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The Remarkable Career of Sarah Wilson: Convict, Princess, and Marchioness of Colonial America

Prior to the Revolutionary War, thousands of indentured servants and convicts were transported (often against their own will) by Great Britain to either mainland America or to the British colonies in the West Indies. Though the majority of those who survived the voyage, disease, and physical abuse by their masters eventually became responsible citizens, a significant number failed to be reformed of their past criminal behavior. Perhaps surprisingly, many of these repeat offenders were women.

Various colonial newspapers are filled with hundreds of accounts of runaway servants which included women as well as men, some of whom led notorious and infamous lives. Ladies were quite innovative in their activities, identities, and fortune in the New World. A remarkable female convict, Sarah Wilson, led a life of uncommon activity well beyond the rest of her fellow convicts and criminals.    

Sarah Wilson was born in a small Staffordshire village in England. She arrived on a convict ship in the autumn of 1771, and was soon purchased by William Duval (or Devall) of Frederick County, Maryland. Wilson soon escaped and began a life of luxury up-and-down the coast of Colonial America. From Boston and New Hampshire in the North, to the Southern colonies of Virginia, Georgia, and North and South Carolina, Wilson was wined and dined by American aristocrats and governmental officials. She would introduce herself with sobriquets (aliases) such as: The Princess Susannah Carolina Matilda (sister to the Queen), Marchioness de Waldegrave, and the Princess of Cronenburgh. Once her true identity became known, the press would usually refer to her as the “extra-ordinary female traveler.”

One naturally wonders how a “lowly convict” would have been able to dupe so many of the well-to-do in various colonies. First of all, she had served as a maid to the Hon. Miss Caroline Vernon who was a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte of England. During her employment, Wilson was caught stealing a diamond necklace, gown, and other jewels, and sentenced to death. Out of the kindness of both her mistress and the queen, the verdict was overturned and instead the young woman was transported as an indentured servant or convict to America. Somehow, Wilson still managed to keep within her possession a miniature portrait of the Queen, as well as certain jewels and wealthy apparel.

According to the British publication Gentleman’s Magazine for July of 1773 (pictured left), Sarah Wilson toured the colonies as a member of British or European royalty and promising Royal appointments to many, yet all the time “imposing upon many credulous people, and defrauding them of considerable funds.” One contemporary publication remarked how she was so successful in her impersonations of the nobility, that she “made astonishing impressions in many places…so inimitably, that many had the honour to kiss her hand…” 

As can be seen in the image above taken from the Pennsylvania Gazette, William Duval had begun to advertise for her capture as early as October 11th, 1771, describing her for the next two years in newspaper accounts as having “a blemish in her right eye, black roll’d hair, stoops in the shoulders, makes a common practice of writing and marking her clothes with a crown and a B.” Though eventually apprehended by Duval through the services of attorney Michael Dalton, she would escape a second time and make her way northwards in 1775.  It’s here that Wilson married British Army officer Captain William Talbot, of His Majesty’s 17th Regiment of Light Dragoons.

Prior to her marriage, Sarah Wilson had aligned herself with one of the most famous male criminals in American Colonial history, a Mr. Patrick O’Connor, better known by the alias of Tom Bell, an Irish traveling merchant. For a period of time, he introduced himself as “Mr.Edward Augustus Montague,” a “gentleman of fortune,” and betrothed lover of the Princess Susannah Carolina Matilda.

The Providence, Rhode Island Gazette & Country Journal in January of 1774, remarked how Wilson “is the most surprising genius of the female sex that was ever obliged to visit America.” So much so, that she was never actually convicted of anything in the Colonies and eventually disappeared from history altogether. One wonders of her eventual fate.

An Artist Embedded


When we look back, we cannot know ALL that happened. The historical record is rarely, if ever, complete. When we present history, we fill in the gaps, create the voices that spoke, the characters that lived.  Are we creating fiction?  Have we made history un-true?  Or have we created a truth greater than mere fact? 

Which 18th century ship was commanded by both John Paul Jones and John Barry?

Answer: The USS Alliance 

The USS Alliance was a 36-gun frigate built in 1777.  The ship, one of the stars of the American Navy during the Revolution, captured a number of prizes during the war and was involved in several battles. Initially under the command of Pierre Landais, her subsequent commanders included John Paul Jones and John Barry.

In September 1782 the Alliance, now under the command of Barry, captured four British merchant vessels: Britannia, Anna, Commerce, and Kingston.  The ship and its prizes reached France in mid-October, then returned to the West Indies.  In March of 1783, Barry encountered a number of British ships in West Indian waters.  After the ensuing battle, Alliance sailed for Newport, Rhode Island, where most of the crew was released so that the ship could be overhauled.

In 1785, the Alliance was sold to John Coburn in Philadelphia.  She was subsequently sold to Robert Morris, who converted her to a merchant ship and made her ready for sailing to the Orient.  The ship arrived in Canton in 1787.  Little is known of the subsequent voyages of the Alliance. She was eventually abandoned on Petty Island in the Delaware River, and the last of her hulk was destroyed in 1901.

HSP possesses a ledger of the USS Alliance (#3033), which chronicles prize money distributed to the crew of the USS Alliance in the wake of the capture of Britannia, Anna, Commerce, and Kingston. The volume dates from October 1782 to March 1783, and each member has an account and each account is numbered.  There were a total of 237 men, but the first twelve accounts became detached from the volume at some point and are now absent.

Liberty in the Library: Playwright, HSP Join Together

PHILADELPHIA, PA - The Historical Society of Pennsylvania will collaborate with playwright and artist Ain Gordon to explore the intersections of history and contemporary life. Titled An Artist Embedded, Gordon will take the traditional “artist in residence” to the next level by becoming part of HSP’s programs development team over the next two years. Major support for An Artist Embedded has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from HSP.

2014-15 Fellows Announced!

HSP is pleased to announce the 2014-15 fellowship recipients. These scholars research the collections of HSP and LCP to further study their varied areas of interest.

Balch Fellowship

Dr. Hidetaka Hirota, Columbia University: An Anti-Alien Tradition: The History of American Nativism

Julia Lange, PhD Candidate in American Studies, University of Hamburg: Contested Histories: German-American Politics of Memory and the Holocaust


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