Born in Milford, New Hampshire, in 1825, Harriet E. Adams Wilson is known as the first person of African descent to publish a novel in the United States. Wilson’s book, Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of A Free Black, published in 1859, is believed to be closely based on her harsh experience in near-slavery in a northern New England household.
After years of obscurity, Wilson’s story and that of her novel were recovered by scholars and the Milford-based Harriet Wilson Project, which was formed in 2003.
As the Harriet Wilson Project describes,
“The novel unfolds with the six-year-old mulatto protagonist, Frado, being abandoned by her white mother and placed into indentured servitude. While in service to the Bellmont family, Frado is cruelly abused by Mrs. Bellmont and her daughter, Mary. Not even the sympathetic members of the family intervene on her behalf. Frado endures this harsh abuse for 12 years until she reaches her majority and earns her freedom at age eighteen.”
Interestingly, Milford itself was considered a hotbed of abolitionist activity, which included at least one massive rally during the time Wilson was indentured.
According to the Harriet Wilson Project, Wilson wrote Our Nig in the 1850s while working as a seamstress, house servant, and vendor of hair products in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She started a business, “Mrs. H.E. Wilson’s Hair Dressing,” based in Manchester and later moved to the Boston area, where she was active in spiritualist circles.
The Harriet Wilson Project now promotes historic walking tours of Milford and provides other information on Wilson and her historic novel. A statue of Harriet Wilson with her son George Mason Wilson, created by the late Fern Cunningham, now sits in Bicentennial Park in Milford.
For more information, visit the Harriet Wilson Project.