Born Susanna Haswell in England, her family moved to Boston when she was five years old (their ship was grounded and its passengers needed to be rescued). Her father, an officer of the Royal Navy, was arrested and considered a prisoner until he was sent back to England in 1778 with his family. Young Susanna became a governess to help support the family. In 1786, she married and published her first book, Victoria. Five years later, she published Charlotte Temple and soon returned to the United States. The American edition of her book was published a year later in 1794.
The book is presented as a true story (it's original subtitle was "A Tale of Truth") and tells of the seduction of a British young woman by a soldier. The couple moves to the United States, where he leaves her, pregnant and sick. After Charlotte's death, the soldier returns and feels sorry for his abandonment and takes their child back to England. The sentimental novel was a warning to young women, who the author directly addresses: "Oh my dear girls—for to such only am I writing."
After the success of her book, Rowson continued writing but she also took to the stage (often performing at Boston's Federal Street Theatre, where the mother of Edgar Allan Poe also performed for a time) and opened a school for girls. After her death, she was buried at St. Matthew's Church in South Boston. A couple decades later, the church was destroyed and all remains were moved to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. A memorial tablet was installed in her honor with the inscription Memoria En Eterna.
The "real" Charlotte Temple, if she exists, is marked at a grave in New York's Trinity Churchyard. Legend says that it marks the burial place of Charlotte Stanley, a young woman who was seduced by Rowson's cousin — perhaps the model for the fictional Charlotte Temple.