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Loyalist Louisa Wells Records Her 1778 Exile Voyage from Charleston to London, Including Her Unintentional Stop in New York After the Ship Was Captured
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About ten days after I landed [in New York] a dreadful fire broke out amongst the King’s Stores. Some of the Shipping were burnt and not less than one hundred and twenty Houses were consumed. To paint the consternation of the people at that time is now impossible.... One third of this populous City is now gone....

In our way we visited the great Fort on Bunker’s Hill [now in Little Italy, lower Manhattan]....What could have tempted Washington to desert this Post? Nothing but British Valour, and his well known Policy of never risking an Engagement when he could make good his retreat.

LOUISA SUSANNAH WELLS. Autograph Manuscript Journal, 1779. Memoirs of Wells’ 1778 exile voyage from Charleston to London, via New York. 81 pp., 9½ x 15 in.
With collateral book: LOUISA SUSANNAH WELLS. Limited Edition printing of The Journal of a Voyage from Charleston, S.C., to London undertaken during the American Revolution by a Daughter of an Eminent American the Year 1778 and Written from Memory Only in 1779. [New York: New York Historical Society, 1906.] 121 pp., Copy 124 of 200 printed, 6½ x 10¼ in. Includes appendix with material not in original journal.

Inventory #24377       Price: $7,500

The account begins in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 27, 1778, when Wells boarded the Providence bound for Europe, with many other Loyalists who were either banished or left voluntarily to avoid persecution. Once out at sea, Wells records her resentment of the ill-treatment she and her family had received in South Carolina.

The British ship Rose captured the Providence on July 4, and escorted it as a prize to British-occupied New York, where it moored nine days later. While still on board, the passengers were visited by fellow Tories who provided them with news. Wells lived freely in Manhattan and Flushing from July 17 to October 17. During her three months in New York, Wells wrote about British officers; the condition of Governors and Staten Island; rural scenery on Long Island; and travel by carriage from Flushing back to New York for an anticlimactic court appearance, among many other topics.

The Court of Vice-Admiralty found in favor of the Providence, restored it to its owners, and allowed it and its passengers to continue to Europe. Wells booked passage on the Mary & Charlotte and sailed to England with a British fleet. She went ashore at Deal on the southeast coast of England on November 28, and completed by carriage the final 70-mile journey to London, which she reached on November 30, 1778.

Excerpts from journal:

On the 27th of June [1778], my Uncle Robert Rowand, his son Charles Elliott, Miss Frances Thorney, my maid Bella, and I, went on the ship Providence, formerly L’Esperance...bound to Rotterdam.... We soon dropped down to the Roads, where we lay wind bound for several days.

Every Person on board...were banished except Captain Stevens. Never did any of us experience joy, so truly, as when we found ourselves in the wide Ocean, out of the dominion of Congress. You know the many difficulties the poor Tories had to encounter in procuring ships, getting men &c....”

“…the Watch cried out, ‘A Sail, a Sail! wear or we shall be on board of her; but, she does not see us.’ Guess our alarm. ‘All hands upon deck,’ but we dreaded more our American Friends and our new Allies the French at that time, than a Man of War belonging to Lord Howe’s Squadron.... we were running from an Enemy, who was then in chase of us.... The gentlemen went upon the deck, and we were within hail of the other ship, when a Gun was fired to bring to, it flashed, a second was fired, and the ball went through our rigging. They then hailed us ‘Whence from, where bound &c.’ to which we answered without hesitation. They then hoisted out a boat, which was well manned to take us, as a prize. This passed under our stern, and as I was then sitting on one of the Lockers at the Cabin window I heard a voice cry out ‘Get ropes ready’; at this moment a Volley of Musketry was poured on the deck from the Ship. The Shot whistled over the Passengers’ heads.... The man at the Pump was shot through the hat, upon which every sailor quitted the Deck and went under the hatches....

New York, I must confess makes no figure from the water: nothing to equal the order and regularity of the once beautiful Bay Street of Charlestown! Every house for a mile, three stories high!

What we wanted most they gave us first viz:—News. That the proposals offered by Great Britain, through the Commissioners, were rejected by Congress; that by the evacuation of Philadelphia, nearly thirty thousand people were added to York and Long Islands, and, that provisions were so excessively dear we should scarcely be able to live, without assistance from Government. As to Lodgings none were to be had.

I did not remain long without forming some agreeable acquaintance—Loyalists, from all parts of America. Male and Female, visited at Mr Lowther’s.

Nothing has excited my wonder more since I came to England that than the labour, toil, and expense which is bestowed on the plainest Education. I am thankful I was born and bred on the Western shore of the Atlantic. I should have died under the horrors of a Boarding School.

About ten days after I landed [in New York] a dreadful fire broke out amongst the King’s Stores. Some of the Shipping were burnt and not less than one hundred and twenty Houses were consumed.[1] To paint the consternation of the people at that time is now impossible. The French Fleet seizing everything which attempted to get into Port. Lord Howe blocked up with his Fleet. Washington in the Jersies, and another General, I believe Green, threatening to attack Kingsbridge, this was enough, but to have Incendiaries within the Town was too much, they were almost frantic....

One third of this populous City is now gone. The fire in 1776 consuming the best part of the Broad Way and those other fine streets at that end of the Town, with that beautiful old Church called Trinity are gone![2]

In our way we visited the great Fort on Bunker’s Hill [now in Little Italy, lower Manhattan][3], built by the Rebels. It commands the Town. What could have tempted Washington to desert this Post? Nothing but British Valour, and his well known Policy of never risking an Engagement when he could make good his retreat.

In 1776, when Lord Howe’s Fleet lay off Sandy Hook there arose a dreadful storm of Thunder, Lightening and Rain, such as I have before described—insomuch that ‘brother Jonathan’s heart did quake’ but he did not fail to implore the vengeance of Heaven on his Enemies. The poor Britons struck their top masts, let go more Anchors and rode out the storm. Some ships put out to sea and returned in safety! but, how different was the fate of the poor unenlightened Yankies, or rather uneducated—Some glimmering of the science of Electricity having beamed on them from their great Dr Franklin, they actually stuck the swords in on the tops of some of their tents, by way of Conductors, and went to rest, thinking themselves in perfect safety; when lo! The faithless steel brought more quick down Heaven’s wrath! Several officers were found dead in their beds. Nathan Childs, a native of New England, was there at the time and attended two of the Funerals; and told this astonishing Tale to me in Charlestown after his return.[4]

a Gentleman coming from a Wharf, informed us that a Vessel called the ‘Morning Star’ containing 200 Barrels of Gunpowder had been struck by Lightning and had blown up.... The explosion was so great as to unroof most of the houses in the Town. At least that side towards the East.[5] You know all the roofs in York have two sides, being Dutch roof, and covered with tiles or slates.... They have very few Electrical Rods here in comparison to those in Charlestown.

In my walks to Mr Dupuystens, Mr Cornell’s and others whom I visited I was struck with many rural and country scenes of which a native of the Swamps of Carolina can have no conception. I had often read of such things, but never had them realized before. The Stone Fences too—quite different from our Pitch Pine Rails! To see the Wheat springing up in September, and, that it was to be covered with snow in the Winter! This was a phenomenon to me who had known Oats, sown in April, and ripen in June. This was at John’s Island—at Busby Estate.—Dr Carson’s and my Uncle Rowand has planted his Rice as late as July and turned his Cattle into the Fields to glean after Harvest in the month of October:—’tis from this circumstance that our finest Butter is made, just before Christmas, and thence called ‘Rice-field Butter.’

As it soon grew dark, I had it not in my power to make any observations on the Country, especially as I had the charge of my own Neck, being obliged to drive my Whiskey; and, that too, over Rocky Roads which I never before had seen! Not like the road to the John’s Island Meeting-House, which Dr Carson used to say John Holmes might play Marbles on.[6] It was three Miles long. John was so proud to be made a Commissioner of the Roads that he was determined to fulfil the Office well.

We had heard that many Loyalists had applied to Government for Passages in the Transports—but he [Lieutenant Lock] cautioned us against them as those were so leaky, and had been so long in service they could not possibly stand the bad weather we might expect to meet on the coasts of Ireland and England. We determined to embark in a Merchant Vessel....

If you remember I once expressed a desire of living in New York? I am now totally off that Scheme, for I would rather go to—to—to the scorching Torrid Zone. I do not like the place nor its climate. What it was I know not, but what it is gave me a surfeit of every thing on the Continent of America to the Northward of Charlestown.

As to myself, I kept my Birth day sorrowfully enough—viz:—‘in settling my accounts at the ship’s side.’ Sea sickness is a great drawback to travelling by water.

At five o’clock p.m. of the 19th October we weighed Anchor, and I once more bid adieu to the hostile shores of America.

I had the pleasure of seeing the ‘Isis’ Man of War sail up the Harbour of New York, with all her sails shot through like a Cullendar, and her Masts all splintered, in an engagement, with a French Seventy four Gun Ship, thereby proving what British valour is, when put to the test.... Need I tell you how many great Men I saw daily in that Warlike City?... Sir James Baird...walked through the Streets with his Bayonet hanging at his back, stained with the blood of Lady Washington’s Life Guards, whom his party beset, and killed in a house in the Jersies.[7]

In the afternoon we saw the lofty Coast of Cornwall, happy sight to us, poor fugitives and Exiles.”

Louisa Susannah Wells (1755-1831) was born in Charleston, South Carolina, to Robert and Mary Wells, immigrants from Scotland. Robert Wells was a bookseller, newspaper printer, and a prominent Loyalist during the American Revolution. While working as a clerk for her father, Louisa Wells became engaged to his apprentice, Scottish immigrant Alexander Aikman (1755-1838). After the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Aikman moved to Jamaica, West Indies, where he founded a newspaper and served as printer to the House of Assembly and Kings Printer. In 1778, Wells traveled with her family from Charleston to London. In the early 1780s, Wells tried to join Aikman in Jamaica. During her first attempt, she was captured and held in France for three months. In her second attempt, she was detained because she was traveling on a slave ship. She finally reached Jamaica, and Wells and Aikman married in January 1782 in Kingston, Jamaica. They had one son and eight daughters. Only two of her children survived their mother.


Leather binding of manuscript journal is worn and chipped. The leather hinges are cracked and separating at top of front cover and at bottom of back cover. About a half-inch of the top and bottom of the spine cover is missing. The flyleaves and first and last several pages are chipped and have worm holes, with paper loss around the edge of the last page. The bottom of the last page is covered with tape. Slight foxing, but except as noted at the beginning and end, internally in good condition. The journal pages are numbered 1 to 78, with five unnumbered preliminary pages, and one blank. Pages 31-32 removed. The 1906 book is in very good condition.

Louisa Susannah Wells, The Journal of a Voyage from Charlestown, S.C., to London Undertaken during the American Revolution. New York: New York Historical Society, 1906.

[1] A second “great fire” in New York City on the night of August 3, 1778, destroyed fifty-four houses and several warehouses.

[2] On September 21, 1776, just six days after the British captured the city, a “great fire” in New York City destroyed more than five hundred houses and other buildings. As much as 80 percent of the population had fled, leaving perhaps 5,000 people in the former city of 25,000. Some British soldiers killed suspected arsonists on the spot during the fire. British authorities and Loyalists alike blamed patriot sympathizers for the blaze, and officials interrogated more than two hundred suspects, but no charges were filed.

[3] Patriots abandoned Fort Bunker Hill when they left New York in November 1776. It was abandoned after the British evacuation of the city at the end of the war in November 1783.

[4] On August 21, 1776, the eve of the British landing on Long Island, a thunderstorm struck the New York area. A bolt of lightning struck a large house and killed one member of the Connecticut militia and severely wounded three others. In one tent, boxes of cartridges caught fire by lightning and blew up, killing three officers of a New York regiment. The story of swords as lightning rods seems to be a Loyalist/British embellishment of the story.

[5]Yesterday about one o’clock, a flash of lightning struck a magazine of damaged powder on board the ordnance sloop Morning Star, lying in the East river, which occasioned the most awful explosion every perceived in New-York, where most of the houses received very great damage. It had an effect similar to an earthquake, and occasioned a tremendous alarm to every resident in the city.The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), August 11, 1778, 3:2.

[6] John Holmes (1760-1827) was born on Johns Island, South Carolina, ten miles southwest of Charleston, across the Ashley and Stono Rivers. His father owned a plantation there and a home in Charleston.

[7] “Lady Washington’s Life Guards” was the nickname of the 3rd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons. In September 1778, 650 British soldiers surrounded and attacked a company of 116 Continental officers and men, who were sleeping in the barns of several farms near modern River Vale, New Jersey, twenty miles north of New York City. The British killed, captured, or wounded 69 of the Americans, including 15 who were bayoneted to death.

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