Special thanks to the Town of Nantucket for allowing us to share this information on the cemeteries of Nantucket. These four excerpts are from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).
Historic Coloured Cemetery
Tucked in behind Mill Hill Park and just west of Nantucket Cottage Hospital is Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery. Until well into the twentieth century this is the place where anyone considered non-white was laid to rest— including people of Wampanoag heritage, Cape Verdeans, Afro-Caribbeans, Pacific Islanders, and even a seaman from Calcutta. On the other hand, only in recent years has anyone not “of color” been permitted to even consider burial in this cemetery. Racially segregated burials are finally a thing of the past in this and the other Nantucket cemeteries.
The Historic Coloured Cemetery dates from late in the 1700s. As early as 1710 Nantucketers who had been holding Africans in slavery began to manumit them and to provide for them by means of donations of property. Stirred by the anti-slavery sentiments of a visiting English Quaker in 1716, Nantucket’s Friends Meeting began to seek revelation about the issue. It is believed that Nantucket’s became the first Quaker Monthly Meeting in the world to declare that it was “not agreeable to Truth for Friends to purchase slaves and keep them for a term of life.”
This did not lead to immediate manumission of all persons held in slavery on the island or even prompt freedom for all of those held by Quakers, but slavery did come to an end on the island in advance of when it was declared unconstitutional in Massachusetts.
The last two decades of the 1700s saw a surge of marriages among people of African and Wampanoag heritage and likewise a surge of real estate transactions as newly freed people consolidated land to form a village on the south edge of town. The village was called New Guinea, and before the end of the century, the people of New Guinea began burying their dead on the south side of Mill Hill. A headstone that was recorded in the 1960s but is no longer to be found carried the date 1798.
Recognizing that burials were taking place there, Nantucket’s Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land voted in 1805 “that the Black People may fence one acre of land where their Burying Place is.” Two years later a deed referred to the cemetery as “the Burying Ground that belongs to the Black People or People of Color.”
Considering the constraints of the economy for the residents of New Guinea in the 1800s, it is remarkable how many inscribed headstones and footstones are to found in the Historic Coloured Cemetery. Nonetheless, there are empty-looking areas that are actually full of unmarked graves. Simple fieldstones were placed on some graves, and others originally had wooden markers that eventually weathered away. In the twentieth century, aluminum markers were pushed into the ground above some otherwise unmarked burials. These have now been replaced with inscribed stones.
The Historic Coloured Cemetery is rich with stories. Three churchmen are buried there, two of them refugees from slavery. Members of the Rev. John W. Robinson’s family lie under a little tree in the northwest corner. On Nantucket his Pennsylvania-born daughter married Cape Verdean whaleman Joseph Lewis. Their son, Joseph Lewis Jr., also went whaling and late in life became one of the custodians of the Old Mill after it was opened to the public as a property of the Nantucket Historical Association.
The Rev. James Crawford served as pastor of the Pleasant Street Baptist Church for four decades, the longest tenure of any clergyman on the island, at times also assuming responsibility for the Summer Street Baptist Church. Crawford had slipped away from slavery in Virginia, and later, with cash he had raised with the aid of American and English Quakers, he purchased his sister-in-law’s freedom. Then he took the risk of going south in person, posing as a white slave owner, to purchase his niece Cornelia and bring her to the safety of Nantucket.
Arthur Cooper and his family had found refuge on Nantucket in 1820. Two years later, an agent for his former owner came to the island to take him into custody and return him to slavery along with his wife and children. The people of New Guinea and Nantucket’s Quakers intervened, the Cooper family was spirited into hiding, and the agent left the island empty-handed. Arthur Cooper subsequently became an elder of the A. M. E. Zion Church and was part of a committee formed in 1832 to acquire land for its church building. After Mary’s death, he married again. His second wife was Lucinda Gordon, who had been born in Africa, taken as a slave to a South Carolina rice plantation, and finally had reached Nantucket via Newport, Rhode Island. Lucy Cooper long outlived Arthur, passing the age of one hundred before finally going to rest beside him and Mary.
Joseph Lewis and his son were not by any means the only whalemen interred in the Historic Coloured Cemetery. Absalom F. Boston has achieved considerable fame as Nantucket’s black whaling captain. Edward J. Pompey was also master of whaling vessels as well as a prosperous merchant and the Nantucket subscription agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. Captain Pompey has a fine headstone, while visitors to the cemetery look in vain for that of Captain Boston. A stone laid flat in the ground carries the name of Absalom F. Boston, but it is for the captain’s infant son. There are stones for Captain Boston’s first two wives as well as for his daughter Phebe Ann, but there are none for Absalom nor for Hannah Cook Boston, his third wife, who survived him by just two years. When they passed away in the 1850s, Nantucket’s whaling economy was in free fall, the Bostons’ estate was losing value precipitously, and it is unlikely that the three surviving Boston children could afford memorial stones for their parents. We know that they are there, however. According to the Weekly Mirror, Hannah’s funeral in 1857 was attended by all the employees of the steamship company and “a large number of citizens.”
James Ross was another resident of New Guinea who had been born in Africa. At least three of his daughters went to rest in the Historic Coloured Cemetery, two with headstones and one without. The oldest sister, Maria, married half-Maori William Whippey, and together they operated a seamen’s boarding house for Pacific Islanders. Their infant daughter, Mary Whippy, lived only two months and has a headstone in the Colored Cemetery. After William fell victim to tuberculosis, Maria forged on and eventually remarried. In 1900 she was living with a niece on York Street, and she surely went to rest in the same cemetery as baby Mary. Younger sisters, Sarah and Eunice Ross have twin side-by-side headstones. Eunice is famous for her role in the racial integration of the Nantucket public schools in the 1840s. Sarah was her quiet supporter. The two lived out their lives together and remained together in death, Sarah surviving Eunice by less than two years.
Eighteen or nineteen African Nantucketers served in the Civil War, most of them in the Union Navy. All survived the war, and at least four of the veterans eventually passed away on Nantucket and were buried in the Colored Cemetery with official veterans’ stone markers. One of them, Sampson D. Pompey, was descended from people enslaved on Nantucket in the 1700s. With his friend Hiram Reed, Sampson was active to the end of his life in the Nantucket chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The headstones of the Historic Coloured Cemetery recall many more stories of seamen, entrepreneurs, musicians, scholars, working men and women whose lives can be traced through Nantucket records. The unmarked graves are silent. We know the names of people who are surely there, but they cannot be located.
One of the most fraught issues about the Historic Coloured Cemetery has been what to call it. The earliest documents describe it as the burying place of the Black People or the People of Color. Over the years, various publications have called it the Negro Graveyard, the Black Cemetery, the African-American Cemetery, and Mill Hill Cemetery. Official town burial records consistently call it the Colored Cemetery. Since not all the people considered non-white in Nantucket were African Americans or even of African descent, most of the names that have been used were misleading.
When an informational plaque was placed in the cemetery in 2008, it simply referred to the place as a historic cemetery. After much discussion and public input, it was decided that the official name should be the one on the death certificates of the deceased, namely the Colored Cemetery. Further discussion settled on the Historic Coloured Cemetery. In the summer of 2009 two wooden signs joined the bronze informational plaque. One on Prospect Street reads Historic Cemetery and points the direction. Inside the cemetery fence a second sign read Colored Cemetery. It has since been replaced with an inscription on the reverse side of the boulder with the bronze plaque.
This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).
New North Cemetery
On the east side of New Lane, across from the Old North Cemetery, is the New North Cemetery. By now, neither the lane nor the cemetery is new. New Lane appears in the 1799 official list of streets in the Town of Nantucket, while the earliest death dates inscribed on stones in the New North Cemetery date from the second quarter of the 1800s. Most of the burials there have taken place from the mid-1800s forward to the present.
In New North Cemetery are headstones for thirteen men identified in the inscriptions as sea captains. This is by no means a full count of the master mariners laid to rest here, however, since some men who commanded ships do not have “Capt.” on their headstones.
The Nantucket chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic records six veterans of the Civil War buried in the “North Cemetery.” Henry C. Russell (d. 1863), and Henry F. Coffin (d. 1889) were interred in New North Cemetery, while Hiram Fisher (d. 1864), Charles Fisher (d.1864), William Friend (no date) and Peleg Morgan (d. 1865) rest in the Old North Cemetery.
The Society of Friends was opposed to its members having anything to do with Freemasons. Nonetheless, Masonry took hold in Nantucket around the time of the American Revolution and has held fast even through a period of anti-Masonic public opinion in the 1830s. Today, Nantucket’s historic Union Lodge remains healthy and active. A walk around New North Cemetery reveals a great many Masonic symbols on headstones of Nantucket’s business leaders of the last half of the 1800s and much of the 1900s.
When the burials began, the cemetery was smaller than it is today because of the presence of the Round Top Mill. A windmill for grinding corn, it had been built on high ground east of New Lane in 1802. It appears on the 1834 William Coffin Jr. map of the town with no cemetery at all adjoining it to the north, although the old “Burying Ground” on the west side of New Lane is indicated. On the 1858 Henry Walling map, New North Cemetery is present, though occupying only the northwest quarter of its present site.
Grove Lane, which bounds the south sides of both Old and New North Cemeteries, was not a 1799 street. A bit of it running west from New Lane is to be seen on the 1834 map, while the extension connecting New Lane and North Liberty Street first appears on the 1858 map. To this day, the wetland to the south of Grove Lane is known as the Mill Pond, while water draining out of it in the direction of Hummock Pond eventually becomes Mill Brook. The mill itself was demolished in 1873, and the land upon which it stood was conveyed by deed to New North Cemetery in 1884.
During their decades of co-existence, the Round Top Mill—with its turning vanes, creaking wooden gears, and grinding stones—must have been a restless companion for the dead in both Old and New North Cemeteries.
One of the early headstones in New North Cemetery makes reference to a family tragedy that took place a mile or so to the west beyond the terminus of Mill Brook. It reads: “In memory of George Henry, son of George and Sarah Coffin, who was drowned in the Hummock Pond, August 5, 1834, aged 9 years, 6 mos.
A tragedy of epic proportions is also to be read on a group of headstones in New North Cemetery. Owen Chase, first mate of the whaleship Essex, enjoys celebrity status thanks to the retelling by Nathaniel Philbrick of the story of how Chase and a total of seven others (out of a crew of twenty-one) survived the sinking of their ship by an enraged bull sperm whale far out in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820. Chase and two of the others survived ninety-three days at sea in an open boat, sailing from the Offshore Whaling Ground almost to the coast of Chile. Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, has been a major work of Nantucket whaling history since it won the National Book Award in 2001.
After rescue from starvation in the open boat, Chase went back to sea and had a successful career as a whaling captain, but late in life his traumas on sea and land caught up with him. In his last years he hoarded food in his attic while suffering agonies of what we would today characterize as post-traumatic stress disorder.
His terrestrial sorrows are reflected by the group of three headstones. Owen Chase’s stone does not identify him as Captain, only as “Owen Chase, d. 1869.” On the same stone are the names of his first two wives. Peggy, his first wife, died at the age of 26 in 1826. Nancy, his second wife, died in 1833 at the age of 39. Both women lost their lives to complications of childbirth within a few months of Owen going back to sea. The second headstone to the south of Owen Chase’s stone is for his fourth wife, Susan, who outlived him by a dozen years. She is simply identified as “Susan Chase, wife of Owen Chase.”
And the intervening stone? What about Chase’s third wife? Instead, the stone between the one for Owen Chase and that for Susan Chase is for Captain James Gwinn, who died in 1835. Susan was Captain Gwinn’s widow when she married Owen. Both of her husbands are buried at her side.
Owen Chase’s third wife was Eunice Chadwick, a young bride who had taken on the care of four step-children and bid good-by to Owen as he departed on yet another voyage within months of their nuptials. Once again, childbirth brought domestic tragedy, but this time the tragedy was that Eunice gave birth long after Owen’s departure. Upon return from his final whaling voyage, Owen divorced Eunice and gained custody of her son.
Eunice lived into old age, dying in 1888. There is no headstone for her, and little is known of the life and eventual passing of the boy, Charles Fredrick Chase.
While Owen Chase is, these days, a part of Nantucket public history, Helen Winslow Chase was a member of the distinguished company of women Nantucket historians. Born and educated on Nantucket, young Helen Winslow—like many other women graduates of Nantucket High School—went off to Bridgewater State College to earn a degree in education. Finishing just before the United States entered World War II, she returned home to teach history in the Nantucket schools for seven years.
Then she was bitten by intellectual wanderlust, which took her all over the Midwest—teaching and studying in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and earning a graduate degree in American History from the University of Wisconsin.
Still she forged on, doing research at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, studying foreign policy at the University of Hawaii, and delving into whaling records in repositories in New Zealand and Australia. Traveling by freighter from New York City via the Panama Canal to Auckland, New Zealand in 1970, she made calls in Western Samoa and at Pitcairn Island. Because of the difficulty of landing at Pitcairn, she remained aboard the freighter while two boatloads of representatives from the island came out to hold a “gam” (carry on a shipboard exchange of news) with her. Nantucket historians Edouard A. Stackpole and Grace Brown Gardner treasured the Pitcairn Island postcards she sent to them that day.
Upon her return from the Pacific, she did graduate work in Nantucket history at the University of Massachusetts. Through much of this time, she served as summer librarian for the Nantucket Historical Association, where she was a specialist on whaling logbooks and shipboard journals. With Edouard Stackpole, she co-edited cabin boy Thomas Nickerson’s account of the sinking of the Essex and the survival of Captain George Pollard, first mate Owen Chase, and a handful of Essex crew members including Nickerson himself. Accumulating a significant professional library, she also wrote and published numbers of articles about Nantucket history— a remarkable accomplishment for a woman whose initial training was at a state teachers college.
Unmarried until late in life, she married widower James Franklin Chase in 1981. Upon her death in 2003, her entire scholarly collection passed to the Nantucket Historical Association, where—according to her obituary—it “will be a resource for generations to come.”
This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).
Old North Cemetery
New Lane is bordered on both sides by cemeteries. The cemetery to the west is the Old North Cemetery. In the 1800s people still recalled that it had originally been known as “the Gardners’ Burial Ground,” and that the first to be buried in the family cemetery was Abigail Coffin Gardner. Abigail died in 1709, and her husband, Nathaniel Gardner, followed her in death in 1713. Richard Gardner Jr., who died in 1728, is also said to have been buried there. There are no extant headstones stones for these three Gardners.
When Abigail, Nathaniel, and Richard Jr. went to their rest, the Founders Burial Ground and the original Friends Burial Ground were both in active use. The Gardner family apparently just began burying their dead on or just next to their own property—a large, irregular piece of land known as the Crooked Record.
People buried on the west side of New Lane were for the most part members of the Congregational Church and, unlike their Quaker neighbors, had no objection to gravestones. The empty-looking area within the cemetery reflects the toll time and weather have taken on the oldest grave markers. A public works project in the 1930s revealed fallen stones and also the decayed remains of old wooden markers a foot or more beneath the surface.
The early burials were of members of the intermarried Gardner and Coffin families. Twenty-six Gardner headstones and forty-four Coffin headstones survive today. It is unknown just when the cemetery became available to more distant cousins—all “descended Nantucketers” (offspring of the first English settlers) being bound by marriage ties within two or three generations. Stones from the mid- to late-1700s already record the surnames Hussey (1746), Davis (1763), Barnard and Bunker (1770).
Dr. Samuel Gelston, born in Rhode Island in 1727, moved with his family to Nantucket in the early 1760s. Dr. Gelston (not to be confused with his uncle, the Rev. Samuel Gelston, a Presbyterian clergyman born in Ireland in 1692) had a strong commitment to inoculation against smallpox. This put him on a collision course with the Society of Friends.
For reasons hard to fathom at this remove, the Quakers considered inoculation ungodly and forbid members of the Meeting to subject themselves to it, so Dr. Gelston began his public health campaign on Martha’s Vineyard, where he received permission to set up an inoculation station in 1763. It took him until 1771 to receive permission to begin inoculating Nantucketers, and he could not do so on Nantucket. Instead, people wishing to undergo the procedure had to have it done on Gravelly Island, a tiny islet off Smith’s Point.
At the time, smallpox was present not only onboard ships and in foreign ports, but at home, where it had struck the descended Nantucketers in 1759 and continued into the 1760s. Among the people who availed themselves of Dr. Gelston’s services were numbers of Quaker men who—singly and in groups—presented themselves to be inoculated. Their names appear in the Nantucket Meeting’s Book of Objections. The Quaker elders did their best to shut down Dr. Gelston’s practice, but as late as 1778 Friend Obadiah Coffin was disowned for “going to Gravelly Island to be inoculated for the smallpox,” and less than a year later it was recorded that Friend Gorham Folger “had been to Gravelly Island and passed the operation of the smallpox by inoculation but did not seem disposed to amend the breach.”
In the meantime, Dr. Gelston had gotten himself into other trouble. An outspoken Tory, his intemperate speech and behavior eventually led to his arrest for treason against the young United States of America. Only a contrite petition to the General Court of Massachusetts won his release from custody and made it possible for him to return to his wife and many children on Nantucket. In time, Dr. Gelston and seven members of his family found their final rest in the Old North Cemetery, where their headstones are still to be found.
Except in their mutual disregard for Quaker principles, hardly anyone could be more the polar opposite of Dr. Gelston than Nantucket patriot Reuben Chase. Born in the mid-1750s, Chase was a seasoned young seaman when the American Revolution began, and he was one of twenty-one Nantucket men to serve under John Paul Jones. Chase saw action aboard a number of American warships, including the famous Bonhomme Richard, and one French privateer. At the end of the war, he made a final voyage with Jones to France and then turned to whaling and eventually to mastering a transatlantic packet ship.
Chase, a strikingly tall man, became the model for “Long Tom Coffin” in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1824 novel, The Pilot. Cooper had met Chase while a passenger aboard his packet ship and been struck by Chase’s height and demeanor.
Chase passed uninjured through combat and the perils of whaling to die of old age at home in 1824. His brother Joseph composed a long epitaph in verse for his memorial stone, but Reuben’s son replaced it with one more simply inscribed: “An honest man, a revolutionary officer, and a pensioner.”
In the south corner of the cemetery facing New Lane stands a prominent memorial tablet for Robert Ratliff, an English seaman who, having been shipwrecked on Nantucket, stayed to marry and to found a prosperous ship’s rigging business. Ratliff had served in the British Navy during the War of 1812 and was present when the British burned Washington D.C. in 1814. The very next year he served aboard the ship that carried Napoleon Bonaparte into exile on St. Helena. The Great Fire of 1846 wiped out Ratliff’s fortune, and having no family to care for him in old age, he lived out his last years in the Asylum. There he became a celebrity for his stories that were so thrillingly at odds with Nantucket Quaker experience. Eastman Johnson painted his portrait in 1879, and upon Ratliff’s death in 1882, Nantucket businessman Frederick Sanford provided his monument.
Unlike the Founders Burial Ground and the first Quaker Burial Ground, the Old North Cemetery continued in use throughout the 1800s. In an odd convention from the beginning of the 1820s, two women and one man are identified on their headstones not as “relicts” or spouses of others, but as “consorts.” Priscilla Drew is described as the consort of Captain Alexander Drew, and from the same year Stillman Eldridge is described as consort of Lydia H. Eldridge. The next year there is one more “consort,” and then there are no more.
In addition to a stone for Captain Robert Inot, who died “at Tampico” in 1825 and his widow, Judith Inot, who survived until 1831, there was for many years a wooden sign identifying Captain Inot as the captain of the Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1819. In fact, Captain Inot was the first to take command of the Savannah, but only to sail her from the New York shipyard where she was built to Savannah, Georgia, where he turned over command to Captain Moses Rogers to make the transatlantic passage.
The headstone for Phebe Allen refers to the sort of tragic accident that has been none too rare in the course of Nantucket history. On a July morning in 1846 six young Nantucket women and three young men set out in a boat to go bluefishing. Around noon they were off Eel Point when a squall capsized their boat. One of the men swam to shore for help, but by the time rescuers arrived, eighteen-year-old Phebe and twenty-five-year-old Susan Cleveland had drowned.
In 1878, the students of the West Grammar School erected a headstone to the memory of their teacher, Thomas Rand, who died at the young age of 43.
Late in the 1800s, burials in the Old North Cemetery declined, while burials had begun on the other side of New Lane.
As the Old North Cemetery fell into disuse, it passed into the same state of neglect as the Founders Burial Ground. In 1908 it was fenced on three sides with galvanized wire strung on wooden posts. Another fifteen years passed before voters at a special town meeting declared it neglected and abandoned. This allowed the town to take responsibility for it, but only on the eve of the Crash of 1929 was there a call for funds to cut paths through the overgrown site. It took the Depression to put Nantucket men to work clearing the cemetery of brush and planting a privet hedge in place of the “uninspiring” wire fence. At some point, lily of the valley became naturalized and spread spontaneously over much of the north side of the cemetery.
Beginning in the 1940s, burials resumed across the far west side of the recovered cemetery. Artist Henry Emerson Tuttle went to his rest there in 1946, joined by his artist wife, Isabelle Hollister Tuttle in 1978. Emerson Tuttle, connected with Yale University throughout his career, is known for his exquisite dry-point etchings of birds. Isabelle Hollister Tuttle began exhibiting in Nantucket galleries in 1925. In the Nantucket Historical Association’s exhibition catalog for The Nantucket Art Colony 1920-1945, Curator Ben Simons describes her as “One of the most admired and skillful practitioners of the Art Colony,” and characterizes the Tuttles together as “important voices in the formation of the Artists Association of Nantucket.”
Since the mid-1940s, there has been a burial in the Old North Cemetery every few years and sometimes several within a year. Few, if any, available sites remain. The privet hedge of the 1930s has thrived, engulfing headstones along the sides, but the lily of the valley has fallen victim to mowing machines. There is urgent need for restoration of many of the stones in the Old North Cemetery, and work has been scheduled to begin in August 2022.
This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).
Quaker Cemetery (Friends Burial Ground)
When Robert Lowell wrote in his poem, The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, of “this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves,” he was referring to the practice of returning human remains to the earth with no marker of any kind at the place of interment. Roland B. Hussey recalled that the body of the deceased was laid out in a sheet and placed in a white pine coffin “devoid of paint or stain or the smell of flowers,” transported in an unadorned tip-cart to the burial ground, and—on occasion—laid in the earth even before all the mourners had arrived.
The story of a grieving young husband being read out of Quaker Meeting for having planted a rosebush where his wife had been buried may be apocryphal, but thanks to the Quakers’ principle against attachment to earthly remains, the location of Nantucket’s first Quaker burial ground is lost.
The general location was southeast of Maxcy’s Pond and west of the Abiah Folger Franklin Fountain. Both the 1858 Henry Walling map and the 1869 Ferdinand Ewer map place it north of the present Madaket Road, but George F. Worth described the meetinghouse next to the burial ground as “just west of the Elihu Coleman House,” which might put it further south. After nearly three centuries, there would be nothing left of human remains or raw pine coffins, and that is just as the Quakers (or Friends, as they call themselves) would have wanted it.
Mary Coffin Starbuck had become the bride of Nathaniel Starbuck in 1662 while she was still in her teens and Nathaniel was in his mid-twenties. They became prosperous storekeepers and around 1676 built a house for themselves with a great hall said to hold a hundred people. Because it could accommodate such a large number, it was used for public gatherings and became known as Parliament House.
In 1702 the couple permitted a visiting Quaker minister to hold a series of meetings in their home. Such an overflow crowd of the island’s English residents came, that the windows were taken out to permit people standing outside to hear the Quaker message of the Inner Light that dwells within every person.
In the course of these meetings Mary Starbuck was convinced of the truth of the Quaker revelation. Within four years, a Nantucket Friends Meeting had been established and affiliated with both the Newport and Sandwich Quarterly Meetings on the mainland.
In 1709 Nathaniel Starbuck deeded to the Nantucket Meeting a one-acre lot for a meetinghouse and burial ground, and in return the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land compensated him with an acre elsewhere. The meetinghouse was erected in 1711, and by 1717 so many Nantucketers had become “convinced Friends” that it had to be enlarged. Burials began already in 1709 and continued to 1760.
In the autumn of 1717, Mary Starbuck—by then known as the Great Woman—died and was buried in the original Friends Burial Ground. The next year her son-in-law, Nathaniel Barnard Sr., was buried there, as was Friend Stephen Hussey, and in 1719 Nathaniel Starbuck’s remains were interred there. In accordance with Quaker principles, no effort was made to lay him next to where Mary’s remains had been buried. Friend James Gardner, who died in 1723, and his mother Sarah, who followed him in death in 1724, went into the same ground. It is unknown how many Friends’ remains were so buried, although an estimate of about two hundred has been offered.
The island’s English population was increasing exponentially, and the dominant form of worship was Quakerism. During this time of rapid growth, the town migrated from its original site eastward in the direction of the Great Harbor. Even after its expansion, the first Friends meetinghouse was too small, and it had been left behind on the periphery of the town. In 1731 a new meetinghouse with burial ground was established at the corner of what was then Main Street and Grave Street, now Madaket Road and Quaker Road. In 1732 the first burial at this new site was of Friend Charles Clasby.
The original burial ground could still be located, despite the absence of grave markers or a fence, because the disused first meetinghouse still stood there. Fire destroyed the building in 1736, however, and in time the first Friends burial ground was lost, just as the Friends would have wanted it to be.
Quakers cultivated as little attachment to their plain places of worship as they did to the remains of their departed. In 1792 they demolished the meetinghouse they had built in 1731 and re-used the materials in constructing an even larger one at the corner of Main and Pleasant Streets. In the same year, they erected yet another meetinghouse on Broad Street for Friends living on the North Shore.
With the removal of the meetinghouse, there was room for yet more burials in the field we know today variously as the Quaker Cemetery, the Quaker Burying Ground, the Quaker Grave Yard, and the Friends Burial Ground. Now fenced, it appears to be an empty, hilly field with only a small group of headstones along the Madaket Road side.
Appearances are deceiving. Of the long-time sexton of Nantucket’s Society of Friends, Eliphalet Paddack, it was said that by the time his tenure as sexton finally came to a close in 1823, “Uncle Liphey” had buried more bodies in the Friends Burial Ground than there were living on the island at the end of the 1800s. Roland B. Hussey wrote that, “Our forefathers conveyed to their last resting place in the Quaker Burying Ground the remains of hundreds (I shall be safe in saying thousands) of their departed, which were given to the earth without mark to show the families where they were laid.” It is probably safe to say that remains of five thousand Friends were buried in the apparently empty field.
And what of the headstones along the north side? A sign at the corner explains: “In the major section of this cemetery are interred the thousands of Orthodox Friends noted for their belief that grave stones were a part of idolatry. The few markers in this plot were placed by the Hicksite and Gurnyite Quakers, known by the earlier group as Heretical Friends.”
The schisms that rent Quakerism in the 1800s led to mutual disownments of Wilburites and Gurnyites and most especially of Hicksites, until factionalization led to the extinction of Quakerism on Nantucket. The Meeting was “laid down” and not restored for many decades.
The orthodox Quakers might have expelled living “heretics” from their meetinghouses, but in death the Hicksites shared burial space with them. After all, earthly remains were of no consequence, and besides, there were hardly any Friends of any stripe left to object.
Considering the nonnegotiable stand Friends took against armed conflict, it is remarkable that there appears to be a Civil War veteran interred among them. According to records kept by the Nantucket chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic, John S. Chase, who served in the Union Navy, was buried in the Friends Burial Ground. There is no headstone for him, but among the Hicksite headstones are ones for five other members of the Chase family. John S. Chase, son of Benjamin Chase and Ann Swain Chase, was born in 1831 and went to sea on whalers both before and after his military service. He never married, and at age 45 he died after a “fall from aloft.”
The significance of John Chase’s life and death would not have been lost on poet Robert Lowell, who mused mightily about the paradox of pacifist Quakers engaging in bloody combat with mighty marine mammals, and who dedicated his anti-war poem about this particular burial ground to his cousin, “Warren Winslow, Dead at Sea.”