They are tall and lean, with short waists and long limbs, sallow complexions and languid eyes, when not inflamed by spirits. Their feet are flat, their joints loose and their walk uneven. These I speak of are only peasantry of this country, as hitherto I have seen nothing else, but I make no doubt when I come to see the better sort, they will be far from this description. For tho’ there is a most disgusting equality, yet I hope to find an American Gentleman a very different creature from an American clown. Heaven forfend else.–Janet Schaw, on North Carolinians, 1775
In the North Carolina Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library, a fascinating 18th century manuscript contains the first-hand account of a young Scotswoman, Janet Schaw, and her travels across the Atlantic that landed her right smack in the middle, or rather at the absolute peak, of tensions culminating in the American Revolution. The manuscript, which is a handwritten transcription of letters sent from Schaw to an unknown recipient back home, starts from the moment she set foot on the departing ship in Scotland, on to the Caribbean Islands, and then, particularly for those interested in the state’s history, the Cape Fear region of North Carolina.
Janet arrives on the coast of North Carolina in February 1775. Her first stay is in Brunswick, a town that was already in decline at the time of her visit, then razed by British troops the next year and never rebuilt. Her first host was Richard Quince, owner of the ship Rebecca that had transported Janet and her group to the coast. From there, she travels the short distance to her brother Robert’s plantation, Schawfield. During the rest of the summer, she makes short trips to Wilmington and other plantations in the immediate area. Her brother, a Loyalist, with others who supported Governor Martin and the Crown, were finally forced to take refuge off the coast on a British warship by October 1775. For context, note that the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence was signed May 20, 1775.
As the situation deteriorated over the summer and tensions rose, Janet provided sharp political insight to the recipient of her letters, although biased to the Crown and disdainful of the violence already surging in the colonies. She also took the time to include incredibly vivid and detailed observations about her surroundings and environment, from how gardens were kept (or not, in her strong opinion) to the flora and fauna along the Cape Fear that were new to her. Janet’s writing style, tone, and unfiltered opinions indicate an impassioned, engaged, and thoughtful traveler. As a result, the manuscript is not only a pleasure to read, but this first-hand account is incredibly informative for understanding what took place during a tumultuous time in American history.
The manuscript itself has an intriguing story. On page 391, there is a date: 8th Decr. 1782, indicating when it was created. The copy held by the NCC was bought in the early 1970s, and before that time, only three others were known to exist. To produce the well-known transcription, of which there are a number of editions, Charles and Evangeline Andrews only consulted the copy of the manuscript at the British Museum, which is now understood to be lost.
For those interested in the context of Schaw’s visit and the history of the time period in North Carolina, other writings such as James Sprunt’s Chronicles of the Cape Fear River 1660-1916 would be an excellent resource. There are details about the town of Brunswick, descriptions of prominent members of society, and plantations along the Cape Fear. Janet’s brother Robert Schaw is only mentioned briefly. He was, however, a known and prominent citizen, and close with another distinguished Scottish family, the Rutherfurds, that had settled at the Cape Fear. Janet Schaw traveled to North Carolina with three of John Rutherfurd’s children who had been in school in Scotland. Mentions of Robert can be found in the Colonial and State Records online at Documenting the American South, for example a receipt for a horse used by the army against the Regulators (and never returned) and the Ordinances of the Provincial Congress 1776.
To gain an idea of how a plantation contemporaneous to Schawfield would have operated, the Hayes Collection (in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson) would be an excellent resource. The North Carolina Collection Gallery also has a replica of the the Hayes Plantation library. Not much criticism of the manuscript has been produced, however the few that have been written are very useful in understanding the text, for example, an analysis by Sue Fields Ross, plus a fascinating analysis of foodways in the Schaw manuscript by Sue Laslie Kimball.