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The Island Home.  Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Nantucket’s Daring Daughters: A Brief Look at Hannah Cook Boston

From time to time, I hope to introduce you to some lesser known members of our community who walked our streets long ago.  My focus will be heavily on women – an area of research for many years for me (for obvious reasons!) and I am going to give it the sub-title under “Nation of Nantucket” as “Nantucket’s Daring Daughters.” 

One woman in particular who has had very little recognition is Hannah Cook Boston.  Many are familiar with the name Absalom Boston.  Among many of Boston’s accomplishments, he was the well-known black captain of the all-black-crewed whaleship Industry, as well as a successful businessman, abolitionist, and one of the founders of the African Meetinghouse and School.  Twice widowed, Boston married Hannah Cook in 1827 a woman with whom I would like you to be familiar.  Born in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1795, Hannah Cook Boston instantly became a mother to Absalom’s three children.  Hannah was an equal partner in her marriage, just as all Nantucket women were.  She became the mother of five children, helped with the creation and running of the African Meetinghouse, and supported her husband in his work with desegregation of the island schools.  When Absalom died in 1855, he left Hannah a sizable estate.  However, over a short time, the estate dwindled to almost nothing because of the economic downturn on the island due to many things, including the Great Fire of 1846, the demise of whaling, and the Gold Rush, which lured so many away from Nantucket. 

Faced with having to find a means to support herself, Hannah looked for work outside the home.  Unlike many other black island women however, Hannah did not become a domestic servant.  Instead, she went to sea – following in the footsteps of her own family and her husband – by becoming the stewardess on the steamship Island Home, the first female steamship stewardess in fact.  She was not serving a family, but working for the Nantucket Steamboat Company – taking care of its female passengers in the Ladies Cabin.  Hannah passed away in 1857 after only a short time serving on board the steamer, but her taking this position encouraged other island women to follow suit, for several others were later employed as stewardesses on Nantucket steamships. 
 

The Nation of Nantucket
The “Nation of Nantucket” was coined by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847.  It was used by Edward Byers as the title of his 1987 publication on Nantucket society and politics from 1660 – 1820.  Both men spoke of the isolation and uniqueness of Nantucket and that such a title was fitting for our tiny spit of land far out at sea.  I, too, feel that it is appropriate – on many levels.  I use it as the title of this column because here I intend to regale you with all sorts of stories about Nantucketers, island life, island institutions, and the history (good and bad) of a small island that had an enormous influence on the world.  My focus will be mainly on Nantucket women, of course, but I will add some other things of interest to me – and I hope you – as well.  Stay tuned and to read my blog for the Maria Mitchell Association go to “Maria Mitchell’s Attic” at: http://www.mariamitchell.org/category/maria-mitchells-attic

Jascin N. Leonardo Finger has served as curator of the Mitchell House at the Nantucket Maria Mitchell Association since 1999.  She holds a Master’s in History.  Her passions are her family, all things Nantucket, good food, weaving, and photographing historic architecture.  The island has been a part of her life since she was introduced to it at age 1½ by her parents.  She lives year-round on the island with her husband, a naval architect, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.