A peninsula divides Polpis Harbor into two lobes. Fanning out from there to the south, east and west are rolling hills, pastures, beech woods, salt marsh, peat bogs, and glacial kettle-hole ponds. This has been farming country for a long time, and its residents have been no-nonsense, down-to-earth, independent, even ornery. In the past, to say someone was “polpisy” was to mean he was a bit of a country bumpkin. In the 1800s, the tiny Polpis School that served the farmers’ children was considered problematical, not for any deficiency or unruliness of the students, but due to parental “interference,” which probably meant keeping children out of school to do farm work.
In 1677, Watt Noose, one of the sons of the Wampanoag sachem Nickanoose, conveyed the peninsula to John Swain, one of Nantucket’s first English settlers. At the moment of transfer, it was called Watt’s Neck, but henceforth it would be known as Swain’s Neck. Swain already had a house on the Neck and liberty to build a fulling mill nearby. Somewhere along the way, the deed to John Swain was lost or destroyed, and in 1687 Swain received a patent from New York to replace it.
The Wampanoags called the place Poatpes, and right into the twentieth century, “Podpis” and “Polpis” competed as variant forms. As early as the 1700s, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote “Palpus,” while as late as the 1920s, Alcon Chadwick used “Podpis.” Today “Polpis” has completely driven out “Podpis.”
In “Reminiscences of Old Podpis,” Chadwick, member of the Nantucket High School Class of 1923, wrote of the evolution of the place from a single homestead in the late 1600s to something more substantial by the 1800s: “As time went on Podpis grew to be a village of importance, though made up only of farms. They used to keep large herds of cattle, which were allowed to graze on the commons. Their chief crops were field corn and hay up to about the year 1890.” In her memoir, Abbie Pittman Ray—who was born in Polpis in 1842, grew up there, and went to the Polpis School—enumerated twenty-five farms along the main road.
It was always a dispersed, centerless village, but in addition to big farms, it had dwelling houses on tiny bits of land, several water-powered fulling mills and a grist mill, numbers of little bridges, and the schoolhouse.
Besides mills, school, and farms, Polpis had its own cemetery. Abbie Ray wrote, “Benjamin Swain owned the next farm. Then came Alexander Macy’s farm. Continuing on from the Macy farm on the main road came our farm. Joining this was the burying ground where the early settlers of the village were buried.” Although Polpis Road has been rerouted in several places, it still runs along the south side of Polpis Cemetery, just as it did when Abbie Ray was growing up.
Before it became the village cemetery, before there even was a village, the southwest-facing hillside was a family burial place for the Swains. John Swain, born in 1633, came to the island in 1660 with his parents Richard and Jane Swain. Two years later, his mother breathed her last, the first Englishwoman to die on Nantucket.
John Swain’s wife was Mary Wyer, daughter of another early settler. Their son, John Jr., born in 1664, has been described as “the first white male child born on the island.” So the Swains accounted for the very first death and one of the first births among Nantucket’s new English population.
The town of Nantucket, located between Capaum Pond and the western shore of the Great Harbor, was incorporated in 1671, and its name changed, by order of the governor of New York, to Sherburne in 1673. At about the same time, the two outpost villages of Sesachacha and Siasconset, came into being on the eastern shore of the island. Choosing not to take up permanent residence in any of these, John Swain acquired property in what was then Indian territory.
Richard and John Swain, father and son, were said to be Quakers or at least in sympathy with the tenets of the Religious Society of Friends. Nonetheless, John Swain was held to be less than Quakerly in behavior. When Friend Thomas Story came to Nantucket in 1704, he made the long trek out to Polpis to pay a visit, arriving to find a large company of Wampanoags helping the Swains with a house-raising. Everyone was in boisterous high spirits, which mightily offended Story. His rebuke, in turn, offended the Wampanoags, who walked out.
As for final resting places, we don’t know whether Richard Swain, who died in 1682, was laid to rest in the Founders Burial Ground, on his own homestead (as his wife Jane had been), or on his son’s property in Polpis. The name of Richard’s grandson, John Swain Jr., is one of ten on the memorial tablet raised in 1881 at the Founders Burial Ground, but there is no way of knowing for sure that he was buried there either.
John Jr. married Experience Folger, one of the daughters of Peter Folger and Mary Morrell Folger, and there is a story about Mother Folger—having grown stout in her later years—walking from town to Polpis to visit Experience and her family with a chair tied to her back so she could sit down to rest along the way.
William Swain, son of John Jr. and Experience, was a slave owner—the master of Boston and Maria and their eight children born into slavery. William Swain wrote deeds of manumission for Boston and Maria and their infant son in 1760, but he withheld freedom from their older sons well into their 20s, sending them on whaling voyages in the meantime. When Prince Boston returned from a voyage in 1773, he learned that William Swain had choked to death on a piece of meat. William’s heirs tried to assert ownership of Prince Boston and sued for his lay from the voyage, but the effort failed, and the slave-owning days of the Swain family came to an end.
William Swain’s cousin Christopher Swain is the first Swain for whom there is documentation of burial in the family cemetery. Keziah Coffin Fanning’s parents had an estate in nearby Quaise, and Keziah was a dedicated diarist. In her journal entry for October 29, 1784, she wrote, “Christopher Swain died today in his hut at Squam. He had for a number of years led a hermit’s life, the most of a Heathen among us—ragged, dirty he was. This morning some Squaws went into his habitation and found him dead on the floor. Buried in Polpis burying ground.”
In time, people other than Swains were buried there, notably members of the Chadwick and Gibbs families. Some inmates from the nearby Quaise Asylum were brought over for burial, including Abraham Blish, who was interred “at Polpis” in March 1842. Some of Blish’s fellow inmates were crew members taken off vessels in port because of acute illness, generally tuberculosis. Their stays at the Asylum were usually brief, and upon death, their remains—like those of Blish—may have been brought to the Polpis Cemetery. Such graves were probably unmarked. In 1892 there were just six recognizable headstones.
By the middle of the 1800s, numbers of retired whaling captains had taken up farming in Polpis, but with the collapse of Nantucket’s economy, farming became less profitable, despite a shift from dairying to growing cranberries. Toward the end of the century, numbers of the Polpis farms were simply abandoned. There was a burial on September 30, 1886, and then the cemetery, too, was abandoned. By the beginning of the 1900s, Polpis wore an air of desolation.
Fire took its toll of old Polpis landmarks. The schoolhouse burned to the ground in 1881. It was replaced, and classes continued until 1920. Then the building stood empty for years until it was purchased, moved a little way off, and converted into a summer cottage.
The Old Swain Farmhouse, said to be John Swain Sr.’s original dwelling house and hence the oldest house on the island—older than the 1686 Jethro Coffin House—burned in 1902. There is some controversy, however, about whether this building was the one in existence at the time of the 1677 deed or the one that the Swains and their Wampanoag helpers raised in 1704. In the summer of 1913, another Swain farmhouse went up in flames spread from a nearby burning barn. This one was an old lean-to originally built in town on Centre Street in the early 1700s and at some point taken down, conveyed in pieces to Polpis, and re-erected.
As the 20th century advanced, visitors to the island began to buy up the surviving farmhouses and their outbuildings and turn them into summer homes, and the new owners turned to the Land Court to register precise delineation of their property holdings
In 1950 a search for the eastern boundary of the cemetery briefly uncovered some of the old stones, but it was another seventeen years before the whole cemetery was cleared of brush in a search for all four bounds. At that point, there were just two stones and a number of depressions in the ground. One of the stones was inscribed with the date October 29, 1784, the death date of hermit Christopher Swain.
Another ten years passed, and then a long-time summer resident of Polpis approached the Nantucket Department of Health with a request for a burial site in the old cemetery. The health inspector used the occasion to cite Chapter 114, section 17 of the General Laws of Massachusetts: Preservation of Ancient Burial Grounds, which states that if a tract of land has been used as a burial ground for more than a hundred years, it cannot be appropriated to any other use. Burials resumed, and today, in addition to two very old, weathered stones, many new stones memorializing people have taken their place in this certifiably ancient burial ground. This is the only Town cemetery where there are still burial lots for sale, although demand for them has reduced the number still available to just a few. The Nantucket Cemetery Commission plans do more clearing and lay out more burial lots for inurnment of cremated remains in the near future.
This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).