Since March is Women’s History Month, we thought it would be a good time to announce that the Law Library has recently acquired a legal document signed by Mary Coffin Starbuck and the Wampanoag Sachem, Wunnatuckquannum.
The Law Library’s rare books collection is in principle a collection of printed books, but we also have the good fortune from time to time of acquiring unique documents created by important Americans in the course of their public careers. We have featured such items in a number of blog posts and videos. This document is an example of that category of acquisition. It is a single manuscript sheet that records the sale of a piece of land on the island of Martha’s Vineyard called Nashowamoiasuk, or Neck Point of the Edgartown Great Pond. The seller is called “Mr. Harrie, Indian of Nantucket,” and the buyer is John Coffin. Two witnesses signed the document – they are Nathaniel and Mary Starbuck. Visible in the image above are the words “Signed Sealed & delivered / in presence of / Mary Starbuck / Nathaniel Starbuck.” It was Mary Starbuck’s name that first caught our attention.
The Mary Starbuck whose name appears here is Mary Coffin Starbuck, a woman who was a major figure in early colonial Nantucket. Born on February 20, 1645, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, Mary was the daughter of Tristram Coffin, one of the founders of the English colony on the island. In 1662, after two years on Nantucket, she married Nathaniel Starbuck in the first English marriage on the island. The couple opened a general store and trading post that thrived. Mary took on the management of the company. Her husband could not read or write; all the records of the store, some of which have been preserved, were in her hand. In time, she came to exercise influence over the island community. For many years, she also had a large part in preventing the establishment of any particular Christian denomination on the island. She showed impatience with formal religious observances and frequently turned away ministers who hoped to organize a church on Nantucket. This changed in 1702, when an itinerant Quaker minister named John Richardson visited Nantucket. “Speaking before a group assembled in the Starbucks’ living room, Richardson succeeded in moving Mary to tears” (Philbrick, p. 8). After she became a Quaker, she established a Quaker meeting house in her home. Starbuck’s conversion and influence is credited with helping to make Quakerism predominant on the island in the 18th century. She was consulted on all important public matters and was considered a sort of judge by many people in Nantucket. Locals called her home the “Parliament house” (Leonardo).
The deed is dated November 14, 1685. The property was sold for a price of six pounds. Very interestingly, the document also records an addendum on the verso, which was added on August, 20, 1693, in which “Mr. Jacob Washman” and “Natuckquanum” quit their claim to the land that is listed on the recto. Natuckquanum is Wunnatuckquannum, a Wampanoag Sachem whose life and record as a leader of her community offers a window into Native American society on Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard) in the second half of the 17th century. Wunnatuckquannum was involved in a number of land deals whose records are extant. She was married to Jacob Washman, whose name appears with hers on this document. Wunnatuckquannum’s precedessor — her grandfather, Tawaquantuck — who had converted to Christianity and adopted some English customs, sold some of his land to the settler and Christian missionary Thomas Mayhew as early as 1641. Although the island was spared the destruction that King Philip’s war visited on the Native American communities of the mainland, disease and indebtedness ravaged the community. Wunnatuckquannum’s life and leadership took place in that context of extraordinary challenges and transformation (Fitzgerald, p. 150). Very few records document her life directly.
Likewise, few documents remain that bear first hand testimony to the facts of Mary Coffin Starbuck’s life. The most important of these is an account book that she kept in the Starbuck family store. That account book is now in the library of the Nantucket Historical Association.
Like this document, the Starbuck account book is interesting for the evidence it preserves of interactions between English settlers and the Wampanoag people of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard at the end of the 17th century, a time at which the population of Nantucket was still overwhelmingly Native American.
Fitzgerald, Stephanie. “I Wunnatuckquannum, this is my hand,” in Native Acts: Indian Performance, 1603-1832. ed. by Joshua David Bellin and Laura L. Mielke, c2011.
Chaves, Kelly K. “Before the First Whalemen: The Emergence and Loss of Indigenous Maritime Autonomy in New England, 1672-1740,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 87, No. 1 (March 2014), pp. 46-7.
Leonardo, Jascin. “Nantucket’s Daring Daughters: A Brief Look at Mary Coffin Starbuck.” Nantucket Chronicle, retrieved 3.29.2021.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away off shore: Nantucket Island and its people, 1602-1890, 2011.
This is fascinating history — thank you for bringing it to our attention!