Constructing the Past


The image of America as a land of freedom and opportunity emerged long before its establishment as an independent nation. After Columbus and other early explorers discovered the rich and vast territories of North America, it was only a matter of time before a frenzied and hopeful mass of European peoples would follow them across the Atlantic. In the early stages of development, the institution of indentured servitude provided substantial numbers of Europeans with both a means of living as well as the possibility of future prosperity. Emigrants would enter contracts of servitude that required labor for a designated period of time, after which the individual received freedom and usually a small tract of land. The nature of indentured servitude as well as the experiences of several individual emigrants encourage a re-examination of the “land-of-opportunity” paradigm. In particular, the auto-biographical accounts of John Harrower and William Moraley provide great insight into early American life, a rollercoaster of devastating hardships made tolerable by periods of prosperity and improvement. Harrower and Moraley’s accounts indicate that indentured servitude did offer an instrument for self betterment but also reveal that the idealistic view of America fell far short of reality.