A Cosmopolitan Life
Nancy Gardner Prince was aware of her roots. As a middle-aged woman writing her autobiography in 1850, she began with her father, Thomas Gardner, a Nantucket whaleman to whom Nantucket’s Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land had set aside land in 1791, and her maternal grandfather, Tobias Worton, who had fought in the battle of Bunker Hill.
Thomas Gardner was a free black man whose land and dwelling house were situated “a little to the westward of Newtown” and assessed for taxes in Nantucket’s New Guinea neighborhood.
Tobias Worton had been “stolen from Africa” and gained his freedom by fighting in the American Revolutionary Army. His wife was “an Indian of this country,” indentured as a domestic.
Their daughter somehow met and married Nantucketer Thomas Gardner around 1790, but Thomas died of tuberculosis in 1799. Nancy’s pregnant mother returned to the mainland, to Newburyport, where Nancy was born before the end of the year.
Her mother’s misfortunes continued. She remarried, and the family grew by many children, but during the War of 1812 Nancy’s mariner stepfather was taken prisoner by the British and died in captivity. All the children joined in the struggle to support themselves and their twice-widowed mother.
This might have been the end of a sad story, but Nancy Gardner was intrepid. She moved to Boston where she lived in daily contact with black clergymen and Freemasons. And then she was swept off her feet by Bostonian Nero Prince, an older man who had found a position as one of the black doormen in the court of the Russian Czar. Nancy, now Mrs. Prince, was soon living in St, Petersburg, learning to speak French and Russian, and providing handmade baby clothes to the Czarina.
Finding herself suddenly widowed as her mother before her, Mrs. Prince returned to Boston, engaged with William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery society, and undertook two missions to the recently freed black people of Jamaica, supported in part by Nantucket-born Lucretia Coffin Mott.
Her educational project for Jamaican women failed, and on her voyage back home, the vessel on which she was traveling was blown off-course by a hurricane. Mrs. Prince found herself aboard a leaking hulk towed into the port of New Orleans. As a black woman, she could not safely go ashore, and spent days watching enslaved men, women, and children in chains being loaded onto other vessels for transport to the plantations of Texas. Asked from the shore to whom she belonged, she asserted her status as a free-born child of God and invoked the name of her father, Thomas Gardner. Miraculously, his name was known in New Orleans, and her status as free, supported by her Russian travel documents, got her off the wrecked ship and on her way to New York, arriving in August 1843.
Back in Boston, she continued to work for emancipation, to thwart agents seeking to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, and to speak out for woman’s rights. Her autobiography was issued from Garrison’s newspaper office, and in 1854 she was a speaker at a women’s rights convention organized by Lucretia Mott. There she told her audience that she “understood woman’s wrongs better than woman’s rights.”
And then she disappeared. No one seems to know when or where Nancy Gardner Prince ended her days, but a copy of the first edition of her autobiography resides to this day in the vault of the Nantucket Atheneum.