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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Nantucket Origins

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

For the month of November I had thought it would be fun to revisit the Puritan origins of my family. But the process of reviewing the information I have on this part of the family led me in an entirely new direction and necessitated considerably more research than I had anticipated.

I started my investigation by revisiting Bessie Eunice Packard's The Edson and Eunice Cornell Packards, a manuscript distributed to family members for Christmas, December 1945. While family histories like this one are valuable and fascinating for the stories they include, the genealogy listed in them should always be checked against available records and the author's sources of information evaluated. I've not yet verified all of Packard's information in this manuscript, and in fact my recent detailed reading has generated several questions about those supposedly Puritan origins of the Cornell family. But those questions will have to wait because the further I read and pursued the evidence, the deeper I fell down the rabbit warren of maternal lines which landed me with the Quakers of Nantucket Island: thus the extra time I needed to find the story for this post.

Any history of early Nantucket Island is rife with the names Coffin, Starbuck, Folger, Gardner, Macy, Coleman, and Barnard. And it turns out that "rabbit warren of maternal lines" includes all of these names. My branch of the family, Reuben and Phoebe Coleman Barnard left Nantucket with their children on October 26, 1778. But the cousins left behind produced a number of notable people.

Tristram Coffin, my ninth great-grandfather, was the leader of the Nantucket settlers during the first ten years of settlement on the island. He was a Puritan and something of a despot, with a contentious rivalry with John Gardner. Wikipedia claims that, with the exception of Benjamin Franklin, nearly all famous Americans with ancestors from Nantucket Island are descended from Coffin. Wondering about the truth of this statement, I decided to go in search of a few famous Nantucket islanders.

It turns out that astronomer Maria Mitchell is my fourth cousin five times removed. Our common ancestors are my eighth great-grandparents, John and Joanna Folger Coleman. Mitchell's mother was Lydia Coleman. John Coleman's father,Thomas Coleman, was a business partner of one of the nine first purchasers on Nantucket Island, John Swain.

Rowland Hussey Macy, the founder of Macy's department store is also a fourth cousin five times removed. Our common ancestor is John Macy (1655-1691), the son of Thomas Macy who was one of the original twenty landowners on Nantucket.

Abolitionist and women's rights activist, Lucretia Coffin Mott, was a close friend of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was also my fifth cousin five times removed related through both her father and her mother—a relationship I never dreamed of when I wrote a report on Mott for American history class in high school.

Lydia Folger Fowler, the second woman in America to earn a medical degree (after Elizabeth Blackwell), is also a fifth cousin five times removed.

James Athearn Folger, founder of Folgers Coffee, is my sixth cousin four times removed. His nephew, Henry Clay Folger, founded the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

Lesser known today, but famous in its day, and rather disturbing are my connections to the crew of the whaling ship Essex and other characters associated with the Essex tragedy. The inspiration behind Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the full story of the Essex is told by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book, In the Heart of the Sea. Zimri Coffin, my second cousin six times removed, was captain of the Dauphin who discovered the surviving crew members of the Essex off the coast of Chile. Obed Macy, whose journal and history of Nantucket Island is extensively cited by Philbrick, is my second cousin seven times removed. The two principal owners of the Essex, Gideon Folger (father of Lydia Folger Fowler) and Paul Macy are both cousins, fourth cousin six times removed and third cousin six times removed respectively. In all likelihood at least three other owners of the Essex are cousins as well. Essex crew member Owen Coffin, the 18-year old first cousin of the Essex's captain, George Pollard, Jr., was my second cousin five times removed. You will have to read Philbrick's book to discover his fate.

On September 29, 1819, two other cousins, Edmund Gardner (forth cousin seven times removed), captain of the Balena sailing from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Elisha Folger (third cousin six times removed), captain of the Equator were the first two whaling ships to visit the Hawaiian Islands.

When Reuben and Pheobe Coleman Barnard left Nantucket, they moved to New York where their daughter Eunice married Elijah Cornell. Eunice and Elijah's eldest son became an associate of Samuel Morse in the telegraph business making a fortune in the process. He went on to found Cornell University. His son Alonzo was a governor of New York State. Ezra's sister Phoebe moved to Michigan and through her brother's influence became the first female telegraph operator. Their sister Deborah also moved to Michigan and became my great-great-great-grandmother.

So what about Benjamin Franklin? While Franklin may not be a descendent of Tristram Coffin, thanks to a great number of intermarriages between these first families we are first cousins nine times removed through his mother's family, the Folgers. Our common ancestor is the senior Peter Folger who first came to Nantucket as Tristam Coffin's translator for the native Americans.


Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Starbuck, Alexander. Nantucket Genealogies. Baltimore: Clearfield, 2001.

Wikipedia contributors. "Ezra Cornell." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed January 23, 2016. Wikipedia contributors. "J. A. Folger." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed January 24, 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. "Lucretia Mott." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed January 23, 2016.Wikipedia contributors. "Lydia Folger Fowler." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed January 24, 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. "Rowland Hussey Macy." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed January 23, 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. "Tristram Coffin (settler)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed January 17, 2016.

Worth, Henry Barnard. Nantucket Lands and Landowners.

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