How Mr. and Mrs. Prince Came to be Written
In 1997, my husband and I returned to live in Vermont, just a few miles away from where we first met as college students, and where we had ended up renting an old farmhouse together during our senior year. We never expected to move back there, but 25 years after our graduation, I visited an old friend after a college reunion, and the next thing we knew we were having a house built down the road from her. Something—we didn’t yet know what—seemed to have called us to this place.
Shortly after we settled in, my mother asked me if I knew about a black man named Abijah Prince who’d also lived in Guilford, centuries earlier, and sent me a mention of him from a book. When not long afterward, my husband later ran across another mention of Bijah, I knew I wanted to know more about this man. I hadn’t realized at first that Bijah was the husband of the legendary Lucy Terry—the poet and storyteller who had defended their rights in the highest courts—and that they had lived just down the road from where we now had settled. Why would former slaves build a life for themselves and their children in Vermont, a state that still remains one of the whitest in America? I began taking notes, foolishly thinking that I could track the entire story down in a matter of months, and that I could do the whole thing from my little village, with occasional trips to Massachusetts. As the months turned into years, and the short drives turned into overnight stays in several states, my husband and I began to feel that we were being pushed from behind, by some unknown force, along a trail with the Princes’ names on it.
The public record of the marriage of Abijah Prince and Lucy Terry, dated May 17, 1756.
At the head of the trail was the legend of Lucy Terry and her husband Abijah Prince. Retold for over a century and a half, it began with his birth in Connecticut in 1706 and her arrival in New England as an African child around 1729. It told of his youth spent in a minister’s house in western Massachusetts, and hers nearby in the tiny town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, as slaves. It told how she was a favorite with everyone because of her powers of speech, and that they married and raised a free family in a house that children flocked to, in order to hear her talk. It said Bijah was given land in Vermont so they moved there, only to be attacked by neighbors; Lucy went to court to protect their property, arguing the case herself, and won. It said that after Bijah’s death she moved across the state where it all happened again, this time sending her to argue her land rights case before the Supreme Court. Every year until her death in 1821 she rode back to his grave, nearly blind, to visit with him. How much of what had been written about them was true?
A simple mention of Bijah—as people often called him—turned into a seven-year quest, much of it full time, for the truth about Bijah and Lucy. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities gave me a year to research, and when that ended I asked my husband to join the search, and soon it became his full-time job. We spent our days tracking them down in town offices, court records, and archives, reading fading ink and mouse-chewed legal dockets, and we spent our evenings trying to make sense of what we found. We were living double lives: the Princes’ and ours.
The more we looked, the more the seemingly unanswerable questions mounted, buried in the depths of time, during warfare, obscured by misinformation. Some of them were about the simplest aspects of their daily life, and some were about the legend itself: What did they look and sound like? Could they read and write? Who were their friends? Did they go to church? How did they pass their evenings with their children? Did Lucy really successfully argue a case in the Supreme Court? Other questions concerned the lives of black people, slave and free, in the backwoods of New England. How did they acquire land? Could they shop in stores or drink in taverns? How could they become free? The answers proved to be astounding.
Over the years, as the most complete story of any early African American family began to unfold, it seemed that something, or someone, was guiding us. Things that no one could discover began to turn up, often in unlikely places. “Why us?” I kept asking, as wonderful documents, long hidden, appeared as if by magic. I got my answer two years into the search. As unimaginable as it was, the answer lay in my own family history.