What was the new world like for its early European inhabitants? The book Colonial American Travel Narratives offers four interesting and insightful travel narratives that describe the new world and its varied inhabitants through the eyes, and thus personal outlook, of the authors. By doing so, the narratives actually provide insights into the individuals who went to this new land and the life they established. In most cases, according to these stories, it appears that at least on an economic level, life was not much different than that in Europe. Although America offered many of the settlers the opportunity to rise above their previous socio-economic position, the social class system arrived with the colonists and was just as entrenched as in Europe. This can be seen in the authors' comments that were often negative and demeaning about the lower-class colonists, blacks and Native Americans.
The first narrative is very different than the other three in the book. It is called "A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson." The main character, Mary White Rowlandson, was originally from Somerset England, moved to Massachusetts in 1638, and married a church's reverend. However, in 1676, she and her children, age 14, 10 and 6, abducted by warring Native Americans. While a prisoner, Rowlandson traveled about 150 miles, from Lancaster to Menamaset then north to Northfield and across the Connecticut River to meet with King Philip/Metacomet, sachem of the Wampanoags. Next she traveled up into southwestern New Hampshire, south to Menamaset, and north to Mount Wachusett. Rowlandson's youngest daughter died of wounds from the kidnapping, and the other two children were taken from her.
Three months after the capture, Rowlandson was ransomed for 20 pounds. She was returned to Princeton, Massachusetts, where she was reunited with her two surviving children. Her story, imbued with religious fervor, provided her readers with inspiration on how to exist with adversity.
The next day was the Sabbath: I then remembered how careless I had been of God's holy time; how many Sabbaths I had lost and misspent, and how evilly I had walked in God's sight; which lay so close upon my spirit, that it was easie for me to see how righteous it was with God to cut off the thread of my life, and cast me out of his presence for ever. Yet the Lord still shewed mercy to me ... (14)
Rowlandson's book was also known for portraying an understanding of her captors as individuals who suffered and faced tough decisions. She showed their human side with some sympathy towards their captives: For example, one Native American gave her a captured Bible and shared with her. "If I went to their wigwam at any time, they would always give me something; and yet they were strangers that I never saw before" (37). However, her narration also exemplified a Calvinist religious philosophy, showing the Native Americans as instruments of God sent to "be a scourge to the whole Land."
"The Journal of Madam Knight," was a narrative in a travel diary. Sarah Kemble Knight kept her notes on a trip from Boston to New York in 1704 to1705. Where Mary Rowlandson's narrative stressed 17th century Puritanism, her spirituality and belief in a hereafter, Knight's secular journal was about the here and now and nothing of the other's "other-worldliness." Knight emphasized that whatever good she did in this world would also be rewarded in this world and not the next.
Although when traveling she was nervous about the Native Americans, Knight was more concerned about being with people beneath her in class and situation. She would describe those beneath her such as:
Wednesday, October 4. But our Hostes, being a pretty full mouth'd old creature, entertain'd our fellow travailer, the french Dofter with Inumirable complaints of her bodily infirmities; and whisperd to him so lou'd, that all the House had as full a hearing as hee: which was very divirting to the company, (of which there was a great many,) as one might see by their sneering.
'The Secret History of the Line by William Byrd II" was the narration by a Virginia aristocrat, landowner, author, and governor, who served as a commissioner in the 1728 Virginia/North Carolina boundary survey. It was conducted by Byrd, other leading Virginians and Carolinians to settle a longstanding dispute by surveying a line due west through the argued borderlands between the colonies, thus officially opening the land on either side of the new Dividing Line to establish the boundary between the states. The "Secret History," dealing with uncooth acts of sexual aggression and male squabbling, was intended for a small audience of Byrd's friends. His characterization of the Carolinians reduced them to stereotypes:
I had almost forgot to mention a Marooner who had the Confidence to call himself a Hermit, living on the South Shoar of Coratuck near the Inlet. He has no other Habitation but a green Bower or Harbour with a Female Domestick as wild & as adirty as himself. (95)
In the last book of Colonial American Travel Narratives, "The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton," Hamilton, a physician, and his servant went on a four-month, 1,624-mile journey in 1744 from Maryland to New Hampshire. Because he suffered from tuberculosis, the trip was to be for Hamilton's health. However, the journal also became a description of the people he met, food they ate and their lifestyle. The book also covered many of his intellectual ideas and dislike of certain groups of people. In many cases, there was an elitist viewpoint:
Mr. M[Milne] read a treatise upon microscopes and wanted me to sit and hear him, which I did, tho' with little relish, the piece being trite and vulgar, and tiresome to one who had seen Leewenhoek and some of the best hands upon that subject. I soon found M [Milne's] ignorance of the thing, for as he read he seemed to be in a kind of surprize att every little trite observation of the author's. 214
Despite the fact that the authors of the narrations offered very interesting information about their travels in America, it was disappointing to see how their personal and social-class biases continued over to the new world. This was to be a start where anyone could get ahead on his/her own volition and hard work. Yet, it was also a land that carried many of the same prejudices that existed in other countries colonized by the Europeans.
For example, Knight did nothing to hide her disdain for many of the people she met on her trip, as well as complete dislike for the Native Americans and black slaves. All of her experiences were seen through her sense of her own social and economic position. She was extremely mocking about the ignorance and poor taste displayed by the rustic country "bumpkins" and extremely proud of "the wonderful civility" shown to her in the city by members of the upper-class society. Several times she had to deal with the problem of lodging. She needed to stay in roadside inns, meeting lower-class people, who, she felt, were usually drunk and generally misbehaved. She described how she feared for her rest and peace in the night since she was the only woman among several drunken men. She condoned slavery and was horrified that some farmers allowed their slaves to "sit at table and eat with them." Throughout the Journal, she referred to Native Americans in dehumanizing terms, comparing them to animals. Ironically, this school teacher was later fined for selling liquor to Native Americans. She denied the charges, however, saying that her servant was the one to blame.
Byrd was already part of the gentry when he landed in America. Though most of Virginia's landed aristocracy was beginning to progress away from their English roots during the early 18th century, Byrd provided a connection between the well-developed English and growing Virginian societies through his unchanging routine and pursuit of enjoyment.
In his narrations, Byrd often portrayed the individuals he met in Virginia, and especially the Carolinas, as gluttonous and indolent. He said that the Carolinians were a "porcivorous" people, and their dependence on "Swine's flesh" led to a degenerative creolization: "it don't only encline them to the Yaws, & consequently to the downfall of their Noses, but makes them likewise extremely hoggish in their Temper, & many of them seem to Grunt rather than Speak in their ordinary conversation" (96). Because of the frequently warm climate, the Carolinian men became lazy, poor husbands. In fact, Byrd also characterized the Carolinian commissioners in his company who were "better provided for the Belly than the Business."
It was Byrd's biased comments about Native Americans, however, that were most disconcerting. He related how it would be beneficial for intermarriage to occur between the Native Americans and the settlers, demonstrating his prejudice and ignorance about this subject. Byrd also made the stereotypical division between industriousness Indian women and the lazy Indian men. Yet unlike the indolent,…