The Germantown Museum

A project in the making

Enter Our Virtual Museum

In Times Past………..
By Andy 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 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 visit Senator Andrew Jackson. Jackson agreed to help Wright find suitable land and slaves and suggested that 
Wright acquire 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. 

Did Frances succeed? Find out in Frances Wright – Part II.

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