of this Colly, in particular and of North America in Generall. They were on their March to Williamsburg.

Thursday, October 12th. Company here last night Vizt. Old Mrs. Waller, her son and his wife and at school here Mr. Heely Schoolmaster and Mr. Brooks Carpenter and they wt. Mr. Frazer and myself played whist and danced until 12 Oclock, Mr. Heely and Fidle and dancing. We drank one bottle of rum in time. Mr. Frazer verry sick after they went home.

Munday, sixteenth. This morning 3 men went to work to break, swingle and heckle flax and one woman to spin in order to make course linnen for shirts to the [slave], This being the first of the kind that was made on the plantation. And before this year there has been little or no linnen made in the Colony.

Tuesday, seventteenth. Two women spinning wool on the bigg wheel and one woman spinning flax on the little wheel all designed for the Nigers.

Munday, 23d. One Frieday last I lent to Miss Lucy one pair of my shoes to spin with. This day General Washingtons Lady dined here, As did her son and Daugt in Law, Mrs. Spotswood, Mrs. Campbell, Mrs. Dansie, Miss Washington and Miss Dandrige, They being all of the highest Rank and fortunes of any in this Colony.

Saturday, 28th. Last night came here to school Mr. Heely and Thos. Brooks in order to spend the evening….

Thursday, November 9th. Upon Thursday 2d Inst, there was a Camp Marked out close at the back of the school for a Batallion of 500 private men besides officers and they imediatly began to erect tents for the same….

Sunday, 12th. this day a great number of company from Toun and Country to see the Camp four of which (Gentlemen) paid me a visite which put me to 1/3 expence for a bottle of rum. at noon by Accident one of the Captains tents was set on fire and all consumed but none of the things of any Accot. Lost.

Munday, 13th. This forenoon the Col. sent a waggon Load of Turnups and Pitatoes to the Camp as a present for all the men.

Tuesday, 14th. All the minute-men in the Camp employed learning their exercise.

Wednesday, 15th. This morning I drank a small dram of rum made thick with brown suggar for the cold, it being the first dram I have drunk since I lived on the Plantation.

Thursday, sixteenth. The soldiers at muster.

Friday, seventteenth. The soldiers at D., and I left of going into the Nursery and taking charge of the children out of school.

Wednesday, 29th. This day the camp was brocke up and the whole Batallion dismissed….

Saturday, December 2d. At noon went to Toun and seed two Companys of regulars from the Ohio among which was one real Indian, he was of a Yelow couler short bod faced and rather flat nosed, and long course black [hair] quite streight. he spoke verry good english. I staid in Toun all night and slept at Mr. Andersons; I bought from Mr. Porter a black Silk Handkerchief at 5/ [5 shillings]

Sunday, 3d. After breackfast I went and found out Miss Mollly White and left with her cloth to make me two winter Stocks and a stock to make them b. Dined in Toun, came home in the afternoon….

Wednesday, January 10th, 1776. This day we hade the Confirmation of Norfolk being reduced to ashes by the Men of War and British Troops under Command of Lord Dunmore. It was the Largest Toun in the Collony and a place of great Trade, it being situated a little within the Capes. Seerall Women and Childn. are killed.

Saturday, 13th. After 12 O Clock I went six Miles into the Forrest to one Daniel Dempsies to see if they wou'd spin three pound of Cotton to run 7 yds per lb., 2/3 of it belonging to Miss Lucy Gaines for a goun and 1/3 belonging to myself for Vestcoats, which they agd. to do if I carried the cotton there on Saturdy. 27th Inst….

Munday, 15th. Miss Lucy spinning my croop of Cotton at night after her work is done; to make me a pair of gloves.

Wednesday, seventteenth. This evening Miss Lucy came to school with Mr. Frazer and me, and finished my croop of Cotton by winding it, after its being doubled and twisted the whole consisting of two ounces.

Tuesday, 23d. This day I entred Edwin into the Latin Gramer.

Saturday, 27th. After 12 pm I went to the forrest to the house of Daniel Dempsies and carried with me three pound of pick'd Cotton two of which belongs to Miss Lucy Gaines and one to me, which his wife has agreed to spin to run 8 Yds. Per lb., I paing her five shillings per lb. for spinning it and it is to be done by the end of May next.

Tuesday, March 5th. This morning Bathurest Daingerfield got don reading through the bible and the Newtestament, and began to learn to write 15 Ult. I gave them Holyday this Afternoon.

Saturday, April twentieth. At noon I asked the Col. for a bottle of rum as I expected two Countrymen to se me tomorrow, which he verry cheerfully gave and desired me to ask him for one any time I wanted it and told me to take them to the Howse to dinner with me. in the afternoon he, his Lady, and Daughter went over the river to Mr. Jones's in King George County.

Tuesday, 23d. At noon rode to Town, got the Newspapers and settled with Mr. Porter for teaching his two sons 12 Mos. when he verry genteely allowed me 6 for them, besides a present of two silk vests and two pair of Nankeen Breeches last summer and a Gallon of rum at Christenmass, both the and Mrs. Porter being extreamly well satisfied with what I hade don to them.

Wednesday, 24th. General Muster of all the County Malitia in Town today, at Breackfast the Col. desired me to go and see it if I pleased, But being in town yesterday I chose to stay to day with my boys.

Sunday, 28th. this day came here to pay me a visit Mr. Reid from Mansfield and Mr. Scott from Toun and dined with me in the great house by the Colos. order, and after we hade spent the afternoon verry agreeably together they returned home in the evening.

Sunday, May, 5th. Early this morning I went to Mr. McCalley's and entred his oldest son (about 8 years of age) to writting, stayed there all day and rode his horse home in the evening. The Colo. went to Newport and dinned there.

Tuesday, 7th. Billie ended reading through his Bible.

Thursday, 9th. After dinner I tok the boys with me to Massaponacks Briges to see 56 prisoners that were taken at the late battle in North Carolina, among them was a great many 'Emigrants from Scotland who were all officers. I talked with several of them from Ross Shr. and the Isle of Sky.

Freiday, seventteenth. Gen. Fast by order of the Congress. I went to Church in Toun but no sarmon. dined at Mr. McAlleys and came home in the evening. The Colo, and his lady at Mount Ch.

Munday, 27th. At 9 am I went to Mr. McAlleys and staid teaching his Son and sister untill dark and then rode home bringing with me 1 1/2 Yd. Linen for summer breeches….

Saturday, [June] 8th. At noon I went to Mrs. Bataile's and entred two of her Daughters to writting, Vis. Miss Sallie and Miss Betty and continoued teaching them until night, when I agreed to attend them every Saturday afternoon and every other Sunday from this date until 8th June 1777 (If it please God to spare me) for four pound Virginia currancy.

Sunday, 9th. After breackfast I rode to Mr. McAlleys and teach'd his son to write untill 4 pm and then came home in the evening.

Freiday, 14th. At noon went to Jn. McDearmonsand had 6 Yd. stript Cotton warped for 2 Veastcoats and two handkerchiefs all prepared at my own expence.

Wednesday, nineteenth. At noon went to snow creek and the boys and dined at the spring on Barbaque and fish. At 5 pm I went to Mrs. Bataile and teac'd until 1/2 an hour past 7.

Wednesday, 26th. At 5 pm I went to Mr. Becks and had a short Coat cut out of cotton cloth wove Jeans. I bought the cotton and paid for spinning it at the rate of 2/6 [2 shillings and six pence] per lb. and one shilling per Yd. for weaving.

Sunday, July 7th. This morning I rode to Mansfield and breackfast with Mr. Reid and stayed and dined with him and in the afternoon he and I rode to see the Rowgallies that was building where we met with Mr. Anderson and Jacob Whitely and went to Town with them to Whitelys where we Joyned in Comp. with Mr. Wright and one Mr. Bruce from King George. about 11 pm we brock up and every one went to his own home as I did.

Wednesday, 10th. At 6 pm went to Mrs. Battaile's and teach'd untill sunset and then return'd home and soon after heard a great many guns fired towards Toun. about 12 pm the colo. Despatched Anthy. Frazer there to see what was the cause of [it] who returned, and informed him that there was great rejoicings in Toun on Accot. of the Congress having declared the 13 United Colonys of North America Independent of the Crown of great Britain.

Thursday, 25th. I imployed this morng. and forenoon getting Lead off Snowcreek house.


John Harrower's diary provides a personal record of key events in American history. He left a fascinating account of these developments, along with more mundane descriptions of everyday life for an indentured immigrant on the plantation, such as his students' progress, and the spinning and weaving of materials to make clothes, particularly for the black slaves who worked on the plantation.

In 1775, when Harrower arrived in America, the colonies were already preparing for war with Great Britain. Tensions had increased during the previous decade, as Britain tried to impose greater control over the colonies and introduced a series of taxes and duties on imported goods. Many colonists resented being taxed so heavily when they were not even represented in the British Parliament. The revolutionary movement grew in strength, and the Continental Congress convened to build up munitions and mobilize troops in preparation for war.

The soldiers were known as the Minutemen, because they were prepared to fight on a minute's notice. Harrower describes a camp of these troops near the plantation. He also recounts the shelling and virtual destruction of the town of Norfolk on the orders of the British Governor Lord Dunmore, in a desperate attempt to control the colonists' rebellion, after the British troops had suffered a major defeat in the Battle of the Great Bridge.

On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution agreeing that the colonies should declare their independence from Great Britain. Harrower's diary entry for July 10 of that year records in a somewhat understated way the celebrations that were being held following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. The recording of such momentous events interspersed between entries about daily affairs brings history to life very effectively. Although John Harrower was healthy when his diary ended in 1776, he died suddenly in 1777, never able to realize his dream of bringing his Scottish wife to join him in America.



Brock, William Ranulf, Scotus Americanus: A Survey of the Sources for Links between Scotland and America in the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1982.

Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986. University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Riley, Edward Miles, ed. The Journal of John Harrower: an indentured servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773–1776. Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1963.

Web sites

U.S. Department of State: Outline of U.S. History. "Chapter 3: The Road to Independence." November 2005 〈〉 (accessed July 17, 2006).

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The John Harrower Diary, 1773–1776

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