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Eliza Starbuck Barney.  Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Nantucket’s Daring Daughters: A Brief Look at Eliza Starbuck Barney

Mother of Island Genealogy

73 Main Street, Eliza Starbuck Barney's home.  Photograph courtesy of the author.

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.” 

Eliza Starbuck Barney is known almost as much for her blue H-style Victorian home at 73 Main Street as for her genealogical work, which is now the foundation of the genealogical collection and database at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library.

Eliza was born on April 9, 1802, to Joseph and Sally Gardner Starbuck, who was on an errand to Sally’s home.  Eliza was the third of ten children.  She was raised in the home of a Quaker family made wealthy by whale oil.  Like other Nantucket girls who were afforded equal opportunities for schooling with those of their brothers, Eliza developed an enduring love and interest in the natural sciences, agriculture, and history.  She became known on the island as a self-taught botanist and entomologist – and a good one at that.  Her father was the Joseph Starbuck of “Three Bricks” fame, using his fortune to build three brick houses for his sons on Main Street.  His daughters, he probably felt, would be provided for by their husbands.  Eliza met her match in Nathaniel Barney, ten years her senior, whom she married in May 1820 when she was eighteen years old.  At Eliza’s wedding, her sister Eunice met their cousin, silversmith William Hadwen, and within two years they were married as well.  The two newlywed couples made their homes at 100 Main Street – living in a double house – and the two men went into business together.

Both Quakers and ardent supporters of the antislavery movement, the Barneys and the Hadwens welcomed William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to 100 Main Street when they were on island in 1841 for an antislavery meeting organized in large part by Anna Gardner, but with the assistance of Eliza and Nathaniel Barney.  Close friends, and Eliza a cousin of Lucretia Coffin Mott, the Barneys kept up a life-long correspondence with the Motts frequently discussing the antislavery movement.  Several letters reflect Nathaniel’s issues with the New Bedford Railroad in which he held stock.  For several years, Nathaniel refused to accept his dividends because the railroad would not carry black passengers.

Not only active in the antislavery movement, Eliza was also a supporter of the temperance movement and involved in equal rights and woman’s suffrage movements.  In 1839 and 1840, Eliza served as secretary of Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Society and in 1851, with both her daughter and husband at her side, she attended the first woman suffrage convention held in Massachusetts.  In the late 1850s, Eliza’s and Nathaniel’s daughter, Sarah, moved with her husband to Poughkeepsie, New York and the Barneys followed soon after.  There they lived not only in the company of their daughter and her family but also the professors of Vassar College, including another island daughter – Maria Mitchell.  Both the Barneys and Maria Mitchell documented these visits together.  In 1869, Nathaniel Barney died.  Eliza moved back to Nantucket, and within several years she had completed her 73 Main Street Victorian with the help of her son Joseph.  At some point between the 1850s and 1860s, Eliza inherited the papers of the self-appointed Nantucket genealogist, Benjamin Franklin Folger.  Included were the records that would form the basis of Eliza’s life: The Eliza Starbuck Barney Genealogical Record.  The Barney Record, in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library, is the cornerstone of all Nantucket genealogical research.  After the death of her husband, Eliza lived on at 73 Main Street until the early 1880s, when she went to live with her son Joseph at 96 Main Street, which he had inherited from William Hadwen.  In March 1889, just three months before the death of Maria Mitchell, Eliza Starbuck Barney died, leaving a priceless legacy.

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, their son, and their Siberian Husky who takes them on long walks from one glorious end of the island to the other.