Naturalist. Not much has been recorded about Hannah English Williams’s early life. Her birth date, birthplace, and parents’ names are unknown. She lived in Charleston. Williams was 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 awareness and understanding in that colony and in England, where people were intrigued by the unfamiliar organisms indigenous to the New World.
Using vessels under the command of the South Carolina shipmaster Major William Halstead, Williams shipped specimens to James Petiver of the Royal Society in London. Williams and Petiver corresponded from 1701 to 1713, and 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 and 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 and Severall Sorts of Snakes Scorpions and Lizzards” in addition to shells, a bee nest, and a “few Other Insex.” She promised to send “some Mockin birds and 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 and a Queens Petticoat made off Moss” and asked for newspapers and “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), and Williams’s selvedge-eyed Carolina butterfly (known as creole pearly eye).
Sources do not specify when Williams settled in South Carolina. With her first husband, believed to have been named Mathew English, she gave birth to two children. When her first husband died, as “Hannah English, Widow” she was warranted five hundred acres located in the proximity of Stony Point in November 1692. She then married a neighboring planter, William Williams. Three years later, as “Mrs. Hannah English alias Williams” she doubled her land holdings when she acquired an additional five hundred acres north of the Ashley River at Stony Point. Williams collected plants, shells, insects, birds, and reptiles on her property.
Williams asked Petiver for medical advice and pharmaceuticals because “I am Very much Troubled with the splene.” 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.
Smith, Beatrice Scheer. “Hannah English Williams: America’s First Woman Natural History Collector.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 87 (April 1986): 83–92.
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.
–––. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.