Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 2 • May 7 - 21, 2009
now in our 39th season

Life in the Mansion on Pleasant Street:
The Women, Part I

by Helen Seager 

Thomas Macy and nineteen others established the village of Sherburne on Nantucket three hundred fifty years ago. Macy descendants will gather on the island on the second weekend in July to celebrate the event that started that notable line. Obed Macy, a stellar descendant of Thomas’s fifth generation, known for his 1835 History of Nantucket, built a new home on Pleasant Street during 1801— just six years after the name of the town was changed from Sherburne to Nantucket. 

At the end of July, 1802, 40 year old Obed Macy (1762—1844) brought into town his wife Abigail Pinkham Macy and their infant son Daniel (age 1); their sons Thomas (age 14), Reuben (age 12), and Peter (age 9); their daughters Elizabeth (age 4), and Mary (age 2). They had spent two months at their farm in Polpis and took up residence on the northwest corner of Pleasant Street and Mill in the substantial transitional Federal style new house in the developing town. 

How was life in the Obed Macy House in the early nineteenth century?  In this month of Mothers’ Day, it is fitting to focus on the women who first lived there: the Macy mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. We can examine their lives and character from Obed’s own account, in a remarkable booklet in his own hand, Family Mirror, in the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library, and other documents in that repository. 

Obed Macy was one of the ten children of Judith Gardner Folger Macy and Caleb Macy; he had two sisters and four brothers who survived to adulthood. Three daughters of Caleb and Judith had died in infancy; two of these infants were named Kezia, for Judith’s legendary sister Kezia Folger Coffin. (Alexander Starbuck, History of Nantucket, p. 801). 

Caleb was thirty and Judith twenty when they married. According to Obed’s later reminiscences, “frequently from ten to twelve workmen besides the children and servants” lived in their house with the family.  Such households were not unusual in pre-industrial homes of eighteenth century New England.

Caleb had tried farming, milling, shoemaking, cordwaining (making shoes to measure on a custom last), ploughing, and  short whaling voyages —and more— all before he married Judith.  Nantucket women of Judith’s time made often unsung but critical contributions to family and community culture and well-being on an island where so many men stayed away at sea for long periods.  Obed wrote that his father “often called for her assistance, not only in administering to his comfort in sickness but frequently in counseling together respecting his business.” He owned shares in wharf, house, and beach lots, commercial property,  shares in mills as well as farm land and pasture.   

Obed also recalled that his mother “was always patient, being an example of moderation through life, ” and was “careful in the attendance of religious (Quaker) meetings when the circumstances of her family would admit.”  Before she was nineteen years old, her two brothers and father had been lost at sea, and she had been widowed after nursing her first husband in his final illness.  Women’s history author Lisa Norling, writes, “Particularly later in her life, Judith served in numerous capacities and on several committees for the Nantucket Women’s Monthly Meeting.”  She served as Clerk of that Meeting from 1787 until 1796, and represented the Nantucket Women’s Meeting at the Quarterly Meeting at Sandwich.  She was entrusted with examining the “preparedness of prospective brides" and attended marriages.   With her sons, Judith was instrumental in the separation of the Nantucket Hicksite Meeting from the island’s orthodox Quakers in 1830.  

Judith was an entrepreneur in her own right.  Her book of accounts in her own hand records business transactions with goods and services between 1783 and 1805 in her shop with family members and the public.  She sold household and dry goods, farm produce, provisions, and, on accasion,  butchered meat; her services included spinning and providing lodging.  From time to time she hired helpers, including her daughters. 

Judith’s fifth child, Caleb, Jr., was crippled by a broken thigh and suffered from an undefined affliction of mind.  He had learned shoemaking from his father but never developed a proficiency with which to support himself; he was  “unable to perform any labor.”  He lived with both parents until he was 34, then with his mother after Caleb (Sr.) died.  His survivng sister and three brothers agreed that their mother would use income from Caleb, Jr.’s share of their father’s estate to support him during his lifetime; assets were sold from time to time to provide for him.  He was cared for by different relatives in turn, including his sister Ruth Macy Chase.  According to brother Obed:

When he lost his parents, particularly his mother which was in 1819, the loss was irreparable .... (H)e afterwards lived with different branches of the family...(and) show’d great kindness to his relations with whom he lived. 

Obed Macy described Ruth Macy Chase as “very industrious... was constantly employed in doing something that was to the advantage of herself or some of her friends.”  She had four daughters of her own from her marriage to Job Chase, and took her brother in.  She was skilled with the needle, “particularly in making men’s clothing.”  She and her husband Job had lived in Saratoga, then in Hudson, NY. “and returned to Nantucket and lived in the Mansion House" with Judith.  Ruth's husband died in 1818 and she was left with grown daughters.

Sisters Abigail and Anna Pinkham married brothers Obed and Silvanus Macy respectively, in 1786 and 1779.  The union of two sisters with two brothers formed a tight bond in an already close family.  The Pinkham family had visited Nantucket in 1785 when twenty-year-old Anna married Silvanus (23), but, with twelve-year-old Abigail, they returned to Hudson, New York, during the same year as Anna’s wedding.  Abigail returned to the island ten years later and married Obed, who had proposed to her in a clever poem.  

“Obed to Abigail”

A long consideration
Of the good reputation
Thou hast in this nation
Gives me an inclination
To become thy relation
By legal capitulation
And if this my declaration
May gain the approbation
It will lay in obligation
From generation to generation
On thy friend
Who without thy consideration
 May remain in expectation.

 Obed was at sea as a crew member of the Ship Beaver from August, 1793 until May of 1794.  He may have been on other voyages as well.  By 1800, Obed and Abigail had three sons and two daughters.  An additional son and two daughters were born after 1800.  Silvanus and Anna had five children with one more on the way.  

Life in the mansion on Pleasant Street must have been bustling. There were options in the neighborhood for schooling, but public schools were not available until 1827.  The birth in 1806 of Judith, Abigail’s last child, brought to ten the number of their household.  The other children were Thomas, 19, Reuben, 17, Peter 14, Elizabeth, 9, Mary, 7, Daniel, 5,  and Eunice, 2.  “In her household affairs, (Abigail)...was a remarkable caretaker, she constatntly attended to every branch of the family concerns.”

Then eighty-four-year-old grandmother Judith Macy moved into the house in 1810.  After her husband’s death, Judith “kept small family in the Mansion home ....It not being her choice to live by herself any longer, she resided in her son Obed’s family during which time she had several spells of sickness and lameness.”  In October of 1813, Obed wrote in his Journal #2 :   

Mother received a fall from the lower stair of the Garret into the entry. & although but 9 inches (high), it nevertheless dislocated her wrist & fractured the Bone.  She in falling put her left hand out to prevent falling so heavy as she otherwise would come to the floor first, and caused the disaster; being very corpulent and far advance in her age (near 84) has lost that activity of body that might have saved her in younger life. Doct. Gelston, Daniel Coffin, and others were called in, & replaced the bone in good order, & got her below without difficulty.

Mother is as comfortable as can be expected altho it appears that whole body was shocked but not materially. Awake all night with her wrist.

Several days later, he added

Mother is comfortable, not more pain than expected, feels sore, all over her body; rested pretty well last night.

Not long after Grandmother Judith’s fall, Abigail and Obed’s household began to shrink as family members moved out.  First, Judith moved back to the Mansion house on Main Street where she had raised her family, to live with her daughter and son-in-law, Ruth and Job Chase. 

The stories of the departures of the Macy daughters from the Obed Macy House show much about family living during the nineteenth century.   

Read Part II

Helen Seager has lived at 15 Pleasant Street year round and is an occasional writer or speaker  on topics of history for island publications organizations.  Her articles this summer are based on research in the NHA research library and elsewhere about residents and owners of 15 Pleasant Street.

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