This is the fourth of a series of posts by Wayne Bodle on the lives and works of the Wollstonecraft family in America.
Jane Wollstonecraft was described (fragmentarily) in an earlier post. She was born to Charles and his first wife, Sarah, at an army garrison in Natchitoches, Louisiana in 1806. She probably lived with her seriously ill mother in New Orleans shortly after her birth. Charles sent his wife back to New York in 1809 but he kept custody of Jane. Just when Nancy Kingsbury appeared on the scene is unclear, but probably in 1810. There is no credible evidence that Nancy was an “other woman” with regard to the Wollstonecraft’s marital breakdown, but there were insinuations to that effect by Sarah’s allies and defenders in 1818-1819. When Charles and Nancy were married in 1813 in New Orleans, she became Jane’s de facto stepmother. When Charles died in 1817, she took Jane to her home territory in New Hampshire to be educated.
By the time Sarah organized Jane’s abduction in New Ipswich in1818 Nancy was back in New Orleans after leaving two other children with her family in nearby Rindge. She was not a party to the ensuing custody struggle. Rev. Richard Hall, who had the care of Jane before the abduction, took that event as an attack on his patriarchal prerogatives and on Nancy’s honor. His apologia, “To the Publick,” and the vitriolic spate of newspaper accounts that it provoked, disclosed the next stages. Jane was briefly housed in the New Ipswich “mansion” of Charles Barrett, Jr., then brought back to Philipstown, N.Y. to live with her mother and grandparents. Hall and his father-in-law, a New Hampshire judge, went to Albany, N.Y., and persuaded that state’s Chancellor, James Kent, to issue a writ of habeas corpus for Jane to be brought up the river for a hearing. At that proceeding Kent awarded the girl to Sarah. Heated letters appeared in Northeastern newspapers for the next year on both sides of the controversy. The cultural salience of the surname “Wollstonecraft” helped to fuel the controversy. Critics alleged that the other children dropped off in Rindge were “illegitimate” offspring of Charles Wollstonecraft, presumably with Nancy. Hall and his adversaries published conflicting “letters” from Sarah to Charles, some confessing her infidelity; her own parents’ messages of appreciation to Charles for his patience with Sarah, and letters from Jane to various other persons, including both of her “mothers,” siding with one or another of them. (Some of these letters are held in Sydney, Australia, whose suburb, “Wollstonecraft,” suggests the sprawl of the story to that continent).
Jane lived with her mother and grandparents for about eight years. Judge Garrison’s will gave Sarah a smaller portion than his other children, and made bequests to his grandchildren—except Jane, who he charged sums for bed, board, washing, and a small amount of school tuition. In the mid-1820s Jane crossed the Hudson River and—as her mother had at an even younger age —took up with a soldier. In about 1826 she married Lt. William H. Sims, a graduating cadet from West Point who hailed from Georgia. Sims never reported to his assigned duty station in Nebraska but he was allowed to resign from the service without apparent sanction a year later. The couple went to New Orleans, where Sarah (with written permission from Sims, as a feme sole) sued her legal guardian and Charles’s executor to obtain a distribution of her inheritance. The court deducted from her award the expenses claimed by her grandfather.
Jane then disappeared from the record for almost a decade. She and Sims probably migrated west from “Middle Georgia” across the emerging Cotton Belt in the early 1830s. By 1834 [?] they were in Vicksburg, MS., where Sims was a partner in an iron foundry and other mercantile enterprises. He acquired large amounts of fertile land in the Mississippi countryside. The couple moved to New Orleans, where in 1845 they had their only (known) child, a son, Charles Wollstonecraft, jr., about twenty years after their marriage. Sims died in 1847.
Jane’s appearance in Princeton, New Jersey, as the head of a household, including her mother, son, and a servant girl, in the 1860 census was described in a previous post, as was the dissolution of that household on the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1865, having lost her son to combat in literally the last days of the war, she requested and obtained a pardon from President Johnson for entering the South during hostilities to protect her property. She was living in New Orleans in 1872 when her daughter Sarah died. In 1877 she sold her house, which she and Sims had bought in the 1840s, to Charles H. Fonda, a marital relation. Fonda was already living there with the much older Jane,, two of his brothers, and three sisters. This transaction reflected her “retirement” and her anticipation of dependency as she aged. In 1880, the census taker found Jane with this group of kin and listed her as the head of household. Two years later Jane died at the same address. Her will gave her entire estate to her “beloved priest and pastor, Reverend Thomas Markham,” who she had known since he was a boy in Vicksburg.
Wayne Bodle is a Senior Research Associate of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Before retiring two years ago, he taught at Penn, the University of Iowa, Rider University, and mostly, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is working on a book on the “Wollstonecrafts in America,” from 1792 until at least 1904.