Mr. and Mrs. Prince : How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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Merging exhaustively researched history and grand storytelling, Gerzina reveals the true story of a remarkable couple whose lives contain the paradoxes of slavery in New England. Illustrated.


Mr. and Mrs. Prince
How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend

Chapter One

The Attack

On Tuesday, October 4, 1785, half a dozen men, later described by the courts as a "mob," armed themselves with clubs and crashed through a farm gate and into the Guilford, Vermont, house of Abijah and Lucy Prince. Several of the attackers had wrangled with the Princes in court on and off over small debts and trumped up transgressions. For months, financed and encouraged by the Princes’ nearest neighbor, they hounded the former slaves, but the elderly Bijah and Lucy not only refused to be intimidated but responded to every assault with defiance. Only five months before, Lucy had left behind her eighty-year-old husband to guard the house while she traveled north to take their complaints to the highest governing body of the independent republic of Vermont, and she powerfully impressed the Governor and Council with the first speech they had ever heard by an African American. She returned with an order of protection, but it had no effect against the thugs who were now breaking down her door.

They made their way inside, brutally beating the Princes’ hired man, a mulatto. Bijah and Lucy escaped harm, but the attackers set fire to their hayrick as they raced off. No hay could mean no food throughout the coming winter for the livestock, and therefore no food for themselves, or transportation, or way to make a living. It was likely to mean poverty, starvation, and failure. Others might have given up, but Bijah and Lucy had not faced a lifetime of warfare and the struggle for their own freedom in order to be run off their hundred acres. Instead, they went straight to the authorities and lodged complaints. Within days, arrest warrants were issued for all six attackers. One absconded, but the others were locked up, and all eventually ended up before the law, with three of the Princes and a large number of others subpoenaed to testify against them.

The Princes, as we shall see, were no strangers to the courts. Had they lived in the South, they would not have been allowed to testify against whites, let alone file charges. So much of how they became who they were depended upon the fact that they lived in New England, a place of contradictions. Slavery was firmly ingrained in the economy and social network of many of the states, but the principle of legal fair play also prevailed, sometimes awkwardly, alongside enslavement in a complicated world inhabited by Africans, Indians, and Europeans. In the stories about the Princes, Lucy always appears as the one who repeatedly acted as a lawyer, but it would turn out that it was Bijah who taught her to pursue her rights through the courts. How did he learn this? To understand that we begin where his life began, nearly eighty years before the attack, and long before the state of Vermont was even imagined.

It was Bijah’s luck, or perhaps his misfortune, to enter life in this complex, violent, and troubled part of New England, far from the cities of Boston and Philadelphia, and farther still from the yet-to-be-developed southern plantations. In an interesting historical coincidence, he was born about three hundred years ago, in 1706, the same year as Benjamin Franklin, another self-made man who left his home to begin a new life. Their life spans were almost exactly parallel—Franklin died just four years before Prince at the end of the century—but aside from Franklin’s eventual opposition to slavery and the fact that they both came of age in Massachusetts, they occupied different universes. Franklin was completely urban: when he left the family home in Boston, he set out for the city of Philadelphia, and he later spent years in Paris serving the American cause. He abandoned his wife for years and was a largely absent father. Bijah lived in the country and in small towns, clearing land and building a house with his own hands, fighting in an earlier war, and devoted to his family. Black and white, rural and urban, their paths never crossed, but they both lived out important versions of a new country.

Tradition says that Bijah began his journey in Wallingford, Connecticut, near New Haven, just after the time when the Congregationalist descendants of the Puritan settlers had bought out, killed, or decimated by illness the native population with whom they came to trade. Yet how can one be sure? Although the early New Englanders were meticulous record keepers, if you were black, your name—such as it was—was put on paper only if you had dealings with a court, if you were bought or sold or inherited, or if you were baptized. If you ran away, newspaper advertisements might describe your height, coloring, distinguishing features, the clothes you ran off in, and your facility with the English language, since English might be your second or even third language. If you did none of these things, you probably faded into obscurity as another "John Negro" or "Coffee" or "Mary" whose origins or fate seemed negligible, your tastes and your life unremarked. In New England you were likely to be given a first name that was English or biblical, just as were the whites, but rarely a last name, unless occasionally that of an owner. Abijah Prince’s first name comes, like most Puritan names, from the Old Testament and was prescient: one of the biblical Abijahs was appointed by his father to become a judge. Many male slaves were named Prince, but very few from three hundred years ago had both a first and last name; Bijah wore his name proudly, insisting in later years on signing his full name rather than an X on legal documents.

He may have gotten his last name from a slave owner, or his father may have been named Prince. Two entrepreneurial ship captains near New Haven, Samuel Prince and Josiah Prince of Milford, Connecticut, made many runs up and down to the Caribbean on their "coasters." The owners of this sort of trading sloop often dealt in slaves on a small scale, for themselves or for friends. They carried supplies grown on several Connecticut slave plantations to feed slaves on West Indian plantations, returning with rum, molasses and sugar, and other products.

Mr. and Mrs. Prince
How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend
. Copyright © by Gretchen Gerzina . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, Gretchen H. Gerzina
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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