By Andrew Pouncey
Last week, I received an email from the great great granddaughter of Frances Wright. No kidding! She lives in New Jersey and was seeking additional information on Granny Fanny as Frances is known to the family.
I have been holding out on writing about Frances Wright because she is a well-documented resident of Germantown, and I knew when I really became desperate for good material, I could count on Frances.
This new connection pushed that timetable up. Of course, you won’t find Frances in the phone book. Frances first came here in 1825 and at one time owned both sides of the Wolf River, between present-day Kirby Parkway and Germantown Road, and south to the railroad.
Frances (Fanny) Wright was born in Dundee, Scotland on February 6, 1795. She was orphaned at three and sent to live with relatives in England. Her parents were rather wealthy and an aunt acted as guardian for both Frances and her younger sister Camilla until they came of age. Before her 20th birthday, Frances wrote A Few Days in Athens. Frances and Camilla went to New York in 1818 to watch a play that Frances had written called Altdor.
When Frances returned from England around 1820, she published a work called Views of Society and Manners in America. In 1821, she went to France to meet Lafayette, the Revolutionary War hero who had invited her there after reading some of her writings.
When Lafayette went to America in 1824, Fanny and Camilla went to America too, but not as official members of his delegation. They were with him when he was entertained at the homes of Jefferson and Madison. The winter of 1824-25 also included a meeting with Andrew Jackson, then a senator.
Since they were not part of the official delegation, they were free to move about on their own and traveled the U.S. extensively. During this time, they visited Robert Owen’s New Harmony Colony on the Wabash River in southwest Indiana where he was trying to establish a Utopian society. He believed that communal living would enable people to live happier, more economical, and more productive lives.
As a result of this visit, she decided to establish her own colony as an experiment to end slavery. She wrote: “The sight of slavery is revolting everywhere. But to inhale the impure breath of its pestilence in the free winds of America is odious beyond all that imagination can conceive.” She was equally fervent in her belief in the right of people to hold property, and so was searching for some way to free slaves without pulling the economic supports out from under the slave owner.
Frances submitted to Lafayette a plan for buying slaves, without loss to their owners, followed by life in a colony where they would be educated to be self-supporting and
prepared for freedom. She believed that slaves would work harder for their freedom than they would for a master, so free workers would be more profitable. She expected the colony to be also self-supporting and provide funds for the purchase and training of other slaves.
This was the plan discussed by former Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe and encouraged by Lafayette. Lafayette recommended Frances Wright to visit Senator Andrew Jackson. Jackson agreed to help Wright find suitable land and slaves and suggested that
Wright acquires land in the new Chickasaw purchase, approximately fifteen miles east of Memphis, which Jackson and his partners had founded six years before. It was decided that an area in Tennessee would be the best place for emancipation because public feeling there was more favorable to abolition than anywhere else in the south.
Frances rode horseback to Memphis, arriving late in October 1825, inspecting land along the Wolf River near the site of present-day Germantown. She then rode to Nashville, bought eleven slaves including five men (Willis, Jacob, Gradison, Redick, and Henry), three women (Nelly, Peggy, and Kitty), for $400 to $500 each, and three of their children. On the return to Memphis, she bought 320 acres for $480. She later negotiated for more property, eventually owning 1,940 acres.
Frances named her experimental settlement, Nashoba, the Chickasaw name for the Wolf River. She was only 30, she was rich and was applauded in Europe as well as the United States. Many approved her ideas because she offered hope of a way to prepare slaves to be self-supporting citizens while saving the South from the shock of the sudden loss of millions of dollars in investments.
Frances Wright was an admirer of Southern people who undertook the problems of slavery.
She wrote that she “knew from observation the evil effects produced by mere government abolition of evil, which has its seat in the mind, the habits and the very physical organization of a race.” Also, “To give liberty to a slave before he understands what its value is, perhaps, rather impose a penalty than to bestow a blessing.”
She described her land (Neshoba) as “2000 acres of good and pleasant woodland, traversed by a good and lovely stream (Wolf River), communicating 13 miles below with the Mississippi at the old Indian trading post of Chickasaw Bluffs.”
Part of the land was acquired by a grant from the state and part by private purchase. Marcus B. Winchester, Memphis’ first mayor, became a friend of Frances Wright, and his name appears as a witness on documents in connection with the establishment of her plantation.
She announced that Nashoba welcomed anyone, white or black, who was willing to work for the common good. Although Nashoba was an effort to end slavery, she envisioned a society in which cooperation, generosity, and freedom would reign.
Two men who played an important role in the experiment were Richeson Whitby, a shy Quaker from New Harmony; and a Scotsman by the name of James Richardson, who lived in Memphis and had strong convictions of moral freedom. A third was George Flowers who was an emancipationist with experience in utopian community living.
Frances was unaccustomed to physical labor, even though she was tall and walked with a manly stride. She and her sister moved to Nashoba and they worked beside the slaves who were on their way to freedom. Clearing trees, burning the underbrush, building fences, and planting an orchard, as well as building cabins. These tasks put calluses on their hands, weathered their complexions, exhausted their strength long before sundown, and exposed them to the fevers of the large part of the land that was in the river bottoms.
It broke Frances’ health. She became seriously ill with malaria and was encouraged to seek the milder climate of Ohio in May 1827. Camilla and Whitby were left in charge with Richardson to help.
But realizing that her plan lacked leadership, she had already deeded the property, land, and slaves, to a group of trustees in December 1826 under a deed of trust. The trustees were General Lafayette, William McClure, Robert Owen, C.D. Colden, Richardson Whitby, Robert Jennings, Robert Dale Owen, George Flower, Camilla Wright, and James Richardson.
While Frances was away, Camilla and Whitby fell in love and married, and passed the sterner tasks of leadership onto Richardson who took control of Nashoba’s policies. Critics believe that with Richardson at the helm, the Nashoba Experiment drifted from its original course of emancipation into a dangerous pool of radical ideas on communal living and moral unconventionalities.
The Wright sisters were inexperienced in the necessities of life in the wooded frontier since the South they knew best was Virginia. They found it difficult getting labor from illiterate workers, squelching quarrels among the field hands, and distinguishing illness from laziness.
Frances had gone on to Europe for her health and there she recruited Frances Trollope, an English travel writer. They returned through New Orleans and journeyed up the river to Memphis arriving in Nashoba on January 1828.
Mrs. Trollope was shocked by manners in Memphis, dismayed by desolation at Neshoba, and appalled by the primitive room in which she and Frances lived. She noticed the diet of pork and rice, without any other meat or vegetable, the absence of milk, butter, and cheese, and the fact that rainwater was the only liquid. She remained a few days and then hurried to Cincinnati.
Fighting gossip and criticism, waning support, and poor health, Frances Wright was no longer willing or able to struggle for the project. She went to New Harmony, Indiana, to work with Robert Dale Owen, the son of the founder of New Harmony.
She came to believe that the clergy were trying to hinder women from becoming educated. In 1828, Frances began her anti-clerical lectures to much controversy. She spoke on the abolition of slavery and on how religion was systematically repressing people from reaching their potential. Frances believed that after everyone became educated, they would have to see that slavery and the inequality of women were wrong.
Her plan had been to have five years of preparation prior to emancipation, followed by the establishment of a colony of Nashoba-trained men and women in Africa. The reality was that five years after she came to Memphis, she was putting 13 former slaves and their 18 children on a flatboat for New Orleans. Frances then chartered a vessel named the “John Quincy Adams”, sailing to Haiti in January of 1830 with the Nashoba slaves.
The newly freed former residents of Nashoba were placed under President Boyer’s supervision on one of his estates, rent-free, and supplied with tools and provisions. If they proved themselves worthy by becoming productive citizens, the former slaves were to be given land grants, enabling them to work their own land for the first time.
By 1830, Frances had climaxed a lecture career by her activities in the “Fanny Wright” political party, which actually elected a candidate to the New York Legislature.
She also announced her engagement to William S. Phiquepal D’Arusmont. Camilla died as a result of the trip to Haiti and Frances took solace in the arms of D’Arusmont, becoming pregnant. Faced with the way a child born out of marriage would be treated, she married D’Arusment and hid from public view, returning to England in 1830.
Later, on a business trip to America, Frances Wright broke her hip in a fall in Cincinnati and died there in 1852. So great was Frances’ national recognition as a public figure, through her political and oratorical activities, even William Cullen Bryant wrote an ode to her while he was editor of the Evening Post.
The heir to Frances property in Ohio and Tennessee was her daughter, Frances Sylva D’Arusmont, born 1832. Sylvia had come to America and being alone, lived in the family of Dr. Eugene DeLagertrie (or Guthrie) in Cincinnati. For convenience in handling her property, she deeded the Nashoba lands to Dr. Guthrie, who in turn contracted to furnish her a $5,000 annuity from them. To affect this he leased Nashoba to a tenant for a share of the profits.
After a time, Dr. Guthrie’s wife went to France to visit her family. When she had been gone some time there came the report of her death. Dr. Guthrie and Sylva were married in 1865 in New Jersey and had three children.
Sylva and her husband went to Europe – she to attend to property in Scotland, he to mend his health. While Sylva was in France, the Shelby County property stood idle, and lawyers raised questions about her title. Eventually, Shelby County Court canceled the unpaid taxes from 1861 to 1883, and the way was cleared for sales. She learned that the tenant at Nashoba had become the owner. Claiming breach of contract and many thousand dollars damage, he had asked the courts to sell the lands, and this had been done. Then he had taken them over from the buyer.
Sylva sued to have the court’s decree set aside, and in one of the most interesting and intricate cases on chancery records here, won back her heritage in 1878.
While there they also learned that the first Madame Guthrie was still alive. Dr. Guthrie’s health became worse, and he and Sylva went to Italy hoping that the climate would help. He died there.
The lands passed to her two sons, William and Kenneth Sylvan, who became ministers in New York City. They sold the property to Thomas Payne, grandfather of Postmaster Frances Hudson. He covered the original logs with weatherboarding as well as the dogtrot.
Mr. and Mrs. L.B. Lary bought the property in 1947 and remodeled the building, all but the foundation. The home then faced Riverdale rather than Poplar Pike. On February 9, 1979, the house still owned by Mrs. Lary burned. The house was located in what is known today as Nashoba Plantation, just west of the development’s entrance off Riverdale Road.
Son Kenneth had two children, Kenneth and Sylvia Camilla D’Arusmont. And Sylvia was the mother of the great, great-granddaughter of Frances Wright, Susan Guthrie Chang Saridakis, who contacted me and inspired these articles on Frances Wright.