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About First Lieutenant Gilbert Imlay (Continental Army)
Gilbert Imlay (February 9, 1754 – November 20, 1828) was an American businessman, author, and diplomat. Imlay was known in his day as a shrewd but unscrupulous businessman involved in land speculation in Kentucky. He later served in the U.S. embassy to France and became one of the earliest American writers, producing two books, the influential A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, and a novel, The Emmigrants, both of which promoted settlement in the North American interior. However, he is best known today for his brief relationship with British feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Fanny Imlay.
Little is known of Imlay's early life. He was born in 1754, probably in Upper Freehold, New Jersey, where the Imlay family first settled in the early 18th century. During the American Revolutionary War he served in the New Jersey Line, enlisting for a time in Forman's Additional Continental Regiment. He rose to the rank of First Lieutenant in the Continental Army; though he would later style himself "Captain", there is no evidence he ever actually attained this rank.
After the war Imlay sought his fortune in the western territories, purchasing a tract of land in Fayette County, one of three territories into which Kentucky had been divided, in 1783. He arrived there in March 1784, and quickly became involved in land speculation. In 1785 he left quietly left America, probably for Europe, leaving a string of unpaid debts in his wake. In 1792 he was in Britain, where he published his influential A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America that year. In 1793 he published a novel, The Emigrants. Both works promoted the American interior and encouraged their settlement by whites.
Imlay's A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America was published in London in 1792, which in subsequent editions included the adventures of Daniel Boone (written by John Filson) as an appendix. With Wollstonecraft's assistance, Imlay also tried his hand at novel-writing, publishing The Emigrants in 1793. In 1793, during the French Revolution, he became a diplomatic representative of the United States to France while at the same time pursuing his own business interests. At the time British forces were blockading the French ports and he profited by running that blockade. This is where he met Mary Wollstonecraft. In order to shield herself from the dangers of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft registered at the American Embassy as Imlay's wife, though they never actually married. After the birth of their daughter, Fanny, Wollstonecraft followed him to Paris. He returned almost immediately to London, leaving Wollstonecraft and her daughter alone in Paris. She eventually joined him in London, where she discovered that Imlay was living with an actress. This effectively ended their relationship, with serious impact on Wollstonecraft's reputation. He showed no interest in his child's welfare, and left her to the care of others after her mother's death three years later.