In This Article Lucy Terry Prince

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts
  • Anthologies
  • Archives
  • Biographies and Reference Works
  • Literary and Creative Responses

American Literature Lucy Terry Prince
by
Michael Antonucci
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0165

Introduction

Lucy Terry Prince (b. c. 1725–d. 1821) was the African-born author of “Bars Fight,” the earliest known literary work in English produced in the New World by a person of African descent. Captured and enslaved around age five, she survived the Middle Passage, arriving in British North America during the late 1720s; sold to Samuel Terry of Enfield, Connecticut in 1729, she became known as “Lucy Terry.” Shortly after, she was sold to Ebenezer and Abigail Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts. This northern frontier British settlement in the Connecticut River Valley became Terry Prince’s residence for more than thirty years. “Bars Fight” is the only known literary work by Terry Prince. The thirty-line ballad composed of a series of rhyming couplets was composed when the poet was in her early twenties and delivers a vivid account of the 26 August 1746 attack staged against Deerfield settlers by a band of Native American warriors. Terry Prince remained enslaved at Deerfield until 1756, when Abijah Prince, a free African man, who had been enslaved in the region for most of his adult life, purchased her freedom. Abijah and Lucy completed a lengthy courtship, marrying and being listed on town documents as “Mr. and Mrs. Prince.” The couple reared six children: Tatnai, Caesar, Drucilla, Durexa, Abijah Jr., and Festus. They remained in Deerfield into the1760s before establishing a homestead in the town of Guilford, located in territory that became Vermont. However, Their efforts to settle met resistance from town residents as a series of petty annoyances, lawsuits, assaults, and arson were directed against the Prince family’s farm and its residents. Seeking relief from these attacks, Terry Prince argued before the newly formed Governor’s Council of Vermont at Norwich in 1785. She presented a compelling case and received an order instructing the town’s selectmen to protect her family’s property and rights. Unfortunately, the harassment persisted. Following Abijah’s death in 1794, Terry Prince and four of her children left Guilford, moving to Sunderland, Vermont, where her husband also held title to property. Again, the family’s land claims encountered resistance. Terry Prince once more became embroiled in protracted legal battles, which she eventually won. Her eloquence forms the foundation of the “Lucy Terry legend.” Within this legend, she is purported to have performed many oratorical feats, including arguing a case settled at the US Supreme Court and speaking at length with the trustees of Williams College on behalf her son’s application to attend the institution. Unlike her poem, other legal victories, and other notable performances, these events have not been documented. Nevertheless, the imprint Terry Prince made on the region is underscored by the obituaries published in the Franklin Herald and Vermont Gazette, following her death on 21 August 1821.

General Overviews

“Bars Fight” is the only literary work credited to Terry Prince, and treatments of her poem offer explorations of her life and experiences of people of African descent enslaved in British North America during the 18th century in addition to the poet and her verse. While some critics read “Bars Fight” as lacking poetic sophistication—in one form or another—the poem successfully records details relevant to the final known skirmish between Deerfield’s settlers and people indigenous to the Connecticut River Valley. It conveys a no-nonsense, eyewitness report concerning this final Native American attack on the Deerfield settlement. At the same time, the poem also provides readers with insight regarding the intensity of the conflicts which simmered from 1689 to 1763 between the British and French empires in North America, which have come to be known as “the Colonial Wars.” Not surprisingly, since the middle decades of the 20th century—as African-American letters have gained critical attention—Terry Prince’s poem has gained more scholarly and critical attention concerned with American and African-American literary tradition. While a variety of labels and lenses have been applied to analyze Terry Prince’s life since her poem began to circulate in the late 19th century, “Bars Fight” has remained central to these discussions. Redmond 1976 advances the Hughes and Bontemps 1949 (cited in Anthologies) reading of “Bars Fight” as a starting point of African-American letters in English. Foster 1993 provides grounding for the theoretical discussions offered by Brown 2003 and Langley 2010. These works have informed the many biographical sketches of Lucy Terry available on the Internet, such as the African American Registry site and poemhunter.com.

  • Brown, Lois. “Memorial Narratives of African Women in Antebellum New England.” Legacy 20.1–2 (2003): 38–61.

    DOI: 10.1353/leg.2003.0042E-mail Citation »

    Essay considers Terry Prince within contexts of black life in antebellum New England, using the poet’s 1821 obituary as entry point into a conversation with other women of African descent who lived their lives in New England. Brown’s analysis of “Bars Fight” and her twenty-four-line obituary identifies a conformity to deliberate efforts to situate African women’s lives in a “dehistoricized American public sphere.”

  • Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women 1746–1892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Groundbreaking treatment of 18th- and 19th-century African-American women’s literature includes a chapter on Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley from which they emerge as poets more than curious African-American “firsts.” Reading “Bars Fight” in detail, Foster suggests that it records and comments on an event of community-wide concern. Regarding Terry Prince as a young, enslaved African woman, Foster sees her poem as an act of “defiance.”

  • Langley, April C. E. The Black Aesthetic Unbound: Theorizing the Dilemma of Eighteenth Century African American Literature. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Langley’s study offers theoretical approaches for analyzing works by early writers of African descent, grounded in the complexity of reading and interpreting 18th-century literary texts by black writers. Engaging questions about Terry Prince, oral traditions and archival documents in chapter four of the work, “Reading Others in Eighteenth-Century Afro-British American Literature” (see p. 144), Langley writes there is “something else standing beside the comforting domesticated narrative of a colorful local character expressed in the entertaining black woman. . .[that] is a more discomforting counter narrative of a politically savvy, African woman.”

  • Lucy Terry Prince.

    E-mail Citation »

    Site offers a brief sketch of Terry Prince’s life experiences and an account of her poem. Additionally, it maintains a link to a text of the poem.

  • Lucy Terry Prince: Poet, Abolitionist, Orator, Born. The African American Registry.

    E-mail Citation »

    Brief overview of life experiences of Terry Prince. Contextualizes her poem and its significance, despite using questionable dates.

  • Redmond, Eugene B. Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    “Introduction” to this volume lists various anthologies of African-American literature and poetry from which “Bars Fight” has been included and excluded, beginning with Hughes and Bontemps 1949. Later, he suggests that Terry Prince’s poem “could hardly be called ‘protest’”; comparing it to verse by Phillis Wheatley, he dismisses their poetry as an “imitation” of works by white poets writing in English during the 18th century.

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