Little is known about the early life of Nancy Gardner Prince, except from what she reveals in her 1853 autobiography, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. Prince was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Her father, Thomas Gardner, was a seaman from Nantucket who died when Nancy was just three months old. Her mother, the daughter of slaves, married several times. Always on the brink of poverty, the death of Mony Vose, Nancy’s stepfather, was an economic disaster and led to her mother’s emotional breakdown. Nancy and her six younger siblings picked and sold berries in order to support the family. She then left home to work as a servant for white families.
Nancy Gardner’s life changed dramatically when she married Nero Prince in 1824. Prince was a founder of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. They traveled to Russia, where Nero worked as a footman at the court of the czar in St. Petersburg, and Nancy opened a boarding house and made and sold infant clothing. When the Princes returned to the United States, they settled in Boston, where Nancy started a seamstress business and participated in the activities of the bi-racial Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1840 and 1842 she went to Jamaica as a Christian missionary. Prince often gave public lectures about her travels.