Mary Coffin Starbuck: Nantucket’s Deborah of the Old Testament

Suzanne Quaker, Revell Books, Writing 0 Comments

A few years ago, I started reading of the first white settlers who came to Nantucket Island in 1659. At the time, Mary Coffin was fifteen years old, the youngest daughter of proprietors Tristram and Dionis Coffin. Only a few moments of Mary’s life are known: she married Nathaniel Starbuck at age eighteen, bore the first white child on the island, and eventually had nine more.

Mary started a store and kept track of debits and credits in an accounting book. A little more digging unearthed an exciting discovery: this four hundred-year-old book was still intact, guarded well deep in the vault of the Nantucket Historical Association. So off I went!

After signing my life away to the NHA, I put all my earthly possessions in a safe, donned white gloves, and waited for the accounting book to be brought up from the bowels of the NHA. When the sheepskin covered book was set down in front of me, my heart started to pound. Oh-so-carefully I opened it, turning pages as if they were made of spun sugar. Here, between the lines of faded ink, was the life of Mary Coffin Starbuck!

I discovered that Mary was extremely literate, in marked contrast to her whaling husband, Nathaniel, who was known to be illiterate. Mary’s handwriting was exquisite, her addition and subtraction skills exceeded mine (plus, all figures were in shillings, pence and pounds, for Nantucket belonged to the Brits). And she was involved in the lives of nearly every person on Nantucket, from Wampanoag Indians to housewives to visiting dignitaries.

Here are some pictures of Mary Coffin Starbuck’s Accounting Book, courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association:

MaryCoffinStarbuckAccountingBook4 MaryCoffinStarbuckAccountingBook MaryCoffinStarbuckAccountingBook2 MaryCoffinStarbuckAccountingBook3

From a few other sources, it’s known that Mary had considerable influence on the island as a sage, and was likened to Deborah the wise judge in the Old Testament.

Interested in knowing more about this fascinating woman?

One of the bonuses for pre-ordering Phoebe’s Light is more to this story about Mary Coffin Starbuck. Other bonuses include a “lost chapter” to the novel, plus Quaker proverbs, and a simple guide to the differences between the Quakers and the Amish. Consider yourself invited to claim any or all of the four free bonuses, as my thank you to you for pre-ordering Phoebe’s Light. These bonuses will only be available for a limited time, so don’t delay! Click here to claim! 

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