The Germantown Museum
A project in the making
|In Times Past………..
By Andy Pouncey
Frances Wright – Part II
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 an 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 to 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 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 rain water was the only liquid. She remained a few days and then hurried to Cincinnati.
The plantation went from bad to worse. Whitby’s health broke and he moved with Camilla to Ohio. Frances, unable to remain at Nashoba herself, was forced to admit defeat after an attempt to operate the place with a hired overseer proved disastrous.
What happened to the slaves and Frances?
Find out in Frances Wright – Part III.