A recent comment from “eph law student” brought the legend of Lucy Terry Prince back to the attention of EphBlog readers:

I know this is an old post, but I just discovered this remarkable woman during a course on American Legal History, and her connection to Williams does appear to be credible.

Eph law student then linked to a PBS article, which states:

Lucy argued unsuccessfully before the trustees of Williams College for the admission of one of her sons, skillfully citing scripture and law “in an earnest and eloquent speech of three hours.”

Later, when a Colonel Eli Bronson attempted to steal land owned by the Princes, the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Lucy argued against two of the leading lawyers in the state, one of whom later became chief justice of Vermont — and she won. Samuel Chase, the presiding justice of the Court, said that her argument was better than he’d heard from any Vermont lawyer.

Like many stories that are “too good to fact-check,” credulous journalists and historians have perpetuated the legend of Lucy Terry Prince, who never argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and Justice Chase, and probably never argued for her son’s admission to Williams College. And it’s somewhat unfortunate: the myth of Lucy Terry Prince has obscured a remarkable true story, chronicled through painstaking research in the recent Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend.

Author Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina is the chair of the English department and professor of biography at Dartmouth. She also hosts a radio show called “The Book Show,” which I’ve heard on WAMC in the Berkshires and on the University of Delaware’s college radio station. Although it’s nationally-syndicated, it doesn’t appear to be broadcast in DC area. Not surprisingly, with this background, Gerzina turns out to be a good story-teller, intertwining her own tale of research with the history of Lucy Terry Prince and her husband, Bijah Prince (not “Abijah,” as most previous accounts have it), as they gain their freedom and then live free in New England in the era of the Founding Fathers.

In her account, Gerzina reassembles a story for which, she observes, “[a]ll the pieces have been jumbled and miscommunicated down the long years.” Did Lucy Terry Prince argue a case before the Supreme Court? Yes — but not the United States Supreme Court. Rather, she brought a case that she argued in district court and that was eventually appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court, where she authored the pleadings and personally argued:

The folks at the National Archives were right: the case never went to the U.S. Supreme Court, as George Sheldon and others had written so many years ago and as many scholars unfortunately still assert today. All the pieces have been jumbled and miscommunicated down the long years. Lucy and the others did not win in the U.S. Supreme Court. After the Princes’ appeal, the Vermont Supreme Court, in February 1804, proposed that both sides meet with referees and present a solution to the county court in four months. Lucy Terry never argued a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. [But] Lucy argued the appeal before the state supreme court in February 1803. She undoubtedly argued more than once, outlining her case to the judges and referees… [w]hen the referees reported back in June, they declared that they had decided . . . for the Princes.

How did Justice Chase’s name get attached to the legend? Gerzina’s best guess is that the confusion occurred because he visited Vermont that year — although not at the same time the Vermont court heard the Princes’ case.

The matter of most interest to Eph readers is this: did Lucy Terry Prince argue for her son’s admission to Williams? And were her entreaties denied because of race? Here’s what Gerzina concludes:

It must have been around this time [the late 1780s] that — if it really happened as the legend around her implies — Lucy attempted to get one of her sons admitted to Williams College. The college was in the planning stages around 1790 as it made its shift from a free school to one of higher education. There is no evidence of this in any college archives or the Williams family papers [or any other source] . . . [t]he fact is that [Lucy and Bijah’s] sons were now too old to attend college in any case. The older sons . . . were grown men and long gone from home[.] Their youngest son . . . was by now gone as well . . . . In the late 1780s, he fell in love with a young African American woman [and] married in November 1789.

That said, Gerzina finds the story to be “a plausible one.” She writes:

As I imagine it, Lucy went to Deerfield — not Williamstown — and asked for a meeting, which Williams surely would have granted her.” And then, “for the first time in the long years of the Prince family’s dealings with the Williams family, they were turned down because of race.”

So Gerzina ends where she began: with a legend, as the title puts it, that may or may not be true, but one that she calls “plausible.” But I find it less plausible — almost certainly “jumbled” and “miscommunicated” through the fog of time.

As Gerzina suggests, the most likely of the Prince children for Lucy Terry Prince to have sought admission was the youngest, Abijah, Jr. Even this youngest child, however, comes very close to have been born too early to attend Williams, given that Gerzina establishes his birth as taking place in 1769.

Certainly he was too old to have attended the Williamstown Free School, the institution originally funded by the executors of Ephraim Williams’s estate. The Free School, as Arthur Latham Perry notes, opened its doors on October 20, 1791 as a combination grammar school and “English free school.” By this time, this youngest Prince son would have been 22 years old — not to mention married and living in Connecticut. In contrast, the two Free School students that Arthur Latham Perry definitively identifies in his ´╗┐Williamstown and Williams College: A History were born in 1778 and 1780.

But what about Williams College, chartered to replace Williamstown Free School after just two years? Even for Williams College, Abijah, Jr. would have been unusually old. Eleven freshmen, three sophomores, and four juniors were registered at the October 9, 1793 opening of the College. But only one Williams student listed in the early catalogues had a birthdate that predated 1770: David Mason of the class of 1796, who was also born in 1769. Abijah, Jr., was thus at the very outer limit in age of the Williams student population. And there’s another problem. According to Gerzina, Abijah, Jr. died “just three years” after his 1789 wedding — too early to have attended Williams during its days as a College at all.

Another set of doubts relates to the centrality of the Williams family and their relationship to the Princes in her telling of the legend. Thus, Gerzina suggests that Lucy Terry Prince traveled to Deerfield to trade on those relationships to the Williams family, perhaps by visiting Ephraim Williams’s son Elijah. By and large, however, the Williams family were not early Williams enthusiasts. Indeed, much of the decades-long delay in establishing a “Free School” in accordance with Ephraim’s will can be attributed to the opposition of his surviving kin in the Williams family. (Indeed, I recall a classmate observing that, left to their own devices and with their devotion to the Connecticut River Valley, the Williams family might well have founded Amherst). Nor did the nine trustees of the Williamstown Free School include a Williams (or anyone living in Deerfield). Elijah Williams was only added to the original board of Williams trustees by the act of the Massachusetts legislature rechartering the Free School as Williams College.

Given this context, it seems extremely likely that something has been distorted through the passage of years — and without new facts coming to light, we can’t know what the true story is. Could Lucy Terry Prince have argued for the admission of a grandchild, rather than a child? For admission of a grandchild to Deerfield Academy, where another Williams was among the founders? Right now, we just don’t know.

Don’t let the question of Lucy Terry Prince and Williams College dissuade you from reading Mr. and Mrs. Prince, however. Through her exploration of the story of the Princes and uncovering of detailed primary sources, Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina has broadly illuminated our knowledge of race in 18th century New England. The Connecticut River Valley had far more slaves than anyone has recently acknowledged, for example. Yet they lived in circumstances far different from the plantations of the South: armed for frontier defense, for example, and often traveling far and wide across the region. And for freed slaves, although they faced numerous instances of discrimination by individuals, that discrimination was not enshrined in state action to the extent it was in the South. Like Bijah and Lucy Terry Prince, they had access to the courts and were able to successfully assert their rights at the highest levels, even against racist whites who assumed they could unlawfully deprive them of those rights. Mr. and Mrs. Prince shares a largely-unknown and important story of New England’s past, well-told. It’s worth the read.

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