Nantucket’s Daring Daughters: A Brief Look at Mary Coffin Starbuck
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!).
“The Great Woman”
“. . . a woman of strong magnetic personality and extraordinary administrative ability…[and who]…possessed a genius for participating in public, social, and domestic duties.”
– From R. A. Douglas-Lithgow’s Nantucket: A History
Mary Coffin Starbuck, is popularly known as the “mother of the settlement” and also as the individual who brought Quakerism to Nantucket and into the lives of many of its inhabitants. The seventh child of Tristram and Dionis Coffin, Mary was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1645, coming to the island when she was fifteen years old. Just two years later, she married Nathaniel Starbuck – the first marriage of island settlers – and gave birth to the first white child to be born on Nantucket. Due in large part to her influence and personality – Mary ran the family’s trading post that served as the island’s commercial center, could read and write when her husband could not, and was “an easy, eloquent speaker with a silvery tongue” – Mary held great sway over her neighbors and they looked to her for guidance and advice. She became known as “the great woman.”
Hearing of a strong woman with tendencies leaning towards the Quaker faith – Mary had been practicing what was referred to as “radical spiritualism” – English Quakers came to the island hoping they could convert her to Quakerism and that her strength of character and influence over her fellow islanders would help to spread the Quaker faith on the island should Mary adopt it as her own. Their hopes were realized. Influenced mainly by the visit of the Friend, Thomas Story, Mary became a Quaker at age 56, holding meetings in her home – known as Parliament House because so much public business was conducted there. Mary would win many converts to the Quaker faith while presiding over meetings in her home. By the time Quakerism was fully established on the island and the island had been able to establish its own yearly meeting, Mary became one of the most celebrated Friends and Quaker leaders on the island. When she passed away in 1719, this mother of ten and the “mother of island Quakerism,” had witnessed the first Quaker meetinghouse built on the island.
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.