Among a number of personal resolutions I made for myself many years ago was a determination to do a better job of writing down the important things that come along from day to day. There is something magical about the act of committing thoughts, ideas and observations to written words. The Scottish poet John Barry once told us that “God gave us the gift of memories that we might have June roses in the ‘November’ of our lives”. The things that are happening to us and around us today are likely to be those memories that bring us moments of pleasure and happiness in our ‘tomorrows’; I have found this to be one of life’s great truths.
My first ancestor to settle in America was named Tristram Coffin. Tristram was one of the original settlers of Nantucket Island – one of six Englishmen who purchased the island from its native inhabitants, and set about making it a self-reliant homeland. Beginning in the year 1659 he and his successors began keeping a record of the important things that happened in their new home. I am lucky enough to own a reproduction of that diary and every now and then I sit down with that thin volume, both because of the education involved in that study and because the very exercise serves to remind me that real history is most often written with a humble pen.
I notice, for instance, that in 1666 the first grist mill went into operation on the island, operated by Peter Folger who – exactly one year later – would father a daughter he would name Abiah, who would become the mother of Benjamin Franklin.
In 1695 – it is recorded – a French privateer anchored off shore and sent a large contingent of men to raid settlers’ houses for food.
1786 was a banner year for Nantucket’s whaling fleet, with 80 vessels leaving for northern waters, usually for cruises lasting for one year or more.
The patriotism of those early New Englanders is reflected in the grim statistics compiled during the course of the Revolutionary War: Between 1776 and 1781, it is recorded that more than 1,600 Nantucketers lost their lives in that conflict. We sometimes lose sight of the cost in lives brought about by that long-ago fight for independence.
The 1810 census revealed that the island’s 6,807 human inhabitants shared space with “332 horses, 15 oxen, 505 cows, 355 swine and about 10,000 sheep”.
The year 1820 saw Daniel Webster coming to Nantucket to try a case in court while far out in the distant Pacific, the hometown ship “Essex” was sunk by a whale, the survivors resorting to cannibalism in order to stay alive.
I find my curiosity aroused by entries which leave untold the “rest of a story”. Take for example this one from the year 1860: “Phoebe Fuller was attacked by Patience Cooper on November 22nd and died on December 12 from her injuries.” Or this 1822 notation: “ The ship ‘Globe’, Cap’t Thomas Worth sailed. During 1823 the crew mutinied, killing Cap’t Worth and three officers. The ship returned to Nantucket Nov. 14th, 1824.”
One of the most curious entries comes in the year 1780: “On May 19, with the wind southwest, rain fell intermittently until 10 o’clock, followed by semi-darkness. About noon the darkness was succeeded by a heavy yellow condition, which continued until mid-afternoon. This became known as the ‘yellow day’”. (The most extensive ever known, covering the entire eastern section of the United States and Canada.)
Flipping through the pages of this “local” diary, I find myself looking at 307 years of history, as seen and recorded through the eyes of succeeding generations of Nantucketers who felt it important to write down the highlights of island life as they saw it, from who was born and who died, to events which are sad, poignant, humorous and always . . . human. And here and there, I run into the name of my 8th great grandfather and his peers and descendants.
And what about that long-ago personal resolution ? I find myself “writing down history” as a way of life.
Tall ships with acres of billowing sails once made northeastern sea ports among the busiest in the world.
Those who settled the towns and villages of New England left behind thousands of country cemeteries in which they “wrote down history” on tablets of quarried stone such as these lichen-covered examples over-looking the nearby Atlantic.