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Letter from Nantucket

Correspondence of The Courier

Found recently in the archives of The Courier, in Charleston, SC, this letter makes reference to many interesting facets of mid-19th-century Nantucket life as seen by an outside gentleman.  Note partiularly mention of the U.S. Navy engaged in surveying the shoals off the island; the use of camels to lift boats into the harbor; mention of the Great Fire, which had happened only two years earlier; discussion of storm erosion on the bluff at Sconset from a severe storm in 1841--all these issues are still  fresh and some are still relevant today.  I hope you enjoy it.

Suzannah Smith Miles


From Correspondence of The Courier, Charleston, SC

Ocean House
July 17, 1848

Messrs. Editors:-- I had on various occasions passed along the shores of this Island, but never, until a few days since, had placed my feet upon its sands.  Being at New-Bedford, with a party of friends, we decided upon paying a visit to this isolated Isle, which is now becoming a place of very considerable resort--and, accordingly, on Saturday last, we embarked on board the Massachusetts, a very commodious steamer, which runs regularly four days in the week, from each place.  There are two stopping places by the way, Wood’s Hole and Holmes’ Hole--the first, about one hour’s run from New-Bedford, is on the main land, and immediately opposite to the Island, learning the Indian name of Naushun, from which it is divided by a narrow strait, in many respects resembling Hell Gate, at the entrance of Long Island Tunnel, through which the water rushes with great impetuosity, requiring a very strong and fair wind to enable any sailing vessel to stem it, and likewise both skill and management even in a steamer to avoid the dangers, which are presented by this modern Scylla and Charybdis.  Holmes’ Hole is a small town of some seventy houses, and is situated on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard, and adjoining what is called the vineyard Sound. 
        As we passed across this Sound, it was literally covered with coasting vessels, bound along-shore from Northern or Southern ports.  Holmes’ Hole is the refuge for vessels bound to the Northward or Southward, when meeting with strong head winds, and is a very safe and sheltered anchorage, except from North East gales, to which it is much exposed.  When we passed it there was scarcely a vessel in port, a fair Southerly wind that morning having sent all Northward-bound on their way rejoicing.  One hundred and seventy sail had left the anchorage a few days previously, as we were in formed, in a single day.
        Off the bar, at the entrance of Nantucket harbor, we found at anchor the U. S. surveying squadron, consisting of the steamer Bibb, the cutter Gallatin, (well known to us of yore in Charleston,) and another schooner, employed as a tender.  This branch of the survey is conducted under the orders of Capt. DAVIS, of the U.S. Navy, with the aid of Lieuts. ANDERSON, ROGERS, BIDDLE and MAFFITT. 
        On entering the harbor, we met one of the whale-ships of the port, supported by what are termed camels, one on either side, about to be floated over the bar, to proceed upon her long and adventurous voyage.  Formerly, the ships belonging to this port were obliged to take in and discharge most of their cargoes at the neighboring port of Edgartown, before they could pass the bar; but, since the introduction of these camels, an invention borrowed, I believe, from Holland, ships with full cargoes on board, can enter or depart, without difficulty; and we are told that nothing can be more interesting than the entrance of these vessels into port, after a voyage of from three to five years, when the whole town flock down to the shores to meet and congratulate the returning mariners--for every one, although they may not have particular friends or immediate relatives on board, yet feel an interest to learn the success of any ship which brings to their home the hard-earned fruits of their perilous adventure.
        I was not a little surprised, to learn, however, notwithstanding the supposed hazardous nature of these long-protracted voyages, that the property is insured at the low rate of 3 per cent. per annum, or, in many instances, at 6 per ct. for the voyage, although it may be extended to three, four and in some cases to even five years.
        The town of Nantucket is built mostly of wood, the houses generally detached from each other--it suffered very severely about two years since by a destructive fire which consumed a large portion of the business part of the place, but which has since been partly re-built in an improved manner, several of the new houses and stores being brick.  The conflagration was stayed at one point by the large brick Hotel at which we are stopping, the Ocean House, which, although in immediate contiguity with a large wooden edifice, yet presented a sufficient barrier to the flame to enable the inhabitants to arrest the conflagration.  We were reminded of our own energetic fire department, on our arrival, by a parade of the firemen, who were engaged in a burial of some of their Engines, with which the place seems to be well provided, and of which, from the combustible nature of the materials of which it is principally built, it stands in much need.  Indeed, the whole attention of the young men of the town is directed to this one object of a public character, for there is no military organization whatever upon the island.  We are told, that at one time a portion of the youth of the place had decided upon forming themselves into a volunteer corps, and had commenced drilling at one of the halls or large rooms at the town, but it coming to the knowledge of the elder portion of the inhabitants they interfered and put an end to the exercises, believing, as they said, that it was a sure precursor of war.
        The island of Nantucket, in a direct line, is but about 15 miles in length, (although by following its course it is nearly double that length) and from something lesS than one mile in some parts, to eight miles in others, in width.  It covers an area of about 30,000 acres, upwards of 1,000 of which is composed of fresh water ponds, in which fish are taken in considerable numbers, and there are 750 acres of swamp land, in which is a layer of peat from 1 to 14 feet in depth, which is used by the country people for fuel, there being little or no wood upon the island--resort is now generally had, however, by the inhabitants of the town, to coal, which is imported in considerable quantities; …….  The soil of the island is, upon the surface, generally sandy, but clay I found in most parts at various depths; there are but few rocks, and these in attached blocks or masses consisting of coarse granite or gneisse.  Marine shells are found in almost all parts of the island, at various depths from 10 to 60 feet--the climate is temperate and healthy, reminding one very much of that of England, although much more dry.  The population at the last census exceeded 9000.  There is stated to be nearly 150 sail of vessels belonging to the port, of all descriptions, the largest portion of which are engaged in the whale-fishery; which at one period was almost entirely engrossed by the adventurous inhabitant of this island; but New Bedford has of late years taken the lead, and now furnishes much the largest number of vessels engaged in the trade.
        About seven or eight miles from Nantucket, is the little fishing town of Siasconset, which, from its being on the Eastern side of the island, and open to a full view of the broad Atlantic, is becoming of late years a favorite place of resort in summer for some of the wealthier inhabitants of the town of Nantucket and several neat cottages have been erected by them in its vicinity.  The houses in the village are mostly vacant at this time, being only occupied by their owners in the spring and fall, during the fishing season--they are built principally upon a high buff, which overhangs the sea, which is continually making inroads upon it; and in the year 1841, in a violent storm, which lasted for several days, the entire range of houses nearest to the ocean were undermined, and precipitated into the boiling and raging elements below--fortunately no lives were lost, as sufficient time was afforded for all to escape--one old couple, however, had a very narrow escape from death, as they obstinately refused to leave their house, and were only saved by the determination of their neighbors, who dragged them from their bed a few minutes only before the house was launched into the flood below.
        There are but few fruit or shade trees upon the island, and most of those which are to be seen are of a dwarfish and stunted growth--the silver leaved poplar seems to succeed the best of any that we observed.  From the poverty of the land, agriculture is not found to be a very profitable pursuit; the raising of sheep, which feed upon the short grass abounding upon the downs or plain of which the island is composed, seems to be the main object of the husbandman, and even these are hot now raised to the same extent they were in former times.  At one period they amounted to ten thousand, now, it is said, the number does not exceed seven thousand.  Their annual sheepshearing, when they are all collected together, and the lambs receive the ear marks of their owners, is quite an event, a very particular and amusing description of which the readers of the Courier may recollect to have read in its columns some few years since.  A very large portion of the land, although owned by private individuals, has from time immemorial laid open for the common use of all the inhabitants,--but during the present season an attempt has been made by certain interested parties to enforce the common law of the state against cattle running at large, and many were seized and impounded; but the attempt raised up such a storm about the ears of the officials, that they were glad to desist, at any rate for the present; and the cattle and sheep are yet browsing cheek-b-jowl together as far as the eye can reach, on these their native plains.
        There is neither an Opera House, or any other place of theatrical amusement here, but you must not suppose that there is consequently any want of knowledge or refinement amongst the educated portion of its inhabitants; and as a favorable specimen of the ladies, may be named MISS MARIA MITCHELL, who recently discovered the Comet which bears her name, and who was unanimously elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences at their last general meeting.  This is said to be the first honor of the kind conferred upon a lady in this country.  MISS CAROLINE HERSCHELL and MRS. SOMERVILLE, some years since, were elected honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society of London.  MISS MITCHELL is the daughter of a highly respectable gentleman of this place, a much valued member of the Society of Friends, who has attained a high reputation for his extensive acquirements in the science of Astronomy and other philosophical pursuits.  It is said of the daughter, that she was desirous, on making the discovery of the Comet, that the credit of it should be awarded to her father, from whom she had drawn much of the knowledge which she possessed, but the father would not consent to this pious fraud, insisting that the honor should be awarded where in truth and justice it belonged.  The venerable WALTER FOLGER, now verging towards the good old age of ninety, is an inhabitant of this town--his name is identified with the science of Astronomy throughout the learned world, and he has now in his possession a mammoth telescope constructed with his own hands.
        An object of curiosity well worthy the attention of strangers, is the Atheneum, which embraces a Museum and a Library--the building is a new and handsome one, the former edifice having been destroyed by the great fire which laid in ruins so large a portion of the town, and with it most of its valuable contents.  Miss Maria Mitchell performs the duties of Librarian to the institution, but we had not the good fortune to meet with her on the occasion of our visit to it.  The Museum is again beginning to be well stocked with curiosities brought home from the Pacific and Indian Oceans by the enterprising commanders of their ships which visit those regions, an the collections in conchology are particularly numerous, and many of the shells very rare specimens.  In the Library we observed the Portrait of Admiral Sir ISAAC COFFIN, whose ancestors were from this Island, and another of the venerable Walter Folger.  There is also a Portrait of PROFESSOR SILLIMAN, of New-Haven, who, a few years since, delivered a course of Lectures upon Geology, before the subscribers to the Atheneum and their friends.
        The public houses on the island are equal in comfort and convenience to any in the country, particularly the Ocean House at this place, kept by Mr. R F. PARKER, and the Atlantic House, erected the present season at Siasconset, and kept by Mr. H S. CROCKER.  The expenses at each of thee Hotels are very moderate, particularly for those who may decide upon passing some weeks during the hot months at either of them--the charges per day are $1 50cnts, per week $7, and for any greater length of time $5 per week.  I observe by the books of the Ocean House, that some of our neighbors from Edisto Island passed a portion of their summer here last year.  Carriages and cabs are readily obtained for excursions, but the primitive mode of riding in light horse carts, is still very much in vogue, and highly enjoyed by visitors.  The young ladies of the island appear to delight in it, and we frequently see some half dozen of them standing upright, and supporting each other, whilst one of the number is driving the animal at full speed.
        The mechanic arts do not appear to thrive at Nantucket--efforts have been made, we are told, to introduce the manufacture of shoe and other articles, upon an extended scale, but the adventurous character of the youths is too strong to permit them to sit down in what they consider to be inglorious ease, whilst the more chivalrous pursuit of the whale, in distant regions, invites them to partake of the sport.