Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists,

Biography of Nancy Gardner Prince, 1799-1859

By Shirley J. Yee, Professor, University of Washington

Nancy Gardner Prince left behind first-hand accounts of African-American women who travelled abroad during the nineteenth century. They also illustrate the precariousness of free Black women’s lives in the U.S. when slavery flourished. Recent scholars have looked to Prince’s writings for insight into how U.S. Black women in the early-nineteenth century articulated a vision of freedom while navigating daily experiences with racism. A deep devotion to a Christian identity later shaped her missionary work and social activism.

Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts around 1799, Prince was the daughter of Mary Wornton and Thomas Gardner, a Nantucket seaman who died soon after her birth. The Gardners were among a small free Black population of about 6,500 living in Massachusetts at the time.

Prince spent much of her youth caring for her family. Always on the brink of poverty, with her mother and seven siblings to help support, Nancy and her siblings entered seasonal work, picking and selling berries. At age 14, she travelled to Salem with her elder sister, Silvia, where they both entered domestic service for white families. Silvia left for Boston to find better employment, but ended up in a brothel. The dramatic rescue of Silvia from brothel owners may have led Prince to a life of religious devotion. In 1819, she was baptized in Boston by Rev. Thomas Paul, a prominent Black minister and abolitionist.

Nancy’s life changed dramatically after her marriage to Nero Prince in 1824. They travelled to St. Petersburg, Russia, where Nero worked as a footman at the czars’s court; Nancy sold infant clothing and opened a boarding house for children. She experienced major upheavals, such as the flood of 1824 and the crisis of succession after Alexander I’s death, known as the Decembrist Revolt. Prince returned to the United States in 1833 due to ill health; her husband planned to join her, but died in Russia.

Now widowed, Prince soon found the opportunity to travel again, this time to Jamaica with a missionary group. In 1841, she recounted her experiences in The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education, and Liberty Among the Colored Population Generally. She also submitted a letter to an abolitionist newspaper, describing how badly she was treated when her ship docked temporarily in New Orleans. While white passengers disembarked, Prince stayed on the ship, fearing slave catchers.

After returning to Boston, Prince focused her energies on the abolitionist movement. In 1847, she participated in the famous “Abolitionist Riot.” Described in one account as “a colored woman of prominence,” Prince helped rescue a young Black man from one of the many slave catchers who were sent north to capture runaway slaves.

Prince struggled financially toward the end of her life. As a way to earn money, she published a memoir, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince in 1850, in which she detailed her experiences at home and abroad. Subsequent editions appeared in 1853 and 1856.

She also attended at least one Woman’s Rights Convention in the antebellum decade, that held in Philadelphia in October 1854 where she spoke of the degradation of the slave trade.

Prince’s writings illustrate the unique opportunity to travel abroad and her simultaneous vulnerability. Being free-born did not guarantee her safety and freedom in a country where slavery would flourish until long after her death.


Amber Foster, “Nancy Prince’s Utopias: Reimagining the African American Utopian Tradition.” Utopian Studies, 24 (2013): 329-48.

Robin Miskolcze, “The Middle Passages of Nancy Prince and Harriet Jacobs.” Nineteenth Century Contexts, 29 (June/September, 2007): 283-93.

Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Ronald G. Walters, “Introduction” to A Black Woman’s Odyssey through Russia and Jamaica: The Narrative of Nancy Prince. New York: Marcus Wiener, 1989.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds. History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1: 1848-1861 (New York: Fowler and Wells, 1881), p. 384.

Massachusetts Death Index,


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