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Volume 37 Issue Four • May 17-23, 2007 now in our 37th season

Fair Street: Two Schools, Two Schoolmasters

by Frances Karttunen

On Fair Street, William Mitchell’s southern meridian stone stands on the sidewalk in front of a building complex consisting of a wooden Friends Meeting House and a cast concrete building that now houses the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library.  The Meeting House, built in 1838, was originally a schoolhouse, and its schoolmaster was a young English Friend named John Boadle from a small town near Liverpool.  In 1829, the Nantucket Quakers had written to Philadelphia seeking a teacher for their young children, and the Philadelphia Friends had sent John Boadle to the island.  Nearly a decade later the Nantucket Friends finally provided him with the building on Fair Street, a very short walk from the Pacific National Bank where he lived with the Mitchell family.

Even as the Fair Street building was under construction, however, Quakerism was falling into a steep decline.  Hicksite and Gurneyite factions had hived off from the Orthodox Quakers, with all factions mutually disowning each other.  (A sign in the corner of Nantucket’s Quaker Burial Ground on the corner of Madaket and Quaker Roads states that the Hicksites and Gurneyites were known to the Orthodox Quakers as “heretical Friends.”)  In the face of such disunity, many Friends decamped to the Unitarian Church, and the number of families still sending their children to Friends School fell so low that maintaining the Fair Street School for them was no longer feasible.  Neither was it feasible to maintain any of the large Friends Meeting Houses that had dotted the town. John Boadle’s schoolhouse was converted into a diminutive meetinghouse, and it has remained a meetinghouse to this day.

The town of Nantucket had belatedly created a public school system in 1827, and eleven years later it opened the doors to a public high school.  Cyrus Peirce, a Unitarian minister turned teacher, was named the first Nantucket High School Principal, but he was almost immediately called off-island to establish the first teacher training school in Masssachusetts—the first, in fact, in the nation.  Several of his students from Nantucket soon followed him to the Normal School in Lexington, and from their daily journals it can be seen that John Boadle was a familiar and welcome visitor there.

The issue of racial integration was furiously debated on-island during the 1840s, and as the Nantucket public school system descended into chaos, many parents chose to send their children to private schools.  During this time John Boadle conducted a school for both Quaker and non-Quaker children.  Despite the presence of children of “the world’s people,” Quaker “plain speech” continued in his school, which meant that titles were forbidden.  Non-Quaker children who had been instructed at home to call their teacher “Mr. Boadle” had to go against their parents’ wishes and address him simply as “John.”

In the late 1840s, Nantucket’s public school integration struggle was resolved, and shortly thereafter John Boadle, having taught on-island for two decades, departed to open a school in New Bedford.

The building attached to the back of the meetinghouse is the second-oldest poured concrete structure in the U.S.A.  (The oldest is Harvard’s Memorial Stadium.)  It was built in 1904 as a fireproof repository for the holdings of the Nantucket Historical Association, and over the door it is still identified as the Fair Street Museum, although it now houses the NHA’s library.

The brick walkway to the door ends with a large door stone, and hereon hangs the story of another school, another schoolmaster.

What appears to be a flat paving tone is, in fact, an 1,800 pound boulder tipped into a hole with its one flat side up.  It was installed in front of the door of the Fair Street Museum on July 24, 1917.  Before that it had languished in a basement for a decade or more, having been prized out of the earth somewhere in the vicinity of the fifth milestone on the road to Siasconset at the time the area on the north side of the road was being developed into a large commercial cranberry bog.

The boulder had been the door stone to Benjamin Tashama’s school for Indian children.  Benjamin Tashama was the grandson of a Wampanoag minister who went by the names of John Spoonmerchant and John Asherman—“Asherman” being a fairly obvious English mishearing of Tashama.  John Eliot, “Apostle to the Indians,” mentions Spoonmerchant in one of his letters.  In 1727 Benjamin Tashama inherited half of a house that had belonged to this grandfather of his.  He also inherited some of the materials that Eliot had devised for teaching speakers of “Massachusett” (of which the Wampanoags’ language was a local variety) to read and write.

When Hector Crèvecoeur visited Nantucket in the 1700s, he wrote, “Mr. Eliot translated the Bible into this language in 1666; he translated also the catechism and many other useful books, which are still very common on this island and are daily made use of by those Indians who are taught to read.”  It was Benjamin Tashama, with his aging and tattered copies of Eliot’s books, that kept the tradition of literacy going among his fellow Wampanoags on Nantucket.

As a preacher and a teacher, Benjamin Tashama held a position of civic responsibility.  Records show that he was often involved in lawsuits with other Wampanoags over land use, wages, and such.  Some were won and some were lost before the English magistrates, but one must have rankled deeply.  In 1726, his wife Sarah Paine was brought into court charged with receiving stolen meat.  She was convicted and sentenced to be whipped, and only the pleas of many people on her behalf succeeded in getting her off with a fine instead of a whipping.

Benjamin and Sarah were growing old when the “Indian Sickness” of 1763-64 swept the island.  Benjamin and their daughter (also named Sarah) survived the epidemic, but Sarah Paine died, and so did most of the children Benjamin Tashama taught in his school.  As an elderly widower he married a black woman named Jenny Richards and moved to Nantucket’s African-American village of New Guinea.  “Tashama’s house” there is marked on an 1822 map, but Benjamin was by then long gone, and his daughter had died the year before the map was made.  Her daughter Dorcas was occupying the house in the 1820s.  Dorcas survived until January 1855, achieving the distinction of being the very last of Nantucket’s “last Indians.”

Benjamin Tashama had died back in 1770, and because he left a considerable estate, there was a probate inventory of his belongings.  Among the things he had brought to town and stored in his New Guinea residence were fifteen chairs, a ghostly reminder of the Wampanoag children who had once passed over his door stone to sit and learn to read and write in their own language.

Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, is available at bookstores and from Spinner Publications, New Bedford. Look for Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket in bookstores this summer.

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