Prince, Nancy Gardner (1799–?)

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Prince, Nancy Gardner (1799–?)

African-Amerindian domestic servant, humanitarian, and writer . Born on September 15, 1799, in Newburyport, Massachusetts; death date unknown; daughter of Thomas Gardner (mother's first name unknown, though her maiden name was presumably Wornton); married a Mr. Prince (a freeborn), on February 15, 1824 (died around 1833).

In her single volume A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, freeborn 19th-century domestic servant Nancy Gardner Prince recorded her life, from her poverty-stricken childhood in Massachusetts, though her teenage years as a domestic, her marriage, and her travels to the Russian courts of Alexander I and Nicholas I and the newly emancipated Jamaica.

Born on September 15, 1799, in Newbury-port, Massachusetts, Prince was the second of her mother's eight children. Her father Thomas Gardner, the second of her mother's four husbands, died when she was three months old, after which her mother married Money Vose, a man Prince said abused her and her older sister. Vose, with whom Prince's mother had six additional children, died in the English dominions where he was serving in the War of 1812. To assist her widowed mothers and seven siblings, Prince, who had little education, went to work, first as a berry picker and then as a domestic. Baptized in 1817, she writes that only her religious faith sustained her during years of "anxiety and toil," in which she worked to support her family.

In 1823, having decided to learn a trade and leave the country, she met a Mr. Prince, who had just returned from Russia, where he had served a princess in the tsar's court. On February 15, 1824, Nancy married him and in April accompanied her husband on another voyage to Russia. Arriving in St. Petersburg on June 21, 1824, the Princes lodged with a Mrs. Robinson, an American from Providence, Rhode Island, who had left the country in 1813 in the service of a family named Gabriel. Later, Prince was presented to the imperial family, Alexander I and Empress Elizabeth of Baden . In her book, Prince described the lavish setting of the court and the great "politeness and condescension" with which she and her husband were greeted. "There was no prejudice against color," she also notes, "there were there all castes, and the people of all nations, each in their place."

While in Russia, Prince boarded children, and, having learned to sew, started a business making clothing for infants and toddlers, which she sold to the nobility. Active in the local Protestant church, she also helped establish an orphanage in St. Petersburg and distributed Bibles at the royal palace.

In 1822, after ten years in St. Petersburg, Prince returned to the United States for reasons of health; her husband was to follow at a later date. He died, however, before he could make the journey back, and Prince had to carry on alone. Returning to Boston, she established an institution for homeless children of color, but it closed after three months due to lack of funding. Later, she joined a mission of a Reverend Ingraham to assist the newly emancipated slaves in Kingston, Jamaica. "I hoped that I might aid, in some small degree," she wrote, "to raise up and encourage the emancipated inhabitants, and teach the young children to read and work."

Prince journeyed to Jamaica twice, in 1840 and 1842. During her first visit, she was assigned to a mission in Saint Ann Harbor, where she witnessed what she felt was improper behavior on the part of teachers and leaders. Complaining to the authorities, she was threatened with dismissal, but was stricken ill and resigned her post before she could be forced to leave. In 1841, she traveled to Kingston, where she hoped to establish a Free Labor School for destitute girls. Having no money, however, she returned to America to raise funds for the project.

Prince went back to Kingston in May 1842, attempting to manage her school amid the aftermath of a bloody insurrection. Unsuccessful, she left Jamaica in August and after an unsettling voyage home, during which she experienced bad weather and the loss of her personal belongings, she arrived in New York. With the help of friends, she made her way back to Boston in August 1843.

In her later years, Prince was beset by ill health and business misfortunes and by 1849 was forced to accept financial help from her friends. In 1850, she published the first edition of her narrative in order to "obtain the means to help supply my necessities." Incorporated into the narrative is a 15-page pamphlet entitled "The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education, and Liberty among the Colored Population Generally," which she prepared in conjunction with her two visits to Jamaica. Between 1853 and 1856, while second and third editions of the book were published, Prince's health further deteriorated. There is no information about her after 1856, and the date of her death remains unknown.


Busby, Margaret, ed. Daughters of Africa. NY: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts