New North Cemetery

On the east side of New Lane, across from the Old North Cemetery, is the New North Cemetery.  By now, neither the lane nor the cemetery is new.  New Lane appears in the 1799 official list of streets in the Town of Nantucket, while the earliest death dates inscribed on stones in the New North Cemetery date from the second quarter of the 1800s. Most of the burials there have taken place from the mid-1800s forward to the present.

In New North Cemetery are headstones for thirteen men identified in the inscriptions as sea captains. This is by no means a full count of the master mariners laid to rest here, however, since some men who commanded ships do not have “Capt.” on their headstones. 

The Nantucket chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic records six veterans of the Civil War buried in the “North Cemetery.” Henry C. Russell (d. 1863), and Henry F. Coffin (d. 1889) were interred in New North Cemetery, while Hiram Fisher (d. 1864), Charles Fisher (d.1864), William Friend (no date) and Peleg Morgan (d. 1865) rest in the Old North Cemetery.  

The Society of Friends was opposed to its members having anything to do with Freemasons.  Nonetheless, Masonry took hold in Nantucket around the time of the American Revolution and has held fast even through a period of anti-Masonic public opinion in the 1830s. Today, Nantucket’s historic Union Lodge remains healthy and active.   A walk around New North Cemetery reveals a great many Masonic symbols on headstones of Nantucket’s business leaders of the last half of the 1800s and much of the 1900s. 

When the burials began, the cemetery was smaller than it is today because of the presence of the Round Top Mill.  A windmill for grinding corn, it had been built on high ground east of New Lane in 1802.  It appears on the 1834 William Coffin Jr. map of the town with no cemetery at all adjoining it to the north, although the old “Burying Ground” on the west side of New Lane is indicated. On the 1858 Henry Walling map, New North Cemetery is present, though occupying only the northwest quarter of its present site. 

Grove Lane, which bounds the south sides of both Old and New North Cemeteries, was not a 1799 street.  A bit of it running west from New Lane is to be seen on the 1834 map, while the extension connecting New Lane and North Liberty Street first appears on the 1858 map.   To this day, the wetland to the south of Grove Lane is known as the Mill Pond, while water draining out of it in the direction of Hummock Pond eventually becomes Mill Brook. The mill itself was demolished in 1873, and the land upon which it stood was conveyed by deed to New North Cemetery in 1884. 

During their decades of co-existence, the Round Top Mill—with its turning vanes, creaking wooden gears, and grinding stones—must have been a restless companion for the dead in both Old and New North Cemeteries.

One of the early headstones in New North Cemetery makes reference to a family tragedy that took place a mile or so to the west beyond the terminus of Mill Brook.   It reads: “In memory of George Henry, son of George and Sarah Coffin, who was drowned in the Hummock Pond, August 5, 1834, aged 9 years, 6 mos. 

A tragedy of epic proportions is also to be read on a group of headstones in New North Cemetery. Owen Chase, first mate of the whaleship Essex, enjoys celebrity status thanks to the retelling by Nathaniel Philbrick of the story of how Chase and a total of seven others (out of a crew of twenty-one) survived the sinking of their ship by an enraged bull sperm whale far out in the Pacific Ocean in November 1820.   Chase and two of the others survived ninety-three days at sea in an open boat, sailing from the Offshore Whaling Ground almost to the coast of Chile. Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, has been a major work of Nantucket whaling history since it won the National Book Award in 2001. 

After rescue from starvation in the open boat, Chase went back to sea and had a successful career as a whaling captain, but late in life his traumas on sea and land caught up with him. In his last years he hoarded food in his attic while suffering agonies of what we would today characterize as post-traumatic stress disorder. 

His terrestrial sorrows are reflected by the group of three headstones. Owen Chase’s stone does not identify him as Captain, only as “Owen Chase, d. 1869.” On the same stone are the names of his first two wives.  Peggy, his first wife, died at the age of 26 in 1826. Nancy, his second wife, died in 1833 at the age of 39.  Both women lost their lives to complications of childbirth within a few months of Owen going back to sea.  The second headstone to the south of Owen Chase’s stone is for his fourth wife, Susan, who outlived him by a dozen years.  She is simply identified as “Susan Chase, wife of Owen Chase.”  

And the intervening stone?  What about Chase’s third wife?  Instead, the stone between the one for Owen Chase and that for Susan Chase is for Captain James Gwinn, who died in 1835. Susan was Captain Gwinn’s widow when she married Owen.  Both of her husbands are buried at her side. 

Owen Chase’s third wife was Eunice Chadwick, a young bride who had taken on the care of four step-children and bid good-by to Owen as he departed on yet another voyage within months of their nuptials. Once again, childbirth brought domestic tragedy, but this time the tragedy was that Eunice gave birth long after Owen’s departure. Upon return from his final whaling voyage, Owen divorced Eunice and gained custody of her son.

Eunice lived into old age, dying in 1888.  There is no headstone for her, and little is known of the life and eventual passing of the boy, Charles Fredrick Chase. 

While Owen Chase is, these days, a part of Nantucket public history, Helen Winslow Chase was a member of the distinguished company of women Nantucket historians. Born and educated on Nantucket, young Helen Winslow—like many other women graduates of Nantucket High School—went off to Bridgewater State College to earn a degree in education. Finishing just before the United States entered World War II, she returned home to teach history in the Nantucket schools for seven years.

Then she was bitten by intellectual wanderlust, which took her all over the Midwest—teaching and studying in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and earning a graduate degree in American History from the University of Wisconsin.  

Still she forged on, doing research at Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, studying foreign policy at the University of Hawaii, and delving into whaling records in repositories in New Zealand and Australia.  Traveling by freighter from New York City via the Panama Canal to Auckland, New Zealand in 1970, she made calls in Western Samoa and at Pitcairn Island.   Because of the difficulty of landing at Pitcairn, she remained aboard the freighter while two boatloads of representatives from the island came out to hold a “gam” (carry on a shipboard exchange of news) with her.  Nantucket historians Edouard A. Stackpole and Grace Brown Gardner treasured the Pitcairn Island postcards she sent to them that day. 

Upon her return from the Pacific, she did graduate work in Nantucket history at the University of Massachusetts. Through much of this time, she served as summer librarian for the Nantucket Historical Association, where she was a specialist on whaling logbooks and shipboard journals. With Edouard Stackpole, she co-edited cabin boy Thomas Nickerson’s account of the sinking of the Essex and the survival of Captain George Pollard, first mate Owen Chase, and a handful of Essex crew members including Nickerson himself.   Accumulating a significant professional library, she also wrote and published numbers of articles about Nantucket history— a remarkable accomplishment for a woman whose initial training was at a state teachers college. 

Unmarried until late in life, she married widower James Franklin Chase in 1981. Upon her death in 2003, her entire scholarly collection passed to the Nantucket Historical Association, where—according to her obituary—it “will be a resource for generations to come.” 

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