At the Highlights Foundation’s “Historical Fiction for Young Adults” workshop, I was cautioned, “Don’t let your research show.” Apparently I’m not the only writer who gets so excited about interesting nuggets of historical facts that I want to astound my readers with them in my story. Bad idea! Unless the fact advances the plot or develops character, leave it out.
So I left nearly all of this out of my story, but it’s too good to keep to myself. Let me tell you about Susannah Wright, an amazing woman in any time period.
Susannah Wright was born in Lancashire, England, in 1697 to Quaker parents. When she was 17 years old, the family immigrated to Pennsylvania. Her mother died in 1722, and from then on, Susannah managed her father’s extended household and later cared for her brother James’s family as well. She never married. By 1728 the family had moved from Philadelphia to the banks of the Susquehanna River where they established a ferry.
Somewhere along the line, Susannah acquired a very good education and some powerful friends, like Benjamin Franklin; physician Benjamin Rush, who corresponded with her about herbal remedies, and James Logan, who had the finest library in colonial Pennsylvania and loaned books to Susannah.
When I plotted the course of Noble Butler’s wagon train adventure to supply General Braddock at Wills’s Creek, I was pretty sure they must have crossed the Susquehanna at Wright’s Ferry. Thom and I decided it was worth a visit to Columbia, PA, to see Susannah’s house, now open to the public.
We came to the front of the two-story brick house with a slate roof. Large trees shaded the house, and fragrant shrubs surrounded it. The entry was a Dutch door, the top half opening separately from the bottom. I lifted the heavy knocker and let it bounce. We heard the rasp of the latch, and the upper half of the door swung open.
The curator welcomed us, and we stepped into a wide hall with a brick floor and whitewashed walls. She led us into a handsome parlor where a colorful thick carpet covered the broad oak planks of the floor. Crowded bookcases lined one wall, and even more books spilled over onto the desk between the windows overlooking the river. A small tea table was set as if Susannah herself were ready to serve us.
On the desk was a small globe. When its delicate clasp was released, the globe fell open to reveal a miniature sundial on one half and a watch on the other. It was a gift from Benjamin Franklin. Had he wanted her to be able to tell the time, whether the sun shone or not? No, Franklin intended her to check the accuracy of the watch against the sundial. She sent him a barrel of pickled salmon in exchange.
We learned that Franklin had visited here and even demonstrated some of his electrical experiments for the Wright family. Franklin had sent the telescope on the windowsill, other scientific equipment and books, and Susannah sent him smoked or pickled meats, furs, specimens of animals, plants, and rocks, whatever he might find interesting.
Susannah was an experimental farmer. She grew hops on frames for better results. She grew mulberry trees for silkworms supplied by John Bartram and spun silk into fine fabric for her own dresses. And she grew hemp for making a coarse fabric and rope.
Hemp came from the local Native Americans, both Delaware and Shawnee. The Indians traded with the Wright family and their clients at the ferry and attended Quaker Meetings. Susannah thought of them as extended family. When Noble’s wagon train came through there, Indians were attacking settlers on the frontier, but Susannah’s only fear was for the safety of her Indian friends.
Housekeeper, scientist, experimental farmer, weaver, friend of Native Americans, and poet! In my book, The Snake Fence, I gave her only half a page, so my research wouldn’t show, but Susannah deserves more than that.