Eliza Starbuck Barney, 1802 – 1889, Mother of Island Genealogy

Eliza Starbuck Barney is known almost as much for her blue H-style Victorian home at 73 Main Street on Nantucket as for her genealogical work, which is now the foundation of the genealogical collection and database at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Research Library. Eliza was born on April 9, 1802, to Joseph and Sally Gardner Starbuck, the third of ten children (Stout 1998). Eliza was raised in the home of a Quaker family made wealthy by whale oil. Like other Nantucket girls who were afforded equal opportunities for schooling with those of their brothers, Eliza developed an enduring love and interest in the natural sciences, agriculture, and history. She became known on the island as a self-taught botanist and entomologist – and a good one. Her father was the Joseph Starbuck of “Three Bricks” fame, using his fortune to build three brick houses for his sons on Main Street. His daughters, he probably felt, would be provided for by their husbands.

Eliza Starbuck Barney.
Eliza Starbuck Barney, ca. 1860. F6742. Photograph courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

Eliza met her match in Nathaniel Barney, ten years her senior, whom she married in May 1820 when she was just eighteen years old (Stout 1998). At Eliza’s wedding, her sister Eunice met Nathaniel’s cousin, silversmith William Hadwen, and within two years they were married as well. The two newlywed couples made their homes at 100 Main Street – living in two connected houses – and the two men went into business together.
Quakers and ardent supporters of the antislavery movement, the Barneys and the Hadwens welcomed many notable antislavery luminaries to their home. William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass visited 100 Main Street when they were on island in 1841 for an antislavery meeting that was organized – in large part – by Anna Gardner, with the assistance of Eliza and Nathaniel Barney (Stout 1998). Eliza and Nathaniel kept up a life-long correspondence with their cousin Lucretia Coffin Mott, frequently discussing the antislavery movement with the Motts. Several of these letters reflect Nathaniel’s issue with the New Bedford Railroad, in which he held stock. For several years, Nathaniel refused to accept his dividends because the railroad would not carry black passengers – a practice that did not sit well with his antislavery beliefs (NHA Coll.178, Folder 2).

Active not only in the antislavery movement, Eliza was also a supporter of the temperance movement and involved in the equal rights and women’s suffrage movements. In 1839 and 1840, Eliza served as secretary of Nantucket’s Anti-Slavery Society and in 1851, with both her daughter and husband at her side, she attended the first women’s suffrage convention held in Massachusetts (Stout 1998). In the late 1850s, Eliza and Nathaniel’s daughter, Sarah, moved with her husband to Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Barneys followed soon after. There they lived not only in the company of their daughter and her family, but also the professors of Vassar College, including another famous island daughter – Maria Mitchell. Both the Barneys and Maria Mitchell documented these visits together.

In 1869, Nathaniel Barney died. Eliza moved back to Nantucket and within several years completed her 73 Main Street Victorian, with the help of her son Joseph. During this period of her life, Eliza served as one of two female trustees for the Nantucket Atheneum, the local library (NHA Coll. 7, Folder 12). At some point between the 1850s and 1860s, Eliza inherited the papers of the self-appointed Nantucket genealogist, Benjamin Franklin Folger (Clarke 1998). Included were the records that would form the basis of Eliza’s life work: The Eliza Starbuck Barney Genealogical Record. The Barney Record, a compilation of family records and the genealogies of islanders, rests in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library and is the cornerstone of all Nantucket genealogical research. After the death of her husband, Eliza lived on at 73 Main Street until the early 1880s, when she went to live with her son Joseph at 96 Main Street, which he had inherited from William Hadwen. In March 1889, Eliza Starbuck Barney died, leaving a priceless legacy: her genealogical records.

73 Main Street, the home of Eliza Starbuck Barney.
73 Main Street, the home of Eliza Starbuck Barney, ca. 1870, Nantucket, MA, November 2006. Photograph by the author.

Excerpted from The Daring Daughters of Nantucket Island
By Jascin Leonardo Finger
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NHA − Nantucket Historical Association, Nantucket, MA.


Joy Family Collection. Collection 7, Folder 12 Scrapbook. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.

Mott Family Papers. Collection 178, Folder 2. Nantucket Historical Association. Nantucket, MA.

Secondary Sources

Clarke, Joan Elrick. 1998. The Eliza Starbuck Genealogical Record. Historic Nantucket 47, no 1: 8 – 9.

Stout, Kate. 1998. Who was Eliza Starbuck Barney? Historic Nantucket 47, no 1: 10 – 12.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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