Old North Cemetery

New Lane is bordered on both sides by cemeteries. The cemetery to the west is the Old North Cemetery.  In the 1800s people still recalled that it had originally been known as “the Gardners’ Burial Ground,” and that the first to be buried in the family cemetery was Abigail Coffin Gardner. Abigail died in 1709, and her husband, Nathaniel Gardner, followed her in death in 1713.  Richard Gardner Jr., who died in 1728, is also said to have been buried there. There are no extant headstones stones for these three Gardners. 

When Abigail, Nathaniel, and Richard Jr. went to their rest, the Founders Burial Ground and the original Friends Burial Ground were both in active use. The Gardner family apparently just began burying their dead on or just next to their own property—a large, irregular piece of land known as the Crooked Record.

People buried on the west side of New Lane were for the most part members of the Congregational Church and, unlike their Quaker neighbors, had no objection to gravestones.  The empty-looking area within the cemetery reflects the toll time and weather have taken on the oldest grave markers. A public works project in the 1930s revealed fallen stones and also the decayed remains of old wooden markers a foot or more beneath the surface.

The early burials were of members of the intermarried Gardner and Coffin families. Twenty-six Gardner headstones and forty-four Coffin headstones survive today. It is unknown just when the cemetery became available to more distant cousins—all “descended Nantucketers” (offspring of the first English settlers) being bound by marriage ties within two or three generations. Stones from the mid- to late-1700s already record the surnames Hussey (1746), Davis (1763), Barnard and Bunker (1770).  

Dr. Samuel Gelston, born in Rhode Island in 1727, moved with his family to Nantucket in the early 1760s.  Dr. Gelston (not to be confused with his uncle, the Rev. Samuel Gelston, a Presbyterian clergyman born in Ireland in 1692) had a strong commitment to inoculation against smallpox. This put him on a collision course with the Society of Friends.

For reasons hard to fathom at this remove, the Quakers considered inoculation ungodly and forbid members of the Meeting to subject themselves to it, so Dr. Gelston began his public health campaign on Martha’s Vineyard, where he received permission to set up an inoculation station in 1763.  It took him until 1771 to receive permission to begin inoculating Nantucketers, and he could not do so on Nantucket.  Instead, people wishing to undergo the procedure had to have it done on Gravelly Island, a tiny islet off Smith’s Point.

At the time, smallpox was present not only onboard ships and in foreign ports, but at home, where it had struck the descended Nantucketers in 1759 and continued into the 1760s. Among the people who availed themselves of Dr. Gelston’s services were numbers of Quaker men who—singly and in groups—presented themselves to be inoculated. Their names appear in the Nantucket Meeting’s Book of Objections. The Quaker elders did their best to shut down Dr. Gelston’s practice, but as late as 1778 Friend Obadiah Coffin was disowned for “going to Gravelly Island to be inoculated for the smallpox,” and less than a year later it was recorded that Friend Gorham Folger “had been to Gravelly Island and passed the operation of the smallpox by inoculation but did not seem disposed to amend the breach.” 

In the meantime, Dr. Gelston had gotten himself into other trouble.  An outspoken Tory, his intemperate speech and behavior eventually led to his arrest for treason against the young United States of America.  Only a contrite petition to the General Court of Massachusetts won his release from custody and made it possible for him to return to his wife and many children on Nantucket. In time, Dr. Gelston and seven members of his family found their final rest in the Old North Cemetery, where their headstones are still to be found.

Except in their mutual disregard for Quaker principles, hardly anyone could be more the polar opposite of Dr. Gelston than Nantucket patriot Reuben Chase. Born in the mid-1750s, Chase was a seasoned young seaman when the American Revolution began, and he was one of twenty-one Nantucket men to serve under John Paul Jones. Chase saw action aboard a number of American warships, including the famous Bonhomme Richard, and one French privateer.  At the end of the war, he made a final voyage with Jones to France and then turned to whaling and eventually to mastering a transatlantic packet ship.

Chase, a strikingly tall man, became the model for “Long Tom Coffin” in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1824 novel, The Pilot. Cooper had met Chase while a passenger aboard his packet ship and been struck by Chase’s height and demeanor.

Chase passed uninjured through combat and the perils of whaling to die of old age at home in 1824.  His brother Joseph composed a long epitaph in verse for his memorial stone, but Reuben’s son replaced it with one more simply inscribed: “An honest man, a revolutionary officer, and a pensioner.” 

In the south corner of the cemetery facing New Lane stands a prominent memorial tablet for Robert Ratliff, an English seaman who, having been shipwrecked on Nantucket, stayed to marry and to found a prosperous ship’s rigging business. Ratliff had served in the British Navy during the War of 1812 and was present when the British burned Washington D.C. in 1814.  The very next year he served aboard the ship that carried Napoleon Bonaparte into exile on St. Helena. The Great Fire of 1846 wiped out Ratliff’s fortune, and having no family to care for him in old age, he lived out his last years in the Asylum. There he became a celebrity for his stories that were so thrillingly at odds with Nantucket Quaker experience. Eastman Johnson painted his portrait in 1879, and upon Ratliff’s death in 1882, Nantucket businessman Frederick Sanford provided his monument.

Unlike the Founders Burial Ground and the first Quaker Burial Ground, the Old North Cemetery continued in use throughout the 1800s. In an odd convention from the beginning of the 1820s, two women and one man are identified on their headstones not as “relicts” or spouses of others, but as “consorts.”   Priscilla Drew is described as the consort of Captain Alexander Drew, and from the same year Stillman Eldridge is described as consort of Lydia H. Eldridge.  The next year there is one more “consort,” and then there are no more.   

In addition to a stone for Captain Robert Inot, who died “at Tampico” in 1825 and his widow, Judith Inot, who survived until 1831, there was for many years a wooden sign identifying Captain Inot as the captain of the Savannah, the first steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1819. In fact, Captain Inot was the first to take command of the Savannah, but only to sail her from the New York shipyard where she was built to Savannah, Georgia, where he turned over command to Captain Moses Rogers to make the transatlantic passage.

The headstone for Phebe Allen refers to the sort of tragic accident that has been none too rare in the course of Nantucket history. On a July morning in 1846 six young Nantucket women and three young men set out in a boat to go bluefishing. Around noon they were off Eel Point when a squall capsized their boat.   One of the men swam to shore for help, but by the time rescuers arrived, eighteen-year-old Phebe and twenty-five-year-old Susan Cleveland had drowned.

In 1878, the students of the West Grammar School erected a headstone to the memory of their teacher, Thomas Rand, who died at the young age of 43.

Late in the 1800s, burials in the Old North Cemetery declined, while burials had begun on the other side of New Lane.

As the Old North Cemetery fell into disuse, it passed into the same state of neglect as the Founders Burial Ground. In 1908 it was fenced on three sides with galvanized wire strung on wooden posts. Another fifteen years passed before voters at a special town meeting declared it neglected and abandoned. This allowed the town to take responsibility for it, but only on the eve of the Crash of 1929 was there a call for funds to cut paths through the overgrown site.  It took the Depression to put Nantucket men to work clearing the cemetery of brush and planting a privet hedge in place of the “uninspiring” wire fence. At some point, lily of the valley became naturalized and spread spontaneously over much of the north side of the cemetery.

Beginning in the 1940s, burials resumed across the far west side of the recovered cemetery. Artist Henry Emerson Tuttle went to his rest there in 1946, joined by his artist wife, Isabelle Hollister Tuttle in 1978. Emerson Tuttle, connected with Yale University throughout his career, is known for his exquisite dry-point etchings of birds.  Isabelle Hollister Tuttle began exhibiting in Nantucket galleries in 1925.  In the Nantucket Historical Association’s exhibition catalog for The Nantucket Art Colony 1920-1945, Curator Ben Simons describes her as “One of the most admired and skillful practitioners of the Art Colony,” and characterizes the Tuttles together as “important voices in the formation of the Artists Association of Nantucket.”

Since the mid-1940s, there has been a burial in the Old North Cemetery every few years and sometimes several within a year. Few, if any, available sites remain. The privet hedge of the 1930s has thrived, engulfing headstones along the sides, but the lily of the valley has fallen victim to mowing machines. There is urgent need for restoration of many of the stones in the Old North Cemetery, and work has been scheduled to begin in August 2022. 

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