Chronicler, letter writer. Born on February 7, 1757, on Yonge’s Island, St. Paul’s Parish, Eliza Wilkerson was the third child of Francis Yonge, Sr., and his first wife, Sarah Clifford. While still in her teens, ca. 1774, she married Joseph Wilkinson, a descendent of another prominent planter family in the region. He died within the year. Their son, born in 1775, died soon after birth. Widowed and without resources, Eliza returned to Yonge’s Island, where her father put her in charge of one of his plantations, ensuring her independence and wealth.
Wilkinson is remembered principally for her letters, twelve of which were edited from her original letter book and published by Caroline Gilman in 1839. The letters cover a two-year period from the spring of 1779 until sometime following the surrender of Lord Cornwallis in October 1781. Arranged, edited, and perhaps enhanced by Gilman, the letters form a continuous narrative, “a most living picture,” leaving the reader with the impression of having been an eyewitness to events taking place.
Of the twelve published letters, letters I and II describe events leading up to the British invasion of the lowcountry, a time of nervous anticipation and waiting. Letters III–VII deal with direct experiences with the enemy in wartime: the confrontations and threats as homes are invaded and pillaged, and forced flights to safety made in the dead of night. Letters VIII–XII describe daily life as experienced against the backdrop of enemy occupation, and the surreal reality of an uneasy truce in the middle of wartime.
Wilkinson’s letters are addressed to a “Miss M–P” or “my dear Mary.” This is likely Mary Porcher, the daughter of a Huguenot family in a neighboring parish and half sister to Wilkinson’s second husband-to-be, Peter Porcher, whom she married after the war on January 4, 1786. The letters reveal a young woman who is self-assured, somewhat feisty, obviously charming and attractive, and possessed of a ready wit and engaging personality. She is high-spirited and on the way to becoming an ardent rebel. In fact, her writings are historically significant not only because of the day-to-day descriptions they provide but also because they show how subjects loyal to the British crown could turn into American patriots.
Wilkinson’s letters are also memorable for their emotional impact and dramatic flair. She displayed a good ear for re-creating conversations and capturing dialogues, weaving them into suspenseful scenes of action. She seemed to realize that she was potentially writing for a wider audience and frequently injected her own viewpoints and asides into the narrative. Wilkinson chafed at the restrictions her society placed on women by not allowing them to speak out on political and public issues. The letters became her soapbox, and she took good-humored advantage of the opportunity to expound on social issues near and dear to her young heart.
No further writings by Wilkinson survive. Following her marriage to Porcher, she moved to his plantation at Black Swamp near the Savannah River. Together they had four children, and perhaps her attention was redirected to more pressing family matters. The actual date of her death is undocumented but is thought to be between 1812 and 1820.
Arnold, Edwin T. “Women Diarists and Letter Writers of 18th Century South Carolina.” In South Carolina Women Writers: Proceedings of the Reynolds Conference, University of South Carolina, October 24–25, 1975, edited by James B. Meriwether. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1979.
Letters of Eliza Wilkinson, during the Invasion and Possession of Charlestown, S.C., by the British in the Revolutionary War, arranged by Caroline Gilman. New York: S. Colman, 1839.
Wilkinson, C. P. Seabrook. “Eliza Yonge Wilkinson.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 200, American Women Prose Writers to 1820, edited by Carla Mulford, Angela Vietto, and Amy E. Winans. Detroit: Gale, 1999.