Founders Burial Ground

On a hilltop just to the east of Maxcy’s Pond, overlooking the water and with a sweeping sunset view, is a very old cemetery that can be reached from the Nantucket Islands Land Bank’s pond-side parking lot off Cliff Road by following signs directing visitors uphill to the site.  At this spot, long ago, some of the first English settlers were laid to rest.

Over the years the site has been variously named or described as the First Settlers’ Burying Ground, the Founders’ Cemetery, the Forefathers’ Burial Ground, the Founding Fathers’ Cemetery, “the Ancient Burial Ground near Maxcy’s Pond,” “this most ancient burial place of English ancestry,” and even the supremely misleading  “Dionis Grave Stones.” Finally, the Nantucket Board of Selectmen decided to officially name it the Founders Burial Ground 

The very first settler to die after moving to the island is not here.  It was reported that when Jane Swain died on October 31, 1662, she was “buried by her husband under the door stone.” 

Then in 1669 Peter and Mary Folger’s newly-wed daughter Bethiah and her husband were lost at sea when their boat was swamped in a squall as they traveled home from Martha’s Vineyard.

Soon, however, the settler community needed a burial ground, and they chose this hilltop. Among those known to have been interred there were Richard Gardner in 1688, Joseph Gardner in 1701, Captain John Gardner in 1706, Peter Folger Jr. in 1707, Eleazar Folger Sr. in 1716, and James Coffin in 1720. 

In the early 1700s a meetinghouse was erected nearby. According to tradition it was built in 1711, the year that the First Congregational Society was formed, but some doubt has been cast on that early date. Whatever the case, in 1765—in the well-practiced Nantucket house-moving tradition—the North Shore Meeting House was relocated to another hilltop overlooking Nantucket Harbor. Then, in 1835, it was moved back on the site to make way for construction of the handsome North Church that today graces Centre Street. Known as the Old North Vestry, the early eighteenth-century building now adjoins the west end of the nineteenth-century church. 

The old cemetery, bereft of meetinghouse, ceased to be used for burials.   The last Nantucketers laid to rest there were Jonathan Coffin and his wife, Hepsabeth Harker Coffin, both in 1773.   

Where once there had been Sabbath gatherings, things grew very quiet. The early English settlement, that had consisted of organically spaced homesteads with no town center, had relocated eastward from around Capaum Pond, Maxcy’s Pond, Washing Pond, and the North Head of Hummock Pond, to rectangular lots laid out next to the Great Harbor. 

Still, the old burial place was not forgotten.  In 1838 a record of the Nantucket Proprietors was placed in the Nantucket Registry of Deeds referring to the “ancient burial ground of our forefathers” and mandating that it be “reserved as a sacred place,” never to be laid out by the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land “to any individual, company, or individuals” or “appropriated for any other purpose” and encouraging its enclosure with a fence.

The site remained unfenced, however. Little care was taken, and people voiced complaints about the overgrown cemetery. A letter to The Inquirer in September 1838 reported that “there is not a fence to keep off the cattle or protect the last resting place of the bones of those worthy people” and speculated that, “Perhaps there may not be found a place in New England, where the ancient burial place is so neglected.” The writer consoled himself that at least local phrenology enthusiasts had not dug over the settlers’ graves in search of skulls as they had the graves of Nantucket’s Indians. 

Despite the 1838 appeal, the neglect continued.  On August 11, 1877, the Inquirer and Mirror carried a letter to the editor expressing alarm that Captain John Gardner’s gravestone was breaking apart, taking the inscription with it.  The writer appealed for a replica to replace the old stone, and concluded, “The expense would be but trifling; and as the place is now getting to be one of the points of interest to many of the strangers visiting our island, it should be attended to at once. Let someone start a subscription. Our mite is ready.” 

This call for action found a response.  On October 1, 1881 the Inquirer and Mirror carried the following notice:

Forefathers’ Burial Ground

John Gardner's Gravestone. By the suggestion of Tristram Coffin, Esq., of Poughkeepsie, and through his efforts and those of several others, a subscription, amounting to about twenty-five dollars has been raised to procure a new headstone for the grave of John Gardner the first, in place of the one which has stood the ravages of time for one hundred and seventy-five years, and for many years a lone sentinel upon the old cemetery hill.  The old stone will be removed to a place of safety whenever the new stone is ready to be set up.  About twenty-five dollars more are required to make this praiseworthy effort a success.   Persons desiring to contribute for this purpose may send subscriptions to this office and we will see that the amounts are faithfully applied.  To protect this entire cemetery by a suitable fence would also be an object worthy of general contributions.

Also in 1881 a large stone marker was placed on the site honoring ten of Nantucket’s early male settlers.

  • Tristram Coffin (1609-1681)
  • Thomas Macy (1598-1682)
  • Edward Starbuck (1604-1690)
  • Peter Folger (1617-1690)
  • John Gardner (1624-1706)
  • John Swain Jr. (1664-1738)
  • John Coleman (1644-1715)
  • Richard Gardner (1626-1688)
  • Christopher Hussey (1598-1686)
  • William Bunker (1640-1712)

Whether these men were all interred on the hilltop is not certain. Tristram Coffin’s remains may have found the same sort of burial as Jane Swain’s.  In his 1962 book about the Coffin family, Louis Coffin writes “The ancestor Tristram found a sepulchre upon the island of Nantucket where he died, but none of his numerous descendants can point out the place.  If the old cemetery east of Maxcy’s Pond was used for burial as early as 1681, he was doubtless interred therein. If not, then most likely on his own estate.”

For many years the tablet with the names and dates of the ten men stood out against the sky, a landmark visible from Madaket and Cliff Roads. Little was invested in maintenance, however.  In 1930 the town’s Committee on Marking Historic Sites reported that “the bounds of the oldest and first burial ground were set, and the lettering on the stone marker was made legible.”  A further appropriation was requested: “It is also important that the oldest of all the burial grounds should be fenced, using old rails, of which there are sufficient for the purpose on Tuckernuck.”

Fencing, requested periodically since 1838, was left undone, however. In 1973 the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land voted to convey the cemetery to the Town of Nantucket, and the Nantucket Board of Selectmen made the Nantucket Historical Association trustee for the site. 

Encroaching brush eventually obscured the tablet from view, and abutting landowners began denying access to descendants seeking to visit the burial place of their ancestors.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, matters took a turn for the better.  In 2004, brush was cut from the spot, and in 2007, through the cooperative efforts of the Cemetery Commission Work Group, the Roads and Right of Way Committee, the Anglers Club, and the Nantucket Land Bank, a permanent easement for public access was established. The cemetery was officially named in 2008 and rededicated in 2009 in observance of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Nantucket’s first English settlers.

At the July rededication ceremony, it was pointed out that no mention is made of the wives of the men honored on the 1881 tablet. The wives of these ten men were:

  • Dionis Stevens Coffin (1613–1684)
  • Sarah Hopcott Macy (1612–1706)
  • Catherine Reynolds Starbuck (1609–1658)
  • Mary Morrell Folger (1620–1704)
  • Priscilla Grafton Gardner (1656–1717)
  • Experience Folger Swain (1661–1739)
  • Joanna Folger Coleman (1645–1719)
  • Sarah Shattuck Gardner (1631–1724)
  • Theodate Batchelder Hussey (1598–1685)
  • Mary Macy Bunker (1648–1729)

Again, it is not certain that each and every one of these women was laid to rest on this hilltop.  Catherine Reynolds Starbuck, for one, was not; she died the year before her husband, Edward Starbuck, accompanied the first group of settlers to the island in the autumn of 1659. A few months later he returned to the mainland to fetch their children and several more settling families. Very soon thereafter, their son Nathaniel Starbuck married Mary Coffin. In later years, Catherine’s daughter-in-law, Mary Coffin Starbuck, led the way for a great many of the island’s residents to embrace Quakerism. 

With the exception of Catherine, the women came to the island and worked at their husbands’ sides on their homesteads.  The ten of them bore a total of eighty children from whom the subsequent “descended Nantucketers” would, in fact, descend. Surely they were deserving of a monument every bit as big as their husbands’ tablet. 

Those present at the rededication ceremony enthusiastically agreed.  A committee was formed, donations solicited, and by the end of 2009 a second tablet, a monument honoring Nantucket’s women and children, had been erected right next to the 1881 tablet.

This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).