Since Independence Day is almost here, it seems fitting to share Nantucket’s history during the Revolutionary War.
Last year, while deep diving into the lives of Caleb Coffin and Deborah Alden, I learned a lot about Nantucket history and its activities during the American Revolution.
One of the most informative sources turned out to be a small book, Nantucket in the American Revolution, written by Edouard A. Stackpole in 1976, likely to commemorate Nantucket’s history for the Bicentennial and published by the Nantucket Historical Association.
Although Caleb Coffin is not my direct ancestor, his sister, Eunice, who married Joseph Coleman, is. I also have several other early Nantucket family names in my tree like the Folgers, Nortons, Torreys and Barnards.
While Massachusetts had its share of Loyalists, the “shot heard ’round the world” was, after all, fired in Massachusetts and I generally think of Massachusetts as being very pro-independence.
Nantucket, however, is a unique piece of Massachusetts and actually belonged to New York until 1692!
Nantucket’s uniqueness lies in its existence as an island whose residents lived their lives in close connection with the ocean.
The 1770s and the opening of the American Revolution brought more change and disruption to the lives of Nantucketers than any previous decade.
By 1775, the majority of Nantucket men had occupations tied to a seafaring life, either as fishermen, mariners or whalers and its economy was inextricably tied to the sea trade.
When war was declared, more than 50% of the population of Nantucket was comprised of Quakers, who opposed participation in war.
The remaining portion of the residents, whether Patriots or Loyalists, understood just how vulnerable Nantucket was to attack, sitting off the shore of Massachusetts Bay Colony.
A number of Nantucket families left Nantucket for New York, settling on the water near Newburgh and Claverack, where sailors could continue to work on sailing ships, knowing their wives and children were somewhat safer than on the island.
My ancestors, Joseph Coleman and wife Eunice Coffin, were among those to migrate to Newburgh, Orange, New York in 1775.
Those who decided not to leave their island home also realized that seafarers, who already faced many dangers sailing around the world, would face more obstacles – namely the Continental and British military forces – as they attempted to provide needs goods and services dependent on trade. Piracy, also an issue, became much more prominent during the war.
How would Nantucket be able to survive, maintain its livelihood and protect its people?
There was but one path, proposed and pushed by the Quaker majority. Nantucket’s official position was to maintain neutrality as best it could, seeking assurances and permits to safely travel the seas from both the Massachusetts government and British officials.
Their neutrality strategy had its ups and downs and the people suffered great economic losses, but, by the close of the war, Nantucketers were able to resume a more normal life.
Therefore, although one might expect many Nantucketers who fought for the American cause, the numbers are quite small compared to other Massachusetts communities.
Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors in the American Revolution includes a scant 84 men who claimed Nantucket as their home.
The Rev. Myron S. Dudley created an “Honor Roll of Nantucket Patriots,” which includes:
Benjamin Barnard, Samuel Barrett, Alexander Coffin, William Coleman, Benjamin Folger, Walter Folger, Josiah Garner, Stephen Gardner, Benjamin Hussey, Benjamin Jenkins, Charles Jenkins, Seth Jenkins, Thomas Jenkins, William Jenkins, Francis Joy, William Morton, Joseph Nicholls, John Waterman, Jonathan Worth and Shubael Worth.
The Third Report, National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, October 1898-1900, pp. 316-345 contains Alexander Starbuck’s report, which named 104 men who didn’t advocate war, but aided the cause with funds.
Additionally, the Society of Friends disowned 46 members for sailing in armed or “prize” vessels (those taken by privateers). Those records are held by the Nantucket Historical Association.
The Nantucket Historical Association has done an incredible job compiling family stories and the history of Nantucket, including a fabulous database, the Barney Genealogical Record, which contains not only vital events, but, at times, shares additional details about its residents.
The Barney Genealogical Record is how I learned that Joseph Coleman and Eunice Coffin removed to New York.
If you have Nantucket ancestors, particularly if they were residents during the American Revolution, Edouard Stackpole’s book (just 140 pages long) gives a very detailed accounting of island life in that time period. It’s an excellent overview.