Published October 17, 2019

By Nora Pehrson

Karen Chase is a 2019 Virginia Humanities Fellow in residence at the Library of Virginia in Richmond. She is working on a forthcoming book, Eliza! Eliza! A work of historical nonfiction, it will tell the oft-forgotten stories of two real women—Eliza House Trist and Eliza Lucas Pinckney—and their contributions to America’s founding.

In September, Chase spoke from her office in Richmond with University of Virginia English Major Nora Pehrson. She told the story of one Eliza—Eliza House Trist—and discussed the early stages of her research as her project starts to take shape.

Eliza House Trist’s role in the founding of America has gone unnoticed in many conventional versions of history. So, who was she and what did she do?

Eliza’s mother owned an inn in Philadelphia where many of the Founding Fathers stayed when they came to draft the Constitution. It was there that she met and formed a lasting friendship with Thomas Jefferson.

She also met her husband, Nicholas Trist, at the inn. Just a few months after she had a child with him, he was assigned to work in Natchez, Mississippi. She stayed in Philadelphia, but after eight years of waiting to reconnect with her husband and after the Revolutionary War had ended, she was finally able to go to Natchez.

Jefferson wanted her to contribute to the survey of the area west of the Appalachian Mountains, so it seems that he asked her to keep a travel journal of her trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. She actually navigated the Mississippi—with a group, of course—before Lewis and Clark did. Her journal details the flora and fauna, what it was like having to stay with other people, being eaten by mosquitoes—all things that a woman from Philadelphia was probably not used to.

It wasn’t published until almost 200 years later when it was discovered by an historian, Annette Kolodny, who was writing about early American women’s travel journals.

I think that is partly what drew me to her story—I grew up traveling with my family and we kept a journal as we traveled. I think it really would have made quite an impact on me as a young girl to hear that this woman had ventured out in the 1700s and made that trip before Lewis and Clark.

Were there any other women on the expedition?

From what I can tell so far, it looks like a niece accompanied her for a portion of it. There were some men helping to navigate the river, steer the boat, and haul the luggage. The journal entries are really fascinating. Unfortunately, Eliza never met up with her husband. She was just a few days outside of Natchez when a runner came out and told her that Nicholas had died several months earlier of an illness. So, she had gone all the way down to the Gulf only to hop on a boat and go back to Philadelphia.

How old was Eliza at this point?

All this happened before she was thirty. She never married again and she lived into her seventies. In her later years, Eliza was quite itinerant. She lived in the homes of the Madisons, Monroes, and the Jeffersons. As best I can tell, when she overstayed her welcome in one place, she just moved on to the next. A final letter indicates that she died and was buried in the Randolph portion of the cemetery at Monticello.

Even though it took us 200 years to find Eliza’s story, when you hear it, you realize that the things that happened to her happen to all of us. There were interesting people that she was meeting, the country was changing, she found someone and fell in love, had a child, was separated from her love and tried to get back together with him, and she lost loved ones. That’s a human story.

How do you go about doing your research?

It’s a combination of things. There are secondary materials, like the research that Annette Kolodny, the premier historian on Eliza House Trist, did. She unfortunately died just this month, but others like Susan Imbarrato write about her, too.

Then I have to try to marry those secondary sources with the primary sources at Monticello, the University of Virginia, and here at the Library of Virginia. Because Eliza has been so sidelined, I have to find the pieces of Eliza that exist in the archives on Jefferson and connect them with the other pieces. Hopefully, the result will be a more complete picture of who she was.

Can you talk a little bit about the narrative nonfiction genre? How do you balance fact and imaginative detail?

This is my first foray into narrative nonfiction. In June, I published a work of historical fiction about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The difference between Carrying Independence and this project is that now, when I find a hole in the history, I have to admit that I have a hole and not fill it with fiction [laughs].

But I know from writing fiction that some of the same literary techniques are really important in nonfiction. Like making sure that important details fall in places where the reader is going to be impacted by them the most. For example, when Eliza found out that her husband had died, it’s assumed she was in the middle of writing a journal entry. She quit writing mid-sentence when the rider delivered the news. I read that in an academic paper, but it was buried in the middle of a paragraph.

In a work of narrative nonfiction, you would end a chapter with something like that. You want to leave the reader immersed in an emotion or with a cliffhanger.

What is it like working at the Library of Richmond?

Right now, I’m just getting the lay of the land. I just started a few weeks ago and I already have a stack of materials that the archivists have given me on the Trist family.

I’m not used to being in an office; I’ve been working independently for sixteen years. But the archivists here are so excited about helping me—the connections they’ve given me are just phenomenal, really.

What is the best part about being a Virginia Humanities fellow so far?

It’s that network. You just have more minds working on the project than your own. They’re not always working on it, but it’s in the back of their minds, and when you bump into them in the hall, they might say, “Oh, you know, I was thinking the other day, you ought to check this book out,” or “you ought to talk to this person.” And that’s really valuable. Writing can be a pretty solitary business, so having access to their knowledge is really gold.

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