Prospect House and Palmer House, both now University properties, have deep links to the Potter family, a slaveholding family with strong ties to Georgia as well as to Princeton and the College of New Jersey. This exhibit on the Potters demonstrates that slaveholding was no impediment to maintaining a position of social prominence in Princeton in the mid to late 19th century.

The Potter Family Of Prospect And Palmer Houses

1863 photograph of Prospect House.

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Potter Family Tree

A visualization of the Potter family tree.

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John Potter

John Potter (1765 - 1849), who purchased Prospect Farm in 1824, was the first of the Potters to occupy the property adjacent to the campus of the College of New Jersey. Born in Ballymoran, County Down, Ireland in 1765, Potter emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina in 1784.[1] Although he quickly rose to prominence in the Savannah River area near the border between South Carolina and Georgia, Potter did not at first hold slaves in his home.[2] That changed, however, after he married Catherine Fuller in 1791. By 1800, John and Catherine held eleven slaves in their Charleston home, some of whom may have been acquired from his wife’s prominent slaveholding family.[3] However, census records may not properly account for John Potter's secondary plantations besides his home, providing an incomplete picture of Potter’s pre-1791 connection to slavery.

After several years of marriage, the Potters moved across the border into Georgia, where they raised their family. In Savannah, John Potter quickly made a name as a shrewd businessman. Adept at “taking advantage of foreclosure sales, lapsed mortgages, and unpaid claims affecting them,” Potter expanded his land holdings significantly in the early 19th century, working largely with rice plantations.[4] As an example of the scope of Potter's business dealings: in 1816, he purchased the Colerain plantation from William Mein for $110,000. In the same transaction, he bought 338 slaves from Mein for $145,350.[5]

John Potter did not confine himself to the purchase, improvement, and operation of rice plantations in the area between Savannah and Charleston. In 1824, he and his wife purchased Prospect Farm and moved their formal residence to Princeton when their daughter Maria married Commodore Robert F. Stockton.[6] While in New Jersey, John Potter engaged in numerous business pursuits such as the construction of the Delaware and Raritan Canal as well as the Branch Railroad, and from 1824 until John’s death in 1849, the Potters spent most of their time in Princeton. 

Although John Potter maintained his official residence in Princeton and was, by all accounts, a well-respected man and major benefactor to the local Episcopal Church, he retained ties to the South and maintained his business headquarters in the Savannah River region.[7] Potter also held slaves as late as 1830 at Prospect House, his New Jersey residence immediately adjacent to the college.[8] It is likely that students at the college saw and interacted with Potter’s slaves while going about their daily business.

John Potter

Portrait of John Potter (1765-1849).

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Catherine Fuller Potter

Portrait of Catherine Fuller Potter (1770-1848).

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James Potter

John and Catherine’s son James Potter (1793 - 1862) also lived in a complicated world of ties to both North and South.

Upon his move to Princeton, John Potter transferred much of his southern property to his sons James and Thomas. James, the eldest, inherited a greater share and was left largely in charge of his family’s Savannah River holdings.[9]  But James also made an effort to spend time with his parents and siblings in New Jersey. In 1840, after his sister Harriet Maria and her husband Commodore Robert F. Stockton moved their home to Morven, he purchased their house (now Palmer House) for himself.[10] While his sister and her husband owned three slaves at the Bayard Lane property, “including the mammy of her childhood,” James did not bring slaves with him to New Jersey in 1840—though he continued to own hundreds of slaves on his southern properties.[11] Never fully a Princeton resident, James maintained his business base in Georgia while utilizing the Princeton estate as his summer residence. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Potter chose the South.  "Greatly distressed," he returned to his Savannah plantation shortly "before the lines were closed against him."[12] Potter succumbed to illness and died on this plantation in 1862.

James Potter held strong pro-slavery views. In 1851 he pursued a runaway slave by the name of Thomas Sims. Sims, arrested in Boston as a fugitive, asserted his freedom although several depositions from residents of Savannah claimed that he was the property of James Potter.[13] The case became one of the first tests of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and the incident garnered national media attention.[14] In the end, Sims was sent back to Georgia, where Potter sold him for $1,200. The Alexandria Gazette reported that “the purchaser has taken [Sims] to Havana, and will compel him to work on a sugar plantation in Cuba.”[15] Sims was not in fact taken to Havana—he later escaped to freedom during the Civil War—but even so, the case demonstrated that longtime and prominent Princeton resident James Potter felt no qualms about publicly exercising his rights to hold and sell slaves.

Palmer House

View of Palmer House.

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Sims Case

An excerpt from the Alexandria Gazette documenting the Sims Case proceedings.

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John H. Potter

John Hamilton Potter (1842 - 1864), who matriculated with the Princeton class of 1863, spent much of his youth at his father James’s summer home, now known as Palmer House.[16] When John H. Potter entered the College of New Jersey, however, he identified himself as a Georgian for his official record and photograph.[17] Harboring strong feelings for Georgia, Potter left the college in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy.

Potter married a Georgia woman in 1863 and fought in the Atlanta campaign of 1864, where he received mortal wounds near Marrietta and died of them a few weeks later in Macon.[18] His body was then taken to Savannah to be buried, although after the war he was moved and interred in Princeton Cemetery alongside his grandfather John Potter.[19] Upon his death, John H. left behind in Georgia a wife and infant child, James, who would later enter the College of New Jersey’s class of 1885.[20]

When John H. Potter died, The Daily Age of Philadelphia eulogized him in favorable terms. Speaking of his family’s holdings in Princeton, the obituary stated:

The hospitable mansion, amid the classic associations of Princeton, mourns, in common with Coleraine, the sweet southern home of his family, for the death of one who was to perpetuate his father's churchly love and large-hearted liberality.[21]

Potter's alma mater also lauded his sacrifice for the Confederacy: John H. Potter is honored in Nassau Hall's Memorial Atrium. Like other Princeton Civil War veterans, he appears without reference to the side for which he died.

John H  Potter

Photograph of John H. Potter (class of 1863).

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About the AuthorPanel Toggle

Sven “Trip” Henningson graduated from Princeton University in 2016. While at Princeton, he majored in history and completed certificates in German Language and Culture as well as Humanistic Studies. Henningson wrote his senior thesis on the Cold War foreign relations of U.S. labor unions under Professor Robert A. Karl. He was also active as the varsity coxswain for Princeton’s lightweight rowing team and served as the vice president of Cloister Inn. Since graduation, Henningson has been living in DC where he works as a strategy consultant and moonlights as a weekend historian.

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ReferencesPanel Toggle


Maria Potter Higginson Manning, The Descendants of John Potter: 1765-1906 (Dedham, MA: 1906), 1.


1790 Federal Census, accessed 14 February 2017,


1800 Federal Census, accessed 14 February 2017,


Georgia Writers’ Project, Savannah River Plantations, ed. Mary Granger (Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Co., 1947), 224.


Ibid., 225


John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and Its Institutions, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1879), 313.


Hageman, Princeton and Its Institutions, 314; Kathryn Fleur, “Princeton University’s Prospect: Ties to Slavery" (unpublished undergraduate essay, Princeton University, 2014), 15.


1830 Federal Census, West Windsor, Middlesex County, New Jersey, accessed 14 February 2017,


Georgia Writers’ Project, Savannah River Plantations, 230.


Ibid.; Hageman, History of Princeton and Its Institutions, 314.


1830 and 1840 Federal Censuses, accessed 14 February 2017,; Alfred Hoyt Bill, Constance M. Greiff, and Walter E. Edge, A House Called Morven: Its Role in American History, 1701-1954 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954), 99; 1850 Federal Census, Slave Schedules, District 12, Chatham, Georgia, accessed 17 July 2017,


Hageman, History of Princeton and Its Institutions, 314.


“Arrest of another Fugitive in Boston,” Alexandria Gazette, 7 April 1851, 2.


“Correspondence of N.Y. Herald,” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette, 17 April 1851, 2; “Excitement in Boston,” Florida Republican, 17 April 1851, 2; Leonard W. Levy, “Sims’ Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851,” The Journal of Negro History 35, no. 1 (1950), 55. For more on the Sims Case, see: Gordon S. Baker, Fugitive Slaves and the Unfinished American Revolution.


“News of the Day,” Alexandria Gazette, 7 June 1851, 2.


W. Barksdale Maynard, “Princeton in the Confederacy’s Service,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 23, 2011, accessed 14 February 2017,


Photograph of John H. Potter, Albumen Print, Historical Photograph Collection: Alumni Photographs Series, Box MP20, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library (hereafter PUA.RBSC.PUL); “John H. Potter,” Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box 123 PUA.RBSC.PUL.


Maria Potter Higginson Manning, The Descendants of John Potter: 1765-1906 (Dedham, MA: sn, 1906), 4.


John Frelinghuysen Hageman, History of Princeton and Its Institutions, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1879), 315.


Manning, The Descendants of John Potter, 4, 10; “James Potter,” Undergraduate File, Undergraduate Alumni Records, Box 177, PUA.RBSC.PUL. 

John H. Potter’s grandson, and James Potter II's son, John Hamilton Potter II also attended Princeton as part of the class of 1910.


“Obituary,” The Daily Age, 5 September 1864, 2.

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Did You Know...?The University’s first nine presidents all owned slaves. Read More