Lucy Terry Prince, often credited as simply Lucy Terry (1733–1821), was an American settler and poet. Kidnapped in Africa and enslaved, she was taken to the British colony of Rhode Island. Her future husband purchased her freedom before their marriage in 1756. She composed a ballad poem, "Bars Fight", about a 1746 incident in which two white families were attacked by Native Americans. It was preserved orally until it was published in 1855. It is considered the oldest known work of literature by an African American.

Lucy Terry
Died1821 (aged 87–88)
Abijah Prince
(m. 1756; died 1794)

Early life

Terry was born in 1733 in Africa. She was abducted from there and sold into slavery in Rhode Island as an infant in about 1733.[1][2][3][4] She lived in Rhode Island until the age of five, when she was sold to Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts, who allowed the five-year-old Terry to be baptized into the Christian faith during the Great Awakening.

In 1756, Lucy married Aijah Prince, a successful free Black man from Curaçao, who had purchased her freedom. They were married by justice of the peace Elijah Williams. In 1764, the Princes settled in Guilford, Vermont, where all six children were born. They were Tatnai, Cesar, Drucilla, Durexa, Abijah Jr., and Festus. Cesar fought in the American Revolutionary War.


Terry's work "Bars Fight",[1] composed in 1746,[5][6] is a ballad about an attack upon two white families by Native Americans on August 25, 1746. This poem is part of the American captivity narrative genre.[7] The attack occurred in an area of Deerfield called "The Bars", which was a colonial term for a meadow.[8] The poem was preserved orally until 1855, when it was published in Josiah Gilbert Holland's History of Western Massachusetts.[1][9] This poem is the only surviving work by Terry. However, she was famous in her own time for her "rhymes and stories".[10]

Terry's work is considered the oldest known work of literature by an African American,[1] though Phillis Wheatley's, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, printed in 1773, was the first published work by an African American.[11]

Farm sabotage and oral arguments

Lucy Terry Prince and Abijah Prince became prominent and prosperous smallholders in Guilford, Vermont but were eventually ruined by a dispute started by their neighbor John Noyes, a Connecticut man from a slaveholding family, who referred to Lucy's husband as "Abijah Negro."[12]: 148  Noyes and various men he had hired damaged the Princes' farm and filed frivolous lawsuits against them. The Princes won every lawsuit but failed to end the feud. After a particularly fateful incident, the Princes retained the services of Samuel Knight, a prominent jurist of the era.[12]: 153  In 1785, Lucy successfully pled her case before the Governor of Vermont, who found that she had been "much injured" by the Noyes who were "greatly oppressing" her and her husband.[12]: 155  Soon afterward, a mob assembled by Noyes invaded the Princes' farm in the middle of the night, beat a black farmhand nearly to death, burned crops, and left the household in ruins. The state of Vermont prosecuted the mob and sentenced them to prison.[12]: 158–160  Noyes bailed out his henchmen, was not himself prosecuted, and served as a state legislator in Vermont for over a decade.[12]: 167 

In 1803, Lucy, now destitute, returned to the Vermont Supreme Court to argue on behalf of her sons against false land claims made against them by Colonel Eli Brownson. She was awarded a sum of $200.[12]: 184  She was the first woman to argue before the high court,[13] holding her own against two of the leading lawyers in the state, one of whom later became Chief Justice.[14]

In 1806, after months of petitioning, Lucy convinced the town selectmen of Sunderland, Vermont to purchase an additional $200 (~$3,896 in 2023) of land from Brownson for her use, to provide for her family.[12]: 188 

Lucy reportedly delivered a three-hour address to the board of trustees of Williams College while trying to gain admittance for her son Festus. She was unsuccessful, and Festus was reportedly denied entry on account of the school's racist admission policies.[15][2] This oral history was recorded at the time of Lucy's death by a resident, who also reported that Lucy remained popular in her hometown until her old age and that young boys would often come to her home to hear her talk.[12]: 205 


Prince's husband died in 1794. By 1803, Prince had moved to nearby Sunderland. She rode on horseback annually to visit her husband's grave until she died in 1821.

The following obituary was published for Prince on Tuesday, August 21, 1821, in the Greenfield, Massachusetts, paper The Frankylin Herald:

At Sunderland, Vt., July 11th, Mrs. Lucy Prince, a woman of colour. From the church and town records where she formerly resided, we learn that she was brought from Bristol, Rhode Island, to Deerfield, Mass. when she was four years old, by Mr. Ebenezer Wells: that she was 97 years of age—that she was early devoted to God in Baptism: that she united with the church in Deerfield in 1744—Was married to Abijah Prince, May 17th, 1756, by Elijah Williams, Esq. and that she had been the mother of six children. In this remarkable woman there was an assemblage of qualities rarely to be found among her sex. Her volubility was exceeded by none, and in general, the fluency of her speech was not destitute of instruction and education. She was much respected among her acquaintances, who treated her with deference.[16]

The Prince family was remembered in Guilford for many decades after their death. John Noyes' daughter was once startled off a horse by the sight of their ghosts, and ghost sightings on their farm have been reported even into the 21st century.[12]: 166 

Historical record

Only a single letter in Abijah's handwriting and none in Lucy's has survived. Because the shopkeeper's records show that the household sometimes purchased paper, it is suspected that Lucy wrote other literary works, which were eventually lost during the attacks on her household and declining fortune.[12]: 80 


  1. ^ a b c d Margaret Busby (ed.), "Lucy Terry", Daughters of Africa, London: Jonathan Cape, 1992, pp. 16–17.
  2. ^ a b Gates, Henry Louis; Valerie A. Smith, eds. (2014). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 111.
  3. ^ Warren, Wendy (2017). New England bound : slavery and colonization in early America. New York. ISBN 978-1-63149-324-9. OCLC 987209708.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  4. ^ Newell, Margaret Ellen (2016). Brethren by nature : New England Indians, colonists, and the origins of American slavery. Ithaca. ISBN 978-1-5017-0573-1. OCLC 950929510.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ "Literature |".
  6. ^ "Lucy Terry's " Bars Fight. " Text from San Antonio College LitWeb". Archived from the original on July 19, 2011. Retrieved June 29, 2011.
  7. ^ Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle (1997). The Indian captivity narrative, 1550-1900. James Levernier. New York: Twayne. ISBN 0-8057-1623-8. OCLC 39199784.
  8. ^ Vincent Carretta, ed. (2001). Phillis Wheatley, Complete Writings. New York: Penguin. p. 199. ISBN 9780140424300.
  9. ^ Holland, Josiah Gilbert (1855). History of Western Massachusetts: The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Embracing an Outline Aspects and Leading Interests, and Separate Histories of Its One Hundred Towns. Vol. II. Springfield, MA: Samuel Bowles and Co. p. 360.
  10. ^ Huse, Ann A. "Beyond "The Bars": Lucy Terry Prince and the Margins of the Colonial Landscape." Liminality, Hybridity, and American Women's Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018. p.43.
  11. ^ Gates, Henry Louis (2003). The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. Basic Civitas Books.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook (2008). Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend. Amistad. ISBN 0-06-051073-0. ISBN 978-0-06-051073-2.
  13. ^ Wertheimer, Barbara M. (1977). We Were There: The story of working women in America. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. pp. 35–36.
  14. ^ Smith, Jessie Carney (1994). Black firsts: 2,000 years of extraordinary achievement. Detroit, MI: Gale Research. p. 417.
  15. ^ Sheldon, George (1893). Negro slavery in old Deerfield. Boston, Mass. p. 57. hdl:2027/uc1.31175035177206.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  16. ^ "Lucy Terry Prince: "Singer of History"". The Franklin Herald. Greenfield, MA. August 21, 1821. Retrieved 23 February 2014.

Further reading

  • Shockley, Ann Allen (1989). Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books. ISBN 0-452-00981-2.
  • Bennett, Jr., Lerone (August 1977). "No Crystal Stair: The Black Woman in History". Ebony: 164–170.

External links

Lucy Terry Prince, often credited as simply Lucy Terry (1733–1821), was an American settler and poet. Kidnapped in Africa and enslaved, she was taken to Rhode Island, America. Her future husband purchased her freedom before their marriage in 1756. She composed a ballad poem, “Bars Fight”, about a 1746 incident. It was preserved orally until being published in 1855. It is considered the oldest known work of literature by an African American.

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