This is the third of a series of posts by Wayne Bodle on the lives and works of the Wollstonecraft family in America.
Charles Wollstonecraft married Sarah Garrison, the 15 year-old daughter of a country magistrate in Philipstown, New York, across the Hudson River from West Point, in 1804. He described “Sally” as a “good well-informed girl,” ready to meet any challenges that they faced. The couple moved to Natchitoches in newly-purchased Louisiana, on the edge of the Neutral Ground. Army wives were not unknown in nineteenth century frontier garrisons, but this situation did not nurture their marriage. A daughter, Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft, was born in August of 1806. Sally suffered an undescribed health emergency soon after giving birth, and Charles received indefinite leave to address his family obligations, probably in New Orleans.
With random-googling quickly approaching its limits for reconstructing an increasingly sprawling narrative, commerce intervened. A representative from a company that aggregates manuscript and printed primary sources offered me brief trial access to their databases. A quick strike with keywords including alternate spellings of Charles’s surname found a rosetta stone. The 1819 apologia of a New Ipswich, N.H. Congregationalist minister, titled “To the Publick,” defended his role in the ordeal of Jane N. Wollstonecraft and yielded detail in colorful bunches, Rev. Richard Hall wrote that Charles had in 1809 “detected” Sally in acts of infidelity with one of his comrades. He sent her back to her parents as one might now return a package to Amazon, keeping custody of Jane. In 1811 he obtained a divorce from Louisiana’s Territorial Legislature. In 1813 he married Nancy Kingsbury, who came to New Orleans from Rindge, N.H., next door to New Ipswich. When Charles died of Yellow Fever in 1817, Nancy brought Jane, per his instructions and by the authority of probate officials, to New Ipswich and placed her with Hall’s family to be educated at a local academy. Hall offered witness statements, purported letters from Sally’s parents more sympathetic to Charles’s dilemma than to their daughter’s, and much more information. His essay ignited a newspaper war in New England, seemingly fueled in part by the Wollstonecraft name, as critics and adversaries challenged him in print. The limitations of random keyword search remained, but it could now at least be employed much more widely.
I will discuss other parties in a subsequent post, but Sarah has been the hardest figure in this narrative to recover. She lived in her parents’ household in Putnam County, New York, well into middle age. In 1818 she discovered Jane’s whereabouts, recruited a recovery party, and traveled to New Hampshire. Allying with several powerful families in New Ipswich, she orchestrated her daughter’s abduction from Hall’s custody and brought her back to New York. These events withstood criminal indictments in New Hampshire that were not brought to trial, and a habeas corpus custody challenge by Hall that failed in the Albany court of New York’s Chancellor James Kent. Sarah then went to New Orleans and challenged Charles’s will, which divided his estate between Nancy and Jane, arguing that her marriage was still intact because a federal territory (in 1811) could not have legally severed what a duly constituted state of the American republic had joined together. The suit went nowhere in Louisiana’s state courts.
Thereafter we catch only glimpses of Sarah, who appears to have been shattered by her adolescent marriage and its consequences. We find her as a congregant in the Episcopal Chapel of the Highlands in Philipstown, where her father was a deacon in the 1830s. (Her grandfather, “Judge” Garrison, owned slaves, and freed them as slowly as seems possible under New York’s gradual manumission act. Charles’s estate included several enslaved people in late 1810s urban New Orleans, surely one of the more demoralizing findings of Wollstonecraft scholarship). She appears in the 1860 census living in a household in Princeton, New Jersey, headed by her adult daughter, Jane, and including her grandson, Charles Wollstonecraft, Jr., a first year student at the College of New Jersey. His class, with much of the College itself, dissolved in the spring of 1861 as southern students raced home to defend secession and northerners rallied to the Union.
We finally encounter Sarah on her deathbed in New Orleans in December of 1872, as pitched battles between competing factions of that city’s Reconstruction government raged on the street below her window. Jane lived nearby, apparently still involved in her life and care, but in complex domestic circumstances of her own making, to be reported in the next post.