A few months ago, I sketched out this blog series, a new intellectual history of early American women. I was encouraged to see your reading list ideas (here and here) roll in. Over the summer, I canvassed bibliographies and archives, curating a portrait gallery of names, places, and ideas to fill many posts. I made a template, too: Supply a capsule biography; show how each woman fits into the “standard” American history survey class, or why she doesn’t; say where to find and assign her work. There’s one more (experimental!) piece to my series, A Woman’s Work, but you’ll have to keep reading for it. This is a public history project in progress, so please feel free to weigh in with ideas. We will swerve through history, ranging from the 1630s to the 1890s. Later on, I can organize subjects by theme, region, or era. The first few posts spotlight an understudied group: African-American women and the memoirs they made in order to narrate a way out of—or a way through—the “thousand natural shocks” of antebellum life and culture. Let’s begin early America in a new voice. Let’s listen to a free black woman who had little or no real social power until she made it for herself, and in three world markets. Meet Nancy Gardner Prince (1799-1859).
Fifteen years old and frostbitten, Nancy Gardner eyed her sister in the brothel firelight. Silvia did not—could not—gaze back up. Nancy had stumbled and sped some 20 miles from Salem to Boston in less than two days, reaching Silvia’s side in late February 1815. Nancy pushed through the busy parlor, thick with clients, and, finally, “clasped her round the neck.” For the two girls, the reunion was a rare blessing in a family sphere so often bounded by pain. Born free in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Nancy and her six siblings came of age as the new nation’s population blossomed and grew. Between 1790 and 1810, census records show that the number of free blacks rose, approximately, from 8% to 13.5%. The Gardners’ known history reached back only a generation or two. She and Silvia were, as Nancy recorded in her memoir several decades later, the proud, direct descendants of men and women “stolen from Africa.” The girls’ enslaved grandfather, a Revolutionary War veteran, had fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill on liberty’s side. But New England roots did not extend full political and legal rights to the youngest Gardners.
Instead, their childhoods bled into the marketplace. In the summer, Nancy picked and sold fruit. To make money, her brothers caught fish and ran errands. A sickly mother swung in and out of their lives, along with an abusive stepfather, Money Vose. By age 10, Nancy and Silvia hired out as house servants to suburban families, turning in hard labor for low pay. A devout Congregationalist thanks to her grandfather’s tutelage, Nancy questioned why her Gloucester employers’ outward shows of piety failed to translate into kinder management of the staff. “I often looked at them, and thought to myself, ‘Is this your religion?’ I did not wonder that the girl who had lived there previous to myself, went home to die,” she wrote. In this new trauma—a beloved sister “deluded away” into brothel sin—Nancy Gardner saw yet another trial of faith and purpose. She prepared. For extra muscle, she recruited a Mr. Brown. He brandished his cane while Nancy hurried Silvia to freedom. When Nancy recalled that night in her memoir, she painted a tableau that read like it was ripped from an antebellum reform novel, so forceful was her tone. At the same time, her self-portrait took shape on the page: an African-American woman navigating antebellum capitalism by battling back at the market forces that shaped her youth. For scholars turning to Tom Cutterham’s excellent query—“how dynamic gender was, as a factor in capitalist development”—Nancy’s life is a compelling one to watch.
A decade after that dramatic scene in the madam’s marketplace, in the autumn of 1824, newlywed Nancy Gardner Prince, 25, arrived in St. Petersburg with her husband Nero. Formerly an officer of Boston’s Prince Hall Grand Lodge, Nero sought his fortune in Tsar Alexander I’s court as a butler and cook. In her first royal interview, Nancy accepted the usual wedding gift of $50 and a gold watch, partly for the promise of Nero’s service. Nancy set up several businesses, taking in work as a seamstress and selling Bibles. She ran a boardinghouse, sold linen clothing to the empress, and opened an orphanage with the proceeds. For the next nine years, Nancy cut her own path through St. Petersburg’s streets. “I learned the languages in six months, so as to be able to attend to my business,” she wrote. Nancy weathered a disastrous flood, survived the ravages of an urban cholera epidemic, and witnessed the army officers’ bloody revolt against Nicholas I’s succession. She grew to appreciate Greek Orthodox rites, finding parallels with her Protestant faith.
Like many antebellum travelers who evolved their American identities abroad, Nancy saw in St. Petersburg a host of cultural differences worthy of emulation. “It is well known that the color of one’s skin does not prohibit from any place or station that he or she may be capable of occupying” in Russia, Nancy Prince wrote. She was open to experiencing every facet of Russian life, and Nancy’s “New Englandness” proved to be a steely core. Her resourcefulness in carving out multiple businesses abroad shows that Nancy knew how to rewrite her own market narrative in an economic world built to work against her. In this way, Prince closely resembled her transatlantic counterparts. “Women were quintessential market participants in this context,” Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor observes in The Ties That Buy, “with fluid occupational identities, a firm investment in cash and commercial goods for power and meaning, and cross-class social and economic ties.” Nero was less fortunate than his wife; he died young in 1833. Her health battered by nine Russian winters, his widow Nancy—not yet 35 years old—sailed back to Boston, alone.
Boston became Nancy Prince’s main haven and intellectual base, until her death in 1859. Once recuperated from her Russian sojourn, Prince became active in philanthropic and abolitionist circles. She raised money for an African-American orphanage. She followed the political aftermath of emancipation in Jamaica. In 1840, Nancy Prince packed again, for Kingston. “My mind, after the emancipation in the West Indies, was bent upon going to Jamaica,” Prince wrote in her eponymous Narrative. “A field of usefulness spread out before me.” For Prince, the mission was eye-opening. She pitched her ideas at the East Queen Baptist Church, toured prisons, and asked former slaves how freedom felt as it unfolded—slowly, too slowly, she heard. Prince was horrified to learn that ministers marked up Bible prices for black worshippers, thereby thwarting greater roads to literacy. She lunged to “undercut” (however briefly) their activities via her more affordable sales.
In Prince’s Kingston, the nights shuddered with tides of street violence. A stray gunshot nearly killed Nancy as she sat by her window. To assess the community that she saw as a cause worth saving—and as a possible model for an African-American future—Prince decided to visit the local marketplace and get to know the people. “Thus it may be hoped they are not the stupid set of beings they have been called; here surely we see industry; they are enterprising and quick in their perceptions, determined to possess themselves. and to possess property besides, and quite able to take care of themselves,” Prince wrote. “They wished to know why I was so inquisitive about them, I told them we had heard in America that you are lazy, and that emancipation has been of no benefit to you; I wish to inform myself of the truth respecting you, and give a true account on my return. Am I right? More than two hundred people were around me listening to what I said.” Armed with an abolitionist’s critical ethnography of Jamaica, Nancy Prince turned homeward.
Most trips she took beyond Boston set Nancy in danger of being enslaved. She knew it. So Prince, a 43-year-old, African-American woman traveling solo, clocked every odd, late-night turn in a ship’s course. She watched the crew, was quick to befriend any other women aboard, and stuck to the lower cabins. Nancy’s trip home from Kingston, routing through Florida’s Key West, was no different. Hearing that African-American men were dragged from the dock straight to prison, Prince rarely ventured out when the ship made port. She witnessed the crew transporting New Orleans slaves: “There came along a drove of colored people, fettered together in pairs by the wrist; some had weights, with long chains at their ankles, men and women, young and old. I asked them what that meant. They were all ready to answer. Said they, ‘these negroes have been impudent, and have stolen; some of them are free negroes from the northern ships;’ ‘and what,’ I asked ‘are they there for?’ ‘For being on shore, some of them at night.’ I asked them who made them Lord over God’s inheritance.” Barely evading capture, Nancy Prince finally made it home. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, she told her life’s stories again and again, in the pages of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, and from the brightly lit pulpit of Beacon Hill’s African Meeting House. Finally, in 1850, the woman whose ancestors were “stolen from Africa” conquered the literary market, publishing her memoir, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. Then, she vanished.
To read, teach, or know Nancy Prince’s market narrative means wrestling with her coda. With her gravesite unknown, Nancy’s monumental life must be distilled from dusty memoir—a patchworked history that omits some of her more daring public crusades (i.e. hauling a slave-catcher, by the legs, from a Brahmin mansion). In the book’s final pages, Prince wrote herself one last exit, a hybrid of hymnody and prose that she called, aptly, “The Hiding-Place.” As one verse ran: “Should dangers thick impede my course, / O let my soul sustain no loss; / Help me to run the Christian race, / And enter safe my hiding place.” In a big-city brothel, in the court of the tsars, and even in “free” Jamaica, Nancy identified Protestantism as a refuge from market forces, and racism. Her voice fits, then, alongside historians’ analysis of rising Arminianism in an industrializing America. And Prince gives us a way to address what Amy Dru Stanley has called the “perplexing” lack of work on gender in the “new” histories of capitalism. A skilled world traveler and local-color writer before the genre’s heyday, Nancy Prince learned how to hide in plain sight. Her Narrative, a snapshot of one black woman’s mind at work in the antebellum world, ricochets between keen observation and taut fear, piety and collapse. Such an American life, Nancy Prince suggests, was safest to hold in the hiding-place of history, ready to be retold.