Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 21 • Sept 18-Oct 1, 2008
now in our 38th season

Nantucket Places and People
Island’s Ancestral Burial Place

by Frances Karttunen

On the hilltop to the east of Maxcy’s Pond, overlooking the water and with a sweeping sunset view is a very old cemetery that in recent years became inaccessible to visitors and that now has become accessible once again, albeit by a route up from the pond shore rather than, as in the past, by following West Chester Street Extension from Town all the way to its terminus.

Near the hilltop cemetery, Nantucket’s North Shore Meeting house was built in the early 1700s.  According to tradition it was built in 1711, the year that the First Congregational Society was formed, but some doubt has been cast on that early date. Whatever the case, in the well-practiced Nantucket house-moving tradition, the North Shore Meeting House was picked up in 1765, conveyed along West Chester Street past No-Bottom Pond, and relocated to another hilltop overlooking Nantucket Harbor. There it stood until 1835, when it was moved one last time to make room for the 19th-century neo-Gothic North Church now gracing Centre Street. The peripatetic Meeting House, known today as the Old North Vestry, adjoins the west end of the North Church. The old building, so very plain of exterior, is well worth a visit for its beautiful interior and for concerts on its handsome and versatile modern organ.

The cemetery, bereft of meeting house, soon ceased to be used for burials.  The last Nantucketers laid to rest there were Jonathan Coffin and his wife  Hepsabeth Harker Coffin, both in 1773. 

Where once there had been Sabbath gatherings, things grew very quiet. The early English settlement, that had consisted of organically spaced homesteads with no town center, had relocated eastward from the “Pond Field” around Capaum Pond, Maxcy’s Pond, Washing Pond, and the North Head of Hummock Pond, to narrow rectangular lots laid out next to the Great Harbor.

Still, the old burial place was not forgotten. 

In 1838 a record of the Nantucket Proprietors was placed in the Nantucket Registry of Deeds referring to the “ancient burial ground of our forefathers” and mandating that it be “reserved as a sacred place,” never to be laid out by the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land “to any individual, company, or individuals” or “appropriated for any other purpose” and encouraging its enclosure with a fence.

The site remained unfenced, however.  Little care was taken, and as the cemetery became overgrown, people voiced complaints. A letter to The Inquirer in September 1838 reported that “there is not a fence to keep off the cattle or protect the last resting place of the bones of those worthy people” and speculated that, “Perhaps there may not be found a place in New England, where the ancient burial place is so neglected.” The writer consoled himself that at least local phrenology enthusiasts had not dug over the settlers’ graves in search of skulls as they had the graves of Nantucket’s Indians.

On October 1, 1881 The Inquirer and Mirror carried the following notice:

Forefathers’ Burial Ground

John Gardner's Gravestone. By the suggestion of Tristram Coffin, Esq., of Poughkeepsie, and through his efforts and those of several others, a subscription, amounting to about twenty-five dollars has been raised to procure a new headstone for the grave of John Gardner the first, in place of the one which has stood the ravages of time for one hundred and seventy-five years, and for many years a lone sentinel upon the old cemetery hill.  The old stone will be removed to a place of safety whenever the new stone is ready to be set up.  About twenty-five dollars more are required to make this praiseworthy effort a success.  Persons desiring to contribute for this purpose may send subscriptions to this office and we will see that the amounts are faithfully applied.  To protect this entire cemetery by a suitable fence would also be an object worthy of general contributions.

Also in 1881 a large stone marker was placed on the site honoring ten of Nantucket’s early male settlers.

Tristram Coffin (1609-1681)
Thomas Macy (1598-1682)
Edward Starbuck (1604-1690)
Peter Folger (1617-1690)
John Gardner (1624-1706)
John Swain Jr. (1664-1738)
John Coleman (1644-1715)
Richard Gardner (1626-1688)
Christopher Hussey (1598-1686)
William Bunker (1640-1712)

No mention is made of these men’s wives, who accompanied them to the island, worked at their sides on their homesteads, and bore a total of eighty children from whom the subsequent “descended Nantucketers” would, in fact, descend.  For the record, the wives of these ten men were:

Dionis Stephens Coffin (1613-1661)
Sarah Hopcott Macy (died 1706)
Catherine Reynolds Starbuck (birth and death dates unknown)
Mary Morrell Folger (died 1704)
Priscilla Grafton Gardner (died 1717)
Experience Folger Swain (1661-1739)
Joanna Folger Coleman (died 1719)
Sarah Shattuck Gardner (died 1724)
Theodate Batchelder Hussey (1598-1685)
Mary Macy Bunker (1648-1729)

In 1973 the Proprietors voted to convey the deed to the cemetery to the Town, and the Nantucket Board of Selectmen made the Nantucket Historical Association trustee for the cemetery. Nonetheless, the neglect continued.  Then in 1992 an abutter closed off public access to the site, creating a great deal of unhappiness for local descendants of the English settlers and particularly for off-island descendants who traveled long distances to photograph the memorial stones that had been placed there in 1881.

Finally, in 2004 brush was cut from the spot, and in 2007 public access was re-established courtesy of the Anglers Club and the Nantucket Land Bank through the efforts of the Cemetery Commission Workgroup. Plans are currently afoot to carry out a subsurface survey to determine how many burials there have been on the hilltop.

Over the years the site has been variously named or described as: the First Settlers’ Burial Ground; the Founders’ Cemetery; the Forefathers’ Burial Ground; the Founding Fathers’ Cemetery; “the Ancient Burial Ground near Maxcy’s Pond;” “this most ancient burial place of English ancestry;” and even the supremely misleading  “Dionis Grave Stones.”

Once public access was assured, the time for an official name came.  Which among the multitude of possibilities would it be?  And in the process, would the English settler women, the fecund Foremothers, finally be recognized? At a Nantucket Board of Selectmen meeting in the spring of 2008, it was decided to make the official name the Founders’ Burial Ground.

Frances Karttunen’s books, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket are available at Nantucket bookstores.

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