Anna Bartlett Warner was born in New York City August 31, 1824, the second daughter of Anna Bartlett and Henry Whiting Warner, a successful lawyer. Mrs. Warner died when Anna was a baby and Mr. Warner’s younger sister, Frances (Aunt Fanny) came to care for Anna and her ten year old sister Susan. The early years of Anna’s life were spent in New York City where the family lived comfortably in their lovely town house. During the summer months they often visited Uncle Thomas, Mr. Warner’s brother, who was the Chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point from 1828 until 1838. As a result of these visits, Henry Warner became interested in Constitution Island, the property directly across the Hudson River from West Point. Susan Warner recorded the family’s first visit to the island in her journal for July 28,1834:
“This morning we all look the boat and rowed over to Constitution Island. We wandered about looking at the prospect, and considering the ground, for Father actually had thought of buying it for a country place. It did not look very prepossessing, however; for nothing can be more rough and rude than the face of that island.”
Evidently Susan’s opinion did not influence her father, for he purchased the island property in 1836. Susan records this event in her journal for June fifth of that year:
“Uncle Thomas was down from West Point last week and staid several days. He is delighted with the prospect of doings at Constitution Island which Father has bought. Father contemplates keeping the southern part of the island, and building a fine house, making a sort of little Paradise of the grounds, and residing there eight months of the year.”
Anna, recording this entry in her biography of her sister, goes on to say:,
“So comes in the first dim prospect of our future life-long home; as different from the later reality, as it well could be. Of that beautiful handful of plans, just one came true: we did go to the Island to live, and it was Paradise; though not of our making. But no visions born of town life and ease, and plenty, ever figured out anything so rich and rare as what – through straits and need and difficulty – the Lord vouchsafed to us, among our rocks.”
At about this time Anna began to write to earn money. Her first publication was “Robinson Crusoe’s Farmyard”, a natural history game for children. Shortly after, Susan began “The Wide, Wide World”, which was published in 1851. This book was a tremendous success and temporarily alleviated much of their financial distress. Launched in literary careers, the two sisters continued writing throughout their lives; having about one hundred and six publications to their credit, eighteen of which they co-authored. Among those they wrote together was “Say and Seal”, the book in which the Hymn “Jesus Loves Me”, written by Anna, first appeared.
The successful publication of so many books still did not eliminate their financial difficulties because there were no copyright laws at this time. Many of their books were pirated and the Warners received no money for those editions. Then, too, they often sold their work outright, sometimes in serial form, for they needed immediate cash and could not wait for the slower publishing returns.
Somehow, although they were never completely free from debt, they managed to hold on to their historic island with its fortifications which, date back to the earliest days of the Revolutionary War. One wall of the room where they did most of their writing was once a part of the barracks erected in the autumn of 1775. Hanging over the fireplace on this wall was an original portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. This cherished possession was one they never parted with, no matter how destitute they became.
How did they manage? A friend tells this story of a conversation she once had with Miss Anna:
“0ne day when sitting with Miss Anna in the old living room she took from one of the cases a shell so delicate that it looked like lace work and holding it in her hand, with eyes dimmed with tears”, she said, “There was a time when I was very perplexed, bills were unpaid, necessities must be had, and someone sent me this exquisite thing. As I held it I realized that if God could make this beautiful home for a little creature. He would take care of me.”