by Linda Hecker
Vermont has always been justly proud of its pioneer women. They faced the lonely challenge of rugged, often frightening. Circumstances, while bearing children and providing for their families the daily necessities and small comforts of frontier life. We have many stories of their courage, strength, and imagination, but one of the least known and most remarkable of theses women was Lucy Terry Prince, a black woman who, as far as we can determine, was the first published black poet in America.
Lucy Terry was born in Africa ‘of pure African blood.’ At an early age she was stolen from her family and brought to the United States, first to Rhode Island, but eventually to Deerfield, Massachusetts, where she was a servant to Ebenezer Wells. The Deerfield Church records note that on June 15, 1735, at the age of five, ‘Lucy, a servant (sic) to Ebenezer Wells was baptized on the account.’ This was at the height of Jonathan Edward’s ‘Great Awakening’ which swept the Connecticut River Valley. In 1744 Lucy was admitted to the fellowship of the Church. When we try to imagine Lucy’s relation to the white community and her social status, we are left guessing. We can see that Negroes in the early days of New England were admitted to the church by baptism and communion, and that they sometimes kept personal accounts at the local stores, held land, and served in wars. Yet they were passed to the heirs of their masters as the property along with cows and other livestock.
We can imagine that Lucy was held in esteem by her neighbors in Deerfield, however. She was the village poet and historian. In 1746 Lucy witnessed the terrible Indian massacre, known as the Bars Fight. This was one of the many similar tragic events in Deerfield’s history as a frontier outpost. Lucy was only sixteen at the time, but she wrote two poetic versions of the battle, ‘The fullest contemporary account of that bloody tragedy which has been preserved.’ In 1756 Lucy married Abijah Prince, a former servant to Reverend Benjamin Doolittle of nearby Northfield, Massachusetts. When Doolittle died he freed Bijah and gave him some land in a part of Northfield that is now Vernon, Vermont. Lucy and Bijah were married in Deerfield, however, and here we have the first indication of Lucy’s shrewdness and the sense of independence. By law Lucy and her children should have remained slaves, since the offspring of slaves followed in the condition of the mother. No one seems to know exactly how she managed it, but neither Lucy nor her nine children were ever slaves again.
After Lucy and Bijah married they lived in a small house close to what is now the Deerfield Academy. It became known during their time as Bijah’s Brook, and Lucy was called Luce (sic) Bijah. Here her reputation as storyteller and poet grew. According to the Deerfield history she was popular with young people, who gathered around her kitchen at night to hear her stories and original poems. ‘Lucy was a noted character, and her house was a great place of resort for the young people, attracted thither by her wit and wisdom, often shown in her rhyme and stories.’ Bijah was never content to stay in one place for long. He seems to have had a hunger for land. One of his first large parcels was a 100-acre homestead in Guilford, Vermont, which was granted to him by Colonel David Field of Deerfield. He moved to Guilford with his family in 1764, but did not stay long. The Princes moved back to Deerfield for a while, and eventually to Sunderland, Vermont, near Bennington. He was one of the original grantees of Sunderland, and the only one to actually homestead there. Unhappily, Bijah’s claim to his land was contested by Colonel Eli Bronson. This led to a heated legal dispute which went all the way to the newly formed United States Supreme Court. Colonel Bronson hired two of Vermont’s most prominent lawyers, General Stephen Bradley and Royal Tyler (later a chief justice of Vermont). The Princes hired Isaac Tichenor to draw the pleadings, but it was Lucy herself who argued the case in court! She not only won, but Samuel Chase, the presiding judge, was so impressed by her logic and passion that he claimed ‘Lucy made a better argument than he had ever heard from a lawyer in Vermont.’
Lucy was not yet content to rest on her laurels. She decided her eldest son should have as fine an education as could be had in those days. Undaunted by the lack of black students at the universities, she applied for a position at Williams College for her son. He was bluntly rejected ‘on account of race.’ This did not much discourage Lucy. She made the long trip Williams, Massachusetts, and argued for three hours before the College’s Board of Trustees, ‘quoting text after text from the Scriptures,’ legal precedent and other sources. Apparently this was one battle Lucy lost. The Williams College records show he was never admitted.
Around 1780 the Princes returned to their homestead in Guilford. Bijah again ran into trouble with his land. His neighbors to the north, the Noyes, for reasons undetermined. burned his fences and hayricks. The harassment continued unabated until the Princes were compelled to take legal action. They appealed to the highest state tribunal of the time (1785), the Governor’s Council. Lucy again leaded the case. The Princes were judged ‘much injured’. The Governor recommended to the Selectmen of Guilford to ‘take some effectual Measures to protect the said Abijah, Lucy, and family.’
Bijah died in Guilford in 1794. Lucy moved back to Sunderland to live near some of her children, but came to visit Bijah’s grave on horseback yearly, a ninety mile trip which she made well into her nineties. The Princes had the last say with their unpleasant Guilford neighbors, the Noyes, too. Not long after Bijah died a young woman of the Noyes family was passing by his grave on horseback, just at dusk. She reached a steep hill at nightfall, and when she approached Bijah’s grave ‘there appeared a fearsome apparition, so close and startling that both the horse and rider were tremendously frightened.’ The young woman hung on in desperation while the horse thundered down the road past the grave and on to the Noyes homestead. The apparition was declared to be Bijah’s ghost, but whether or not it was so, or some great owl or started deer distorted by a troubled conscience, is left for the reader to determine.
Lucy probably lived to be 110 years old. Sheldon commented in his History of Deerfield, ‘In the checked lives of Abijah Prince and Lucy Terry is found a realistic romance going beyond the wildest flights of fiction.’ Lucy was lively and stubborn to the last, though there is a story, probably apocryphal judging from her character, that when she returned to Deerfield, an elderly woman, to visit her former master, she refused to take supper at the family’s dinner table, saying, ‘No, no Missy, I know my place.’ As this account shows, Lucy never knew her place; instead, she made it.