He was born in Freehold, New Jersey and was of an elevated enough class to be come a lieutenant in the American Revolution, serving as paymaster to a New Jersey Regiment. Salesmanship seems to have come naturally – he was allegedly able to talk some English prisoners of war into signing up.
With America’s tiresome British ties eventually cut, he went west. Land grants were something of an early GI bill perq for veterans, and the aftermarket proved an opportunity for the young and ambitious and unscrupulous. Imlay got a position as a surveyor, which made him well placed indeed for gaming the system.
The decade of the 1780s his presence is detectable by official records, most of them in court. He out-clevered Daniel Boone (and even Henry “Light Foot Harry” Lee, father of Robert E. Lee) among others and was eventually the target of a genuine posse. If he made any money, he lost it in an enterprise to import African slaves to the West Indies (or possibly the Carolinas). In any event, he left the country under a cloud and with creditors on his heels, and didn’t stop until he reached Europe.
Here, he acted as a European agent of the Scioto Land Company of Ohio, in furtherance of which he wrote his A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America (for which he promoted himself to Captain Imlay), in part a travelogue, in part a me-too copy of Crèvecoeurs Letters From an American Farmer (London 1782), in part a promotion of physiocracy, which latter appealed to the romantic radicals (people like Thomas Paine and William Godwin) who saw the old world as hopelessly corrupt. (Tories, by contrast, dismissed the man and other land promoters as cheap charlatans.)
In 1793 he took the show on the road to Paris as well, called in by as an adviser to Girondist elements who wished to foment revolution in Spanish held trans-Appalachia and Louisiana, and pave the way for the French at the expense of the Spanish. (The plan itself went west.) As a sideline, he ran blockade runners through the British cordon.
It was in Paris that he met Mary Wollstonecraft, revolutionary hopeful and on-the-rebound jiltee. Initial distaste (hers, not his) in time turned to passion as he directed that charm by which he dispossessed suckers in Kentucky on to her. Rough manners were perhaps proof of a natural Rousseau-ish purity. There are those who think that she had a good deal to do with The Emigrants, his one shot at fiction, which describes the travails of a family heading out the wilderness and their progressive thinking.
When he got her an American passport, it was so that she could go to Switzerland. In the event she changed her mind and moved to Neuilly to be with him. Slick work. And once the war between France and England started, he registered her as his wife, thus American, thus safe from French interference.
It was a charade, and seemed to have fooled no one even after the birth of their daughter Fanny Imlay. Scoundrel that he was, he dropped her, returned to London and took up with an actress, ignoring the pleading letters to him to do the right thing. When she eventually followed and found out his situation, she failed to attempt suicide (laudanum, Thames river). His way of dealing with this was to entrust her with a business errand in Scandinavia (one of his blockade runners had done a runner with a good deal of gold and silver) for which he gave her full power of attorney. Not much came of it except a good deal of correspondence, the less personal parts f which she later published in her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
By the time she came back to London, he was with yet another woman, precipitating yet another suicide attempt and when that failed, an offer to live as a threesome. He preferred to take the new girl to Paris – alone. She went on to marry Mr. Godwin and eventually give birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of Frankenstein. She died soon after of child bed fever. Godwin, for reasons best known to himself, published a tell-all memoir of Mary, and a volume of her more personal letters to Imlay.
Of Imlay – nothing. Nothing until he died, obscure and forgotten, in the island of Jersey.
Lots of gaps and obscurity in his life, and if he has anything to say in his own defense, we don’t have it. General consensus is, once a louse, always a louse and absent evidence to the contrary, he will remain an artful cynic in search fo money and women.
Which makes him useful fodder for fiction, and he does turn up in two novels by Seth Hunter, The Time of Terror and A Tide of War – tall ships novels and very good of its typ. For non-fiction readers, historian Wil Verhoeven does an admirable job with what spotty records as exist in his Gilbert Imlay: Citizen of the World. And of course, any of the many takes on Mary Wollstonecraft, who provides academics with a whole lot more to work with.