Windham Life and Times February 11, 2022

An Extraordinary African American Life: Nancy Gardner Prince 1799-1859 Part I

   It’s African American history month and I was looking through the archives  of the New Hampshire Historical Society when I came across a fascinating book;  A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Gardner Prince, which was published in 1853. The book intimately details the life and travels of Mrs. Prince, an African American woman, which totally deconstructs the monolithic, modern narrative of what it meant to be Black in America before the Civil War. In fact, the book shows that the African American community was diverse, varied and incredibly resourceful as it sought to define its own place in antebellum America and the broader world.

     Nancy Gardner Prince, was born September 15, 1799 and died in 1859. She was an African-American woman born free in Newburyport, Massachusetts. “…little is known of her early life. Her father, a seaman from Nantucket, died when she was an infant, leaving her in the care of her mother, who subsequently married several times. Nancy had six younger siblings, who she became responsible for supporting.”

     In February 15, 1824 she married Nero Prince, one of the founders of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. “Prince Hall Freemasonry is a branch of North American Freemasonry for African Americans founded by Prince Hall on September 29, 1784.” It is the oldest and largest predominantly African-American fraternity in the nation with over 300,000 initiated members. For the next few weeks I will present some excerpts from the book which highlight the incredible life of Nancy Gardner Prince.


     “I was born in Newburyport, September 15th, 1799. My mother was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts— the daughter of Tobias Wornton, or Backus, so called. He was stolen from Africa, when a lad, and was a slave of Captain Winthrop Sargent; but, although a slave, he fought for liberty. He was in the Revolutionary army, and fought at the battle of Bunker Hill. He often used to tell us, when little children, the evils of Slavery, and how he was stolen from his native land. Backus was very active in the Congregational Church and took Nancy to services there. My grandmother was an Indian of this country; she became a captive to the English, or their descendants. She served as a domestic to the Parsons family. My father, Thomas Gardner, was born in Nantucket; his parents were of African descent. He died in Newburyport when I was three months old. My mother was thus a second time a widow, with her two children, and she returned to Gloucester to her father. My mother married her third husband, by whom she had six children. My step-father was stolen from Africa, and while the vessel was at anchor in one of our Eastern ports, he succeeded in making his escape from his captors, by swimming ashore. I have often heard him tell the tale. Having some knowledge of the English language, he found no trouble to pass. There were two of them, and they found from observation they were in a free State. I have heard my father describe the beautiful moon-lit night when they launched their bodies into the deep for liberty. When they got upon soundings, their feet were pricked with a sea-plant that grew under water, they had to retreat, and, at last they reached the shore. When day began to break, they laid down under a fence, naked as the day they were born— soon they heard a rattling sound, and trembling, they looked to see what it meant. In a few minutes, a man with a broad-brimmed hat on, looked over the fence and cried out, ‘Halloo boys! You are from the ship at anchor? Trembling , we answered yes. He kindly took us by the hand, and told us not to fear, for we were safe. ‘Jump, boys’ said he, ‘into my cart,’ which we readily did. He turned about, and soon entered a large yard— we were taken to his house and carried to an apartment, where he brought us clothes and food, and cheered us up with every kindness. No search was made for us; it was supposed we were drowned , as many had jumped over-board on the voyage, thinking they could back home to Africa again. I have often heard my step-father boast how brave they were, and say they stood like men and saw the ship sail with less than half they stole from Africa. He was selling his bamboo baskets, when he was seized by white men, and put in a boat, and taken on board a ship that lay off; many such ships there were! He was called ‘Money Vose,’ and his name may be found on the Custom House books in Gloucester. His last voyage was with Captain Elias Davis, in the brig Romulus, belonging to Captain Fitz William Sargent, (father of painter John Singer Sargent), in whose employ he had been twelve years. During the war, the brig was taken by a British privateer, and he was pressed into service. He was sick with dropsy a long while, and died oppressed, in the English dominions. My mother was again left a widow, with an infant six weeks old, and seven other children.  When she heard of her husband’s death, she exclaimed, ‘I thought it; what shall I do with these children?’ She was young, inexperienced, with no hope in God, and without knowledge of her Saviour. Her grief, poverty, and responsibilities, were too much for her; she never again was  the mother that she had been before. I was, at this time in Captain F.W. Sargent’s family. I shall never forget the feelings I experienced, on hearing of the decease of my father-in-law (step-father) although he was not kind to me or my sister; but by industry a humble home was provided, for my mother and her younger children. Death had twice visited our family, in less  than three months.  My grandfather died before my father-in-law sailed. I thought I would go home a little while and try to comfort my mother, The three oldest children were put into families.” “My brother and myself stayed at home that Summer. We gathered berries and sold them in Gloucester; strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and whortleberries, were in abundance , in the stony environs, growing spontaneously. With the sale of these fruits my brother and myself nearly supported my mother and her children that Summer. My brother George, young as he was, caught fish and sold them, and ran errands, and was always watching for something to do, that might help his mother. At one time he went missing; we expected he was drowned; a search was made for him in the water; the neighbors were all on alert. Poor mother returned from a hard day’s work, supposing the boy was lost, was like a lunatic. The lad was supposed to have fallen from a wharf, where he was fishing. Our friends had all given up the search— it was eleven o’clock at night. Mother and I locked up the children and went round the harbor, to one Captain Warner, who traded in the Eastward (Maine). Mrs. Warner informed us that my brother came there in the morning, with his bundle, and they supposed that he was sent, as the Captain wished to take him with him. He went aboard, and the vessel sailed that afternoon. In three weeks, he came home, to the comfort of his mother and all of us. He bought back, for his pay, four feet of wood and three dollars…”

Prince Hall died December 4, 1807. His successor was Nero Prince who sailed to Russia in the year 1808, George Middleton succeeded him, 1808-1810, Peter Lew, Samuel H. Moody and then the well known John T. Hilton who recommended a Declaration of Independence from the English Grand Lodge in 1827, which the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts had done in 1772 and assumed powers and prerogatives as an Independent Grand Lodge.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.