Harriet E. Wilson Biography
In 1859, Harriet E. Wilson, an African American woman from Milford, New Hampshire, published a novel with the stated hope of earning sufficient money simply to survive. Instead, her novel, Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black, became a powerful and controversial narrative that continues to touch and unsettle readers around the world.
Long thought to be the work of a white author, Wilson's novel sunk into obscurity until 1983 when Henry Louis Gates republished the novel with his discoveries that the author was African American and that the story was largely autobiographical. Gate's discovery turned the literary world on its end, as up to that point it had been widely accepted that the first African American published novelist had been Frances Ellen Watkins Harper with Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted (1892).
Much of what is known about the life of Harriet Wilson has been derived from Wilson's novel, and the scholarly research work of Wilson scholars Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Dr. Barbara White, Dr. R. J. Ellis, Dr. Gabrielle Foreman, Reginald Pitts and Kathy Flynn, the following information is known or can be surmised:
1825 (March 15). Harriet E. “Hattie” Adams (“Alfrado” or “Frado”) born in Milford, New Hampshire, probably on the farm and cooperage of Timothy Blanchard (“Pete Greene”), of Joshua Green (“Jim”), an African American “hooper of barrels,” and Margaret Adams, or Smith (“Mag Smith”), a white washerwoman, according to Our Nig.
c. 1828. According to Our Nig, “Jim,” Wilson’s father, Joshua Green, dies.
1830-31. Abandoned by mother Mag (Margaret Adams or Smith) at the Hayward home (“the Bellmonts”) in Milford; serves as an indentured servant.
1830 March. “Margaret Ann Smith,” twenty-seven, from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, dies in Boston, after a violent and intoxicated quarrel with her black lover. The local Amherst/Milford paper carries a full announcement.
1832-34. Attends school (mostly likely at District School Number 3) for three months a year for three years. The Hayward Farm was located in that district according to the 1854 map of Milford by C.E. Potter.
1843 (January 4-5). Massive abolitionist rally including Parker Pillsbury, Stephen S. Foster, Nathaniel P. Rogers, The Hutchinson Family Singers, and the fugitives George Latimer and George Johnson, occurs in Milford.
1843 or 1846. Leaves the Haywards and goes to work as a servant for other families.
1846 (spring-fall). According to Our Nig, attempts to work for “Mrs. Moore” and “Mrs. Hale” (Mrs. Sarah Dexter Kimball) and falls ill; she is first removed to the Hayward household; after she recovers, she attempts to work again until her health fails.
1847-49. Listed as town pauper and boards with “two maids (old)” (Fanny and Edna Kidder).
1849-50. Listed as a town pauper and boards with “Mrs. Hoggs” (Mary Lousia [Barnes] Boyles.)
1850. Harriet E. Adams appears on the 1850 federal census for Milford as a 22-year-old black woman living with the Boyles family
1850 (After August). Moves to Wear, Massachusetts through the ministrations of an “itinerant colored lecturer,” perhaps Thomas H. Jones; she probably boards with Mrs. Mary (Wrigley) Walker (“Mrs. Walker”), attempts to work as a “straw sewer,” and is befriended by Mrs. Jane Chapman Demond (“Allida”), members of the Marsh Family, and others.
1851 (June). Harriet Adams and Thomas Wilson meet in “W-----,” Massachusetts. They marry in Milford, New Hampshire, on October 6. Barbara White suggests Worchiester as the W.... town.
1851 (December 6). Poem “Fading Away,” by “Hattie,” appears in local newspaper, the Farmer’s Cabinet.
1852 (January?). Moved to Hillsborough County Poor Farm in Goffstown New Hampshire.
1852 (circa June 15). Son, George Mason Wilson, born at Poor Farm.
1852 (spring-fall). Thomas Wilson returns, takes wife, Harriet and George from Poor Farm to either Milford, Manchester, or Nashua, Hew Hampshire, then returns to sea, again leaving them destitute; they’re probably again helped by Caleb and Laura Wright Hutchinson, who is possible “Margaretta Thorn.”
1853 (May 30). Thomas Wilson dies on board sloop Cabassa of Portland, Maine, Captain Charles Littlejohn commanding, in the harbor of Cardenas, Cuba.
1854-55. “Harriet E. Wilson and Child” on the Milford Poor List until she is able to make a small living for herself while George is placed with foster parents as a pauper.
1855 (June-August). George M. Wilson forced to spend six weeks at Hillsborough County Poor Farm while mother lies ill, probably in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1855-60. Joshua and Irene Fisher Hutchinson probably take George Wilson in as a pauper while Hattie travels in central and western Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire working as a seamstress, house servant, or selling hair products, contingent on her health. During this period, Wilson starts writing Our Nig.
1857-60. Starts a successful business selling hair products. Has “Mrs. H.E. Wilson’s Hair Dressing” bottles made in Manchester, New Hampshire.
1859 (August 18). Our Nig copyrighted, with a copy deposited in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts.
1859 (September 5). Our Nig published by George C. Rand and Avery.
1859 (October 13). Calvin Dascomb, Sr. (“C. D. S.”), dies in Wilton, New Hampshire.
1860 (February 15). George Mason Wilson dies in Milford, aged seven years, eight months.
1860. Possible working in cotton mill in Manchester, New Hampshire, boarding with Mrs. Sophia W. Young.
1861-63. During this period she works as a servant or lives at Hillsborough County Poor Farm until May 1863. She also begins to become more deeply involved with the growing Spiritualist movement.
1863-66. Probably boarding with Laura Hutchinson until Hutchinson’s marriage and move from New Hampshire in 1866’ more than likely also involved with Eleanor “Betsy” (Knowlton) Came, Ellen (Travis) Booth, and Sarah H. (Bennett) Mixer, who were active as “trace readers,” “clairvoyant physicians,” and Spiritualists in Milford and environs.
1867. Hattie Wilson listed in Boston Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts, and described as “the eloquent and earnest colored trance medium”; she later moves across the Charles River to 70 Tremont Street in Boston. She joins the Massachusetts Spiritualists Association where she participates in their semiannual conventions, sharing the podium with the famous Andrew Jackson Davis, and gives an address in favor or labor reform and the education of children in Spiritualist doctrine.
1867 (August 29-September 1). Is known in Spiritualist circles as “the colored medium.” Attends a “Great Spiritualist Camp Meeting” in Pierpont Grove, Melrose, Massachusetts, where she delivers an address in front of as many as three thousand.
1868. Gives lectures, sometimes entranced, in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Connecticut. The Banner of Light reports that she “has been constantly and successfully engaged the past year in this vicinity as a healing medium and a trance speaker, and has won a host of friends. We cordially commend her to the hospitality of the spiritual brotherhood everywhere.” Boston City Directory describes her as “Dr. Hattie E. Wilson.” Moves to 150 Tremont Street, and later to 26 Carver Street, Boston.
1869. Moves to 64 Carver Street, Boston, and works with John Gallatin Robinson, an apothecary. The 1870 Federal Census lists her as a thirty-eight-year-old white native in New Hampshire, who is a physician. Robinson, listed as a twenty-six-year-old native of Connecticut, who is also a physician, also lives at 46 Carver Street.
1870 (September 29). John Gallatin Robinson and Harriet E. Wilson marry in Boston. The record shows that “Harriet E. Wilson,” born in Milford, New Hampshire, but resident in Boston, declared that she was thirty-seven [sic] years old (to her husband’s twenty-six), white, and the daughter of Joshua and Margaret Green; this was her second marriage, her husband’s first. The officiating minister was a Rev. J. L. Mansfield, a Spiritualists minister.
1870 (October 22-23). Banner of Light reports that at the quarterly convention of Spiritualists in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Wilson testifies to her she had been “brought into acquaintance with her father in spirit-life, who was her almost constant companion.” She further said that “you will know that the spirit-world is not afar off, in space, but here in our midst; and that spirits are not bodiless being but are with us in our homes.”
1872-77. As “Mrs. Hattie E. Robinson,” listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper Banner of Light as trance reader and lecturer at 46 Carver Street, off the Boston Common. She alternately continues to be referred to as “Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson.” Continues being involved in musical entertainments at Spiritualist gatherings.
1873 (May). Works to establish a new Spiritualist society in Mansfield and Foxboro, Massachusetts.
1873 (August 13-17). Speaks with Victoria Woodhull and others at the Fourth Annual Spiritualist Camp Meeting, Silver Lake, Plympton, Massachusetts, where an estimated sixteen thousand people assemble. Is chosen as one of six Massachusetts delegates to attend the American Association of Spiritualists Convention of Chicago. Listed this year as both Mrs. Hattie E. Robinson and Hattie E. Wilson.
1873-74. Is active in the formation and maintenance of Children’s Progressive Lyceums, which serve as a Sunday school for the children of Spiritualists. Is particularly active in Temple Hall and Rochester Hall. Speaks to children at a major gathering at New Fraternity Hall, March 31. Gives a speech at the wedding of the conductor, or leader, of the Children’s Lyceum, No. I, of Boston
1873-74. Hosts Spiritualist social events that are reported in the Banner of Light. Speaks at Silver Lake Camp Meeting.
1874 (September 15-18) Speaks against the "doctrine of turning of children over to the State."
1876 (March 25). Banner of Light reports a large gathering of friends joined Harriet E. Wilson at her residence at 46 Carver Street on March 15 to celebrate "the attainment by their hostess of another birthday in the form."
1877-79. A "Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson," listed in Banner of Light as trance reader and lecturer in Room I of the Hotel Kirkland
1879-97 (September). Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson listed in the Banner of Light as trance reader and lectureer at 15 Village Street in Boston's South End.
1883. Wilson announced the opening of a new Sunday school for the children of "the liberal minded" in the "Ladies Aid Parlors" in Boston.
1897. Boston City Directories list "Mrs Hattie E. Wilson" as "board, 9 Pelham."
1900. Hattie Wilson, residing in a boarding house at 9 Pelham Street in Boston's South End, is listed as a nurse living at the home of the Silas H. Cobb family in Quincy, Massachusetts.
1990 (June 28.) "Hattie E. Wilson" dies in Quincy Hospital Massachusetts, of "inanition"; occupation given as "nurse." Obituaries that appear in the June 29 and June 30 Boston Herald and Globe, as well as the Quincy Daily Patriot, state that the funeral will be held "from the residence of Mrs. Catherine C. Cobb, 93 Washington Street, Quincy, Saturday, June 30, at 3 P.M. Train Leaves South terminal station, Boston at 2:28 P.M. Relatives and Friends are invited." Wilson is buried in the Cobb family plot in Mount Wollaston Cemetery in Quincy, plot number 1337, "old section,"
Harriet Wilson Project Commissioned Harriet E. Wilson Memorial by
Fern Cunningham. Donated to the Town of Milford, NH October 6, 2006
Harriet E. “Hattie” Wilson (1825-1900)
Harriet Wilson's Wedding record found by HWP in a Notebook located in the Milford Town Hall
Wilson's Death Certificate
Cover page. Wilson's Novel
Death record for Wilson's son, George Mason Wilson,
found by HWP in a Notebook in Milford Town Hall.
"Mrs. H. E. Wilson Hair Dressing"bottles made in
Manchester, NH. Photo courtesy Gabrielle Foreman.
Harriet "Hattie" E. Wilson is buried in the Cobb/Stoddard family plot in Mount Wollaston Cemetery, Quincy, MA
Harriet E. Wilson Biography