Friday, May 29, 2020

Charles and Nancy Wollstonecraft

By Lauren Gilbert

Botanical illustration and description by Nancy Anne Kingsbury
Wollstonecraft of the Cuban Blue Passion Flower, Vol. I, Pl. 25, ca. 1826

In 2019, we learned of an astonishing discovery: the manuscript of a work long thought lost created by American Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft titled SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA. This remarkable work consists of three volumes, in which Mrs. Wollstonecraft described various specimens. She also illustrated them beautifully in watercolors herself. Although we know little about her, data shows that she was married to Charles Wollstonecraft, the youngest brother of British author Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN, among other works. I was immediately intrigued. How did Charles Wollstonecraft get to America? What is their story?

Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790-91, By John Opie - Tate Britain

In April 1789, Charles went to Cork, Ireland to stay with family, but returned to his father in the spring of 1791. That didn't work out, so he returned to his brother Ned in the fall. (It appears that Charles had difficulty finding himself.) He was supposed to go to America in 1792 with Joel and Ruth Barlow, American acquaintances of sister Mary. Mr. Barlow was a speculator in land. Mary bought Charles clothes and put him on a farm in Leatherhead so he could learn something of agriculture until his departure. However, Mr. Barlow ended up in France and Charles went to America alone, possibly later in 1792 or in 1793.

There are indications that Charles dabbled in land speculation, and he may have purchased land in Ohio. He was in Philadelphia, PA in late 1794, and wrote to his sisters telling them how well he was doing. In 1795, he became involved with a calico mill with Archibald Hamilton Rowan, another acquaintance of Mary's who was also a speculator. Although he continually wrote in optimistic terms, he did not respond to requests for financial assistance from his family in England.

Apparently, Charles' efforts at speculation in land and calico did not pay off, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Pennsylvania in 1798. He was a Lieutenant in 2 Artilleries and Engineers June 4, 1798 and went to Artillery April 1, 1802. Charles married Sarah Garrison of New Orleans in 1804, and they had a daughter named Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft about 1806. Data indicates he divorced Sarah for adultery in 1811, and kept their daughter. He was promoted to Captain March 15, 1805. He served as captain of the Regiment of Artillerists (known as Captain Charles Wollstonecraft's Company from 1806 until late 1815). He himself was transferred to Corps Artillery May 12, 1814 and was present in the British bombardment of Fort St. Philip, Lower Mississippi River, Louisiana from Jan 9-18, 1815 (in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans).

A general map of the seat of war in Louisiana & west Florida :
shewing all the fortified points and encampments of both
the American and British armies also the march of
Genl. Jackson's army on his expedition against Pensacola. 1814

Charles married Anne Kingsbury in 1813 in New Orleans. (Her name is commonly shown as Nancy or even Nancy Anne.) She was born October 29, 1791 to Benjamin Kingsbury and Abigail Sawin. She had multiple siblings, and her mother died when she was 12 years old. I found no information on her youth, education or when (and why) she came to New Orleans. I also found no information on how Charles and Nancy became acquainted. She would have been approximately 22 years of age, and he would have been about 43 years old when they were wed.

Charles became brevet major on March 15, 1815, as a reward for 10 years' service in one grade. He died in Louisiana, possibly of fever, September 28, 1817. He left his daughter Jane (then age 12) in Nancy's care, with Nancy as her guardian. Nancy placed Jane in other people's custody, the last being Rev. Richard Hall in New Ipswich, NH. Jane's mother Sarah managed to find and take the child to New York. A custody battle ensued, which resulted in Sarah being awarded custody of the child in August 1819, based in part on Jane's expressed desire to stay with her mother.

Nancy apparently remained in New Orleans for a time. She was a benefactor of the Poydras Female Asylum (an orphanage) in 1817. In 1819, she moved to Matanzas, Cuba. The reason for this move is unclear; health seems a likely possibility as Cuba's subtropical climate made it a destination for sufferers of various health problems, including lung complaints, for which warmth and sea air were specifics.

Throughout the 1820s, Nancy worked on SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA. She was very knowledgeable in the study of botany, showing familiarity with the work of Carolus Linnaeus (18th century Swedish botanist who pioneered classification and naming of organisms), Olof Swartz (another Swedish botanist, noted for his work with orchids) and other contemporary scientists. At this time, it is unknown where she studied or if she was self-taught. Besides her scientific knowledge, she was also a talented artist as her illustrations show. (The 3 volume manuscript has been digitized and can be viewed here.)

Portrait of Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), 1774

In 1825, Nancy visited New England. Under the pseudonym, "D'Anville", she began publishing articles about her botanical studies and about women's issues. "The Natural Rights of Women" was published in the Boston Monthly Magazine in August  1825, in which she appeared to echo many of her sister-in-law Mary Wollstonecraft's views, especially on women's education. (It is tempting to imagine that Charles told Nancy about his sister, and that Nancy read her works. It is certainly not impossible.) Nancy's "Letters from Cuba" appeared in the Boston Monthly Magazine in April and May 1826. On June 10, 1827, her father Benjamin Kingsbury died.

At some point around 1827, Nancy sent her manuscript for SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA to New York for publication (her manuscript was known to be there in April 1828, even thought it was not published). There are indications that she was still working on notes for her manuscript when she died on May 16, 1828 in Matanzas, Cuba, aged 46 years.


Todd, Janet. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT A Revolutionary Life. 2000: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.

AtlasObscura. "A Forgotten Botanist's Stunning 19th Century Manuscript Is Now Online" by Jonathon Carey, February 5, 2019. HERE

Cornell University Library. “Rediscovering a pioneering botanical illustrator.” (no author shown) February 1, 2019. HERE “Edward John WOLLSTONECRAFT/Elizabeth DIXON”, Family Tree Maker, 2/19/05. HERE

Feminist History of Philosophy. “An ‘Exciting New Discovery’: Anne Wollstonecraft, Botanist and Woman’s Rights Writer” by Sandrine Berges, April 25, 2019. HERE

GoogleBooks. Davis, Paris M. AN AUTHENTICK HISTORY OF THE LATE WAR BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN with a Full Account of Every Battle. 1829: ATHAEA. HERE ; Hamersly, T.H.S. COMPLETE REGULAR ARMY REGISTER FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS (1789-1879). 1881: T.H.S Hamersly, Washington D.C. HERE

Hathi Trust Digital Library. “The Natural Rights of Woman” by D’Anville. Boston Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1-7 (1825). HERE ; “Letters from Cuba No. 11”. Boston Monthly Magazine, 1825-1826, S.L. Knapp, Boston. HERE ; Wollstonecraft, Anne Kingsbury. SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA, 1826? V. 1, 2 and 3. HERE

National Geographic. “.'Lost' Book of exquisite scientific drawings rediscovered after 190 years” by Czerne Reid, April 22, 2019. HERE “Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, 1814-1815” by Major A. Lacarriere Latour, translated by H. P. Nugent, Esq., Philadelphia 1816. Bombardment of Fort St. Philip, in Placquemines Parish [reproduction of an item in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, published by the Louisiana Historical Society] Bill Thayer, no date of post. HERE

University of Florida. “The Cuban Botanical illustrations (1819- 1828) of Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft (1781-1828) at Cornell University Ithaca, New York” by Emilio Cueto, November 8, 2018 (PDF). HERE

U.S. Army Center of Military History. McKenney, Janice E. FIELD ARTILLERY PART 1. 1985: Center of Military History, Washington D.C. p. 311.HERE


Botanical illustration and description of the Cuban Blue Passion Flower, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

A general map of the seat of war in Louisiana & west Florida 1814. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

Carolus Linnaeus, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, HERE

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published May 30, 2019.

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life, and the passion has never left. An avid reader, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. She is a contributing writer to both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She has written two novels, including her new release, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT. She is working on a non-fiction book about powerful women in Regency Europe, and is also researching material for another novel. Visit her website for more information.

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