About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Thursday, December 1, 2016

FROM DOGTOWN ON CAPE ANN TO ST. PETERSBURG IN RUSSIA

THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF NANCY GARDNER PRINCE
1799-1859

When my friend, Lise Breen, introduced me to this story I couldn't believe that I had never heard of Nancy Gardner Prince.  Lise is Gloucester's undisputed authority on blacks, slaves, slave traders, captains of slave ships and abolitionists on Boston's North Shore.   She is an extraordinary researcher and it was she who called my attention to this almost forgotten story.  To call this story amazing is an understatement. My version will be very condensed by necessity.  Here are only the basics.

Nancy Gardner Prince, a free black girl, was born in Newburyport in 1799. Her father was Thomas Gardner, a mariner from Nantucket who died when Nancy was a baby.   

Nancy's mother was born in Gloucester, the daughter of Tobias Wornton who was called "Backus"  Backus was elderly and frightening in appearance. Babson's history of Gloucester says that he lived in the neighborhood around what today is Prospect Street perhaps near where Our Lady of the Good Voyage is located.  A number of black families lived in this vicinity.  Mothers would threaten to take their children to Backus for punishment if they misbehaved because he would frighten them.  This threat was enough to end their mischief.

Backus, in his own words, was "stolen" from Africa when young and was a slave of Winthrop Sargent, father of Judith Sargent Murray.  He served in the Revolution at Bunker hill.  His wife, Nancy's grandmother, was a native American and worked for the Parsons family but  apparently was deceased before Nancy's widowed mother returned to Gloucester.  Backus was very active in the Congregational Church and well respected.  He took Nancy to church and had a positive influence on his young granddaughter.

Nancy's mother brought her two children with her when she returned to Gloucester as a widow, soon remarried and had six more children. Her new husband's name was Money Vose.  He, too, died leaving his wife with all of these children, the youngest only six weeks old.

After his death Nancy's mother fell apart and the family was in
desperate straights.  Things were so bad for this family that Nancy and her younger siblings picked berries in Dogtown* and sold them in Gloucester to support the family.  One of her brothers, George, caught fish in the harbor to help them survive.  It is painful to think of the hardship this family endured with a mother who was emotionally and physically incapacitated with no father or adult breadwinner.
The old road from Gloucester up into Dogtown

George vanished and sadly was presumed drowned.  The family was terribly upset but in three weeks he returned.  He had gone to sea on a voyage.  His pay was four feet of wood and three dollars.

Nancy and her brother heard of jobs for a girl and a boy in Essex, eight miles from home.  They went there on foot. After working there Nancy moved on to Salem in 1814.  From Salem she went to Boston to look for her sister who had gone there to work as a domestic. She found her sister in a brothel and rescued her.  Nancy worked in various households still supporting the family in Gloucester and finding homes in which to place the younger children.

Back in Gloucester their mother married again, this time to a man who contributed nothing and expected to be supported by the children.

After years of trying to support and oversee the family Nancy married Nero Prince, a free black who had recently arrived home to Boston from Russia. They married in Salem in 1824. It is interesting to note the report that they were married in Russian costumes.  Hall was the founder of Prince Hall Freemasonry in Boston.  Nancy had met him years previously possibly in Gloucester as an acquaintance of the Daltons, a prominent black family in Gloucester and Boston.. Shortly after their marriage they left for Russia on the ship Romulus with Capt. Epes Sargent.
From Salem Gazette, 1824, Genealogy Bank, Courtesy of Lise Breen
 After stops in Elsinore and Copenhagan in Denmark where they spent twelve days they sailed for St. Petersburg, Russia.
Marriage notice,  Genealogy Bank, Courtesy of Lise Breen

Nero Prince was born in Marlboro, MA and first sailed to Russia in 1810 with Capt. Theodore Stanwood of Gloucester.  After yet another voyage to Russia, he served a noble lady of the court and later was a footman to the Czar.
Alexander 1 of Russia


In St. Petersburg Nancy was taken to a palace and was presented to Emperor Alexander I who was on the throne when she met him.  He took her to meet Empress Elizabeth.  Imagine how Nancy must have felt, transported from her life of hardship into this royal setting.

Empress Elizabeth of Russia

Life  in St. Petersburg was colorful and dramatic.  Always resourceful and an accomplished seamstress, Nancy went into business making elegant baby clothes for royalty, exquisitely crafted in French and English styles. She even employed others in this occupation. There was no discrimination in Russia and their life was full of activities and experiences. Many holidays were celebrated. It was a far cry from her life in New England!

But the cold climate did not agree with Nancy and after 9 1/2 years she departed St. Petersburg without her husband with the expectation that he would follow shortly.  She never saw him again.  Nero Prince died in 1833 without returning to Boston.
The enormous Winter Palace occupied by the Czar and Empress

Nancy Prince always had a  concern for children, especially her siblings.  She had no children of her own. She held deep religious convictions apparently acquired from Backus, her grandfather.  She supported the anti-slavery movement. The remainder of her life was devoted to these missions, the anti-slavery movement and the welfare of children; so important to her that it involved several trips to Jamaica and the West Indies.  In Kingston, Jamaica she was an activist for children and here helped establish an orphanage.

Returning to America intending to raise more money for a school. she sailed to Boston and then to Philadelphia where she found Dr. Fitz William Sargent 
Fitz William Sargent by his son, John  Singer Sargent
formerly of Gloucester and father of John Singer Sargent, the painter.   In Philadelphia she also met Lucretia Mott, a Quaker, who was an activist in the anti-slavery movement.

Abolitionist Lucretia Mott


Then back she went to Jamaica where again she continued to follow her passions and her pursuits.

Finally, back once more to Boston Nancy undertook to write her autobiography in 




1850.  She hoped that by writing her autobiography she could sell her books and thereby contribute to her efforts by raising money for her causes. 
Gloucester Telegraph, Genealogy Bank, Courtesy of Lise Breen
Nancy Gardner Prince died in Boston in 1859.  She was 60 years old.  Her cause of death was listed as dropsy. That old fashioned term usually meant edema caused by congestive heart failure. She had had a full but hard life.  Upon her death her parents were reported to be Jerome and Mary Vose but this contradicts what Nancy herself had already published in her autobiography and seems to be an error.

Just think about this story.  She was raised in the poorest conditions in Newburyport, then Gloucester.  Her life was a life of constant struggle and discomforts. In her younger days she endured cruel employers. Money Vose was an often cruel stepfather.  She was constantly worried about her siblings. Think of the financial burden she shouldered, the long walks to Salem and then to Boston in bad weather suffering frostbite in an effort to help feed her mother and siblings. Just think of young Nancy in the summer in Dogtown where she picked blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and whortleberries to peddle in Gloucester for money to feed the family.  Then imagine the improbability of finding herself in St. Petersburg, Russia being presented to the czar sitting on his throne!  Consider the sights she saw; palaces in Russia, the cities of Europe she visited then living in the tropics with long ocean voyages back and forth.  It is hard to get one's head around her story.  Imagine how she must have felt.

This relatively unknown story rivals "Pygmalion" ("My Fair Lady") but unlike Pygmalion this story is not fiction.  As the old saying goes, "You could not make this up."  Well, yes, I guess you could but this is a true story and not made up.  Every time I think of the contrast between her Cape Ann roots and the palaces of St. Petersburg and the adjustment between the two it never ceases to impress me; not to mention life in Kingston, Jamaica and the tropics.  Just the climate change between all of these places would be unsettling in itself.

The story of her good deeds is a long story.  This is an extremely condensed account and only an outline of the high points of her life.

She was a most resilient lady.  That this little girl of Cape Ann with so many strikes against her; who spent her summer days in Dogtown picking berries to survive only to find herself in St. Petersburg, Russia in an audience with the czar defies credibility. Not to mention that as a poor black widow traveling to the tropics alone to continue her good deeds confounds the imagination.

As you can tell I have been impressed, even flabbergasted, by this story of a Gloucester heroine whose name I had never heard.

Thanks to Lise Breen for sharing this story with me as well as for the newspaper notices she uncovered in her search.


*Dogtown is a vast area of moors and outcroppings of rock that was the scene of an early settlement on Cape Ann.  It was gradually abandoned as more settlers moved to the area around the harbor when fishing increased and farming waned.  There are many stories of some of its remaining inhabitants, often women, who were destitute. They lived there in extreme poverty with their dogs and this is the basis for the profound fascination for this wild, deserted place, haunted by tales of those who lived there.  Only the cellar holes remain, the last reminder of their existence.








1 comment:

  1. Hello Prudence, Nancy Prince's story is certainly an astounding one. But what makes her most admirable is the way she stuck to and worked for her causes of abolition and taking care of children. Too bad she died just a few years before she could witness the Emancipation.
    --Jim

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