No one knows for sure, but it is estimated that approximately five thousand people are buried in the apparently empty field (originally known as the Friends Burial Ground). There are only 56 headstones on the north side. A sign explains that these marked graves are of members of the Hicksite and Gurneyite branches of Quakerism. More conservative members of the Religious Society of Friends considered attachment to earthly remains a type of idolatry, and they regarded the Hicksites and Gurneyites as “heretical Friends.”
This cemetery is the second one used by Nantucket’s Quakers to bury their dead. An earlier one was located further west somewhere along Madaket Road. Burials there began in 1709, soon after many Nantucketers became “convinced” Quakers.
There was a Quaker meetinghouse at the site of this first cemetery, but as the number of Nantucketers embracing Quakerism increased exponentially, that meetinghouse proved too small. What is more, the town was relocating eastward from its first site around Capaum Pond, Maxcy’s Pond, and the North Head of Hummock Pond to its present site. The first Quaker meetinghouse was abandoned in 1731 and a second one was erected at the corner of Madaket Road and Quaker Road where the cemetery is today.
Burials in the old cemetery continued until 1760, but the first burial at the new site took place in 1732. For a short time, despite the lack of a fence or headstones, the old Quaker burial ground could still be located, because the first meetinghouse still stood there, but the abandoned building burned down in 1736. Then—just as the Quakers would have wanted—their first burial place was lost to memory. Despite indications on the 1858 Walling Map and the 1869 Ewer Map, no one knows for sure exactly where it was.
In 1792 the Quakers demolished their meetinghouse on the corner of Madaket and Quaker Roads and built two new ones in town, leaving more room for burials. Now fenced, and with only the relatively few headstones, it gives no clue to how many human remains were buried there.
Robert Lowell memorialized the field in his poem The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket, in which he speaks of “this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves.”
To learn more about Nantucket’s cemeteries and burial places, see Frances Karttunen’s book, Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground, available from the NHA Museum Shop.