Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Early South Carolina Naturalist & Botanist Hannah English Williams (d 1722)

Hannah English Williams (d Dec. 16, 1722) is often described as the earliest woman naturalist & botanist in America. She was one of the first female in the American British colonies to gather plant and animal specimens for scientific collections. Her work aided the cataloging of many of South Carolina’s natural resources and contributed to advancing botanical and zoological understanding in that colony in England. 

Hannah English Williams’s  birth date, birthplace, and parents’ names are unknown. She lived in Charleston. Her husband, Matthew English, by whom she had 2 children, arrived aboard the Carolina with the 1st European settlers in 1670. She may have followed shortly thereafter. Her birth date, birthplace, and parents’ names are unknown.  
Naturalist Hannah William's Yellow Tipt Carolina Butterfly (now known as Dog's Head) Petiver's Gazophylacium naturae et artis...1767

Two South Carolina wills mention Hannah English Williams' children. In a 1710 South Carolina Will, proved 26th October, 1711, William Williams of Carolina planter, and gives to his son-in-law Henroyda English, all of his estate, real and personal. His mother Hannah Williams, widow to William Williams, declares the above will to have been made with her consent. The 1694 South Carolina Will of Charles Clarke, of Berkley County, dated November 2, 1694, mentions Mrs. Mary Spragg, daughter of Mrs. Hannah Williams, to whom he leaves a house and lot, bounding on late belonging to Gov. Thomas Smith. Mentions also William Williams, gentleman, of Carolina, and leaves the remainder of his property to William Williams and Mrs. Mary Spragg.

After her 1st husband's death, Hannah married planter William Williams between 1692-4. Her 1,000-acre plantation was at Stony Point on the Ashley River. As the widow Hannah English, she was awarded a warrant of 500 acres near Stony Poynt in November 1692. In May 1695, as Mrs. Hannah English alias Williams, she was granted another warrant for 500 acres on land on the north side of Ashley River called Stony Poynt. This 1000 acres of land was a wealthy source of undiscovered wildlife. This land would have provided her with unlimited opportunities for finding native plants, butterflies, vipers, snakes, lizards, birds, insects, shells & plants.

As early as 1701, she began a regular correspondence with James Petiver, a London apothecary and Fellow of the Royal Society. Williams & Petiver corresponded from 1701 to 1713, & he listed those items he wished her to procure when she joined his network of collectors. Petiver encouraged her interest in natural history, declaring Williams the “discoverer” of unique butterflies & describing her as “my generous benefactress.” He instructed Williams how to preserve specimens for shipping, with “each stuck on a pin or in a little viall drowned in Rum or Brandy.” Petiver described Williams’s contributions in his published serial booklets entitled Musei Petiveriani Centuria Prima Rariora Naturae.A February 6, 1704, letter from Williams to Petiver accompanied a shipment of “Some of Our Vipers & Severall Sorts of Snakes Scorpions & Lizzards” in addition to shells, a bee nest, & a “few Other Insex.” She promised to send “some Mockin birds & Red birds” in the spring because, “If I should send you any Now the Could would Kill them.” She also enclosed a “Westo Kings Tobacco pipe & a Queens Petticoat made off Moss” & asked for newspapers & “medisons.” 

Williams’s son met Petiver in England to discuss collections his mother had been gathering, until she heard false reports of Petiver’s death. Petiver expressed his respect for Williams by naming some butterfly species for her. In 1767, Petiver’s Gazophylacium Naturae et Artis included illustrations of Williams’s orange girdled Carolina butterfly (also called the viceroy, which mimics monarch butterflies), Williams’s yellow tipt Carolina butterfly (popularly called dog’s head), & Williams’s selvedge-eyed Carolina butterfly (known as creole pearly eye).
Naturalist Hannah William's Selvedge Eyed Carolina Butterfly (now known as Creole Pearly Eye) Petiver's Gazophylacium naturae et artis...1767

Records indicate that Williams was buried on December 16, 1722, in St. Philip’s Churchyard, Charleston.

“An Account of Animals and Shells Sent from Carolina to Mr. James Petiver, F.R.S.” Philosophical Transactions [of the Royal Society of London] 24 (1704–1705): 1952–60.

Stearns, Raymond P. “James Petiver, Promoter of Natural Science, c. 1663–1718.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, n.s., 62 (October 1952): 243–365.

Stearns, Raymond P. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.