Born Harriet E. "Hattie" Adams in Milford, New Hampshire, she was the mixed-race daughter of Margaret Ann (or Adams) Smith, a washerwoman of Irish ancestry, and Joshua Green, an African-American "hooper of barrels." After her father died when Hattie was young, her mother abandoned Hattie at the farm of Nehemiah Hayward Jr., a well-to-do Milford farmer "connected to the Hutchinson Family Singers". As an orphan, Adams was bound by the courts as an indentured servant to the Hayward family, a customary way for society at the time to arrange support and education for orphans. The intention was that, in exchange for labor, the orphan child would be given room, board and training in life skills, so that she could later make her way in society.
From their documentary research, the scholars P. Gabrielle Foreman and Reginald H. Pitts believe that the Hayward family were the basis of the "Bellmont" family depicted in Our Nig. (This was the family who held the young "Frado" in indentured servitude, abusing her physically and mentally from the age of six to eighteen. Foreman and Pitts' material was incorporated in supporting sections of the 2004 edition of Our Nig.)
After the end of her indenture at the age of eighteen, Hattie Adams (as she was then known), worked as a house servant and a seamstress in households in southern New Hampshire, and in central and western Massachusetts.
Marriage and family
Adams married Thomas Wilson in Milford on October 6, 1851. An escaped slave, Wilson had been traveling around New England giving lectures based on his life. Although he continued to lecture periodically in churches and town squares, he told Hattie that he had never been a slave and that he had created the story to gain support from abolitionists.
Wilson abandoned Harriet soon after they married. Pregnant and ill, Harriet Wilson was sent to the Hillsborough County, New Hampshire Poor Farm in Goffstown, where her only son, George Mason Wilson, was born. His probable birth date was June 15, 1852. Soon after George's birth, Wilson reappeared and took the two away from the Poor Farm. He returned to sea, where he served as a sailor, and died soon after.
The widow Harriet Wilson returned her son George to the care of the Poor Farm, where he died at the age of seven on February 16, 1860. She could not make enough money to support them both and provide for his care while she worked.
After that, Wilson moved to Boston, hoping for more work opportunities. On September 29, 1870, the widow Harriet Wilson married John Gallatin Robinson in Boston. An apothecary, he was a native of Canada born in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Robinson was of English and German ancestry; he was nearly 18 years younger than Wilson. From 1870-1877, they resided at 46 Carver Street, after which they appear to have separated. After that date, city directories list Wilson and Robinson in separate lodgings in Boston's South End. No record has been found of a divorce, but divorces were infrequent at the time.
Writing a novel
While living in Boston, Wilson wrote Our Nig. On August 18, 1859, she copyrighted it, and deposited a copy of the novel in the Office of the Clerk of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts. On September 5, 1859, the novel was published anonymously by George C. Rand and Avery, a publishing firm in Boston.
In 1863, Harriet Wilson appeared on the "Report of the Overseers of the Poor" for the town of Milford, New Hampshire. After 1863, she disappeared from records until 1867, when she was listed in the Boston Spiritualist newspaper, Banner of Light, as living in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. She subsequently moved across the Charles River to the city of Boston, where she became known in Spiritualist circles as "the colored medium."
From 1867 to 1897, "Mrs. Hattie E. Wilson" was listed in the Banner of Light as a trance reader and lecturer. She was active in the local Spiritualist community, and she would give "lectures", either while entranced, or speaking normally, wherever she was wanted. She spoke at camp meetings, in theaters, and in private homes throughout New England; she shared the podium with speakers such as Victoria Woodhull and Andrew Jackson Davis. In 1870 Wilson traveled as far as Chicago as a delegate to the American Association of Spiritualists convention. Wilson delivered lectures on labor reform, and children's education. Although the texts of her talks have not survived, newspaper reports imply that she often spoke about her life experiences, providing sometimes trenchant and often humorous commentary.
Closer to home, Wilson was active in the organization and maintenance of Children's Progressive Lyceums, the Spiritualist church equivalent to Sunday Schools; she organized Christmas celebrations; she participated in skits and playlets; and at meetings she sometime sang as part of a quartet. She was also known for her floral centerpieces, and the candies she would make for the children were long remembered. Wilson worked as a Spiritualist nurse and healer ("clairvoyant physician").
In addition, for nearly 20 years from 1879 to 1897, she was the housekeeper of a boardinghouse in a two-story dwelling at 15 Village Street (near the present corner of Dover [now East Berkeley Street] and Tremont Streets in the South End.) She rented out rooms, collected rents and provided basic maintenance.
In Wilson's active and fruitful life after Our Nig, there is no evidence that she wrote anything else for publication.
On June 28, 1900, Hattie E. Wilson died in the Quincy Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts. She was buried in the Cobb family plot in that town's Mount Wollaston Cemetery. Her plot number is listed as 1337, "old section."
At Wilson's death, her estranged husband Robinson, describing himself as a "capitalist", was living in the town of Pembroke, Massachusetts with a 24-year-old woman named Izah Nellie Moore. Two years later they married.