Judith Macy and Her Daybook; or, Crevecoeur and the Wives of Sherborn

Of the more than five hundred account books held in the collections of the Nantucket Historical Association, there are just two predating the nineteenth century that were kept by women. One is the much examined record, spanning 1662-1757, kept by the famous Mary and Nathaniel Starbuck.  The other, which has not garnered anywhere near the same kind of attention, is Judith Macy’s daybook.

The modest volume, covered in thick, soft, dark-brown leather, records transactions and accounts from 1783 to 1805. Judith Macy’s name is written firmly several times on what serves as a title page and again at the top of the first page of record keeping. In spite of the certainty with which her book is labeled, though, it is not immediately obvious just which Judith Macy this was; there were at least three adult women with that name on Nantucket at the time. A little detective work reveals references within the day­book to “Silvanus Macy,” “Obed Macy,” “Judith” and “Ruth,” which suggest that the keeper might have been the Judith Macy with four children of those names, and comparing the handwrit­ing with signatures on various legal documents confirms it. The volume belonged to Judith Folger Gardner Macy (1729-1819).

This Judith was a direct descendant of the first Nantucket Folger, Peter, through both her father (Daniel Folger, 1701-44) and her mother (Abigail Folger, 1703-87): Judith’ s parents were cousins and Peter Folger’s great grandchildren. Her sister was the notorious Kezia Coffin, and her sons the prosperous merchants Sylvanus and Obed Macy. (Obed is also well-known, of course, as the foremost early native chronicler of the island; his History of Nantucket was first published in 1835.) Yet for all her prominent connections, Judith has gone virtually unre­membered.

So have most Nantucket women of the eighteenth century. In fact, we know surprisingly little about the women who lived through that formative period in Nantucket’s history when the island acquired its most charac­teristic features: its equal commitments to Quakerism and to the whalefishery. The pantheon of notable Nantucket women from the nineteenth century is crowded with such illustrious figures as Lucretia Coffin Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Phebe Hanaford, and Maria Mitchell. But their mothers and grandmothers have largely faded into obscurity, their individual fea­tures blurred in the composite portraits left by off-islanders like J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. After visiting Nantucket in the 1770s, Crevecoeur wrote that the “wives of Sherborn” were “justly entitle[ d) to a rank superior to that of other wives.” His enthusiastic endorsement, though, probably tells us more about Crevecoeur than about the real women behind the ide­alized image.

One female individual mentioned by name in Crevecoeur’s Letters was “Aunt Kesiah,” Kezia Folger Coffin. The Frenchman claimed:

… the richest person [John Coffin] now in the island owes all his present prosperity and success to the ingenuity of his wife … for while he was performing his first cruises, she traded with pins and needles and kept a school. Afterward she purchased more con­siderable articles, which she sold with so much judgement [sic] that she laid the foundation of a system of business that she has ever since prosecuted with equal dexterity and success…[she and her husband] have the best country seat on the island … where they live with hospitality and in perfect union. 

Crevecoeur’s reference was not without irony, as literary scholar Nathaniel Philbrick has pointed out in an unpublished monograph, for Kezia Folger Coffin was a figure of some controversy on the island. She left the Society of Friends in 1773, after being disciplined for “keeping a Spinnet in Her house & Teaching her Daughter or Causing her to Bee Taught to Play Thereon Contrary to the advice of Friends.” Kezia is since remembered as being one of the most suc­cessful colonial “she-merchants,” and also for her active Loyalist sympathies and alleged smuggling and profiteering during the Revolution. Along with four men (but, interestingly, not her husband), Kezia was prosecuted for treason after the war. Though she was cleared of the charges, acrimony and litigation marked the rest of her life, which ended when she fell down a stair­case in 1798. She was later memorialized in a rather one-sided caricature as “Miriam Coffin,” the title character and vil­lainess of Joseph Hart’s 1835 novel.

Neither Crevecoeur nor Hart mentioned Kezia Coffin’s sis­ter, Judith Macy. But it is through Judith and her daybook, rather than Kezia, that we can catch a glimpse of ths lives of most real women in eighteenth-century Nantucket.

Macy was born in 1729, fourth of the seven children of Daniel and Abigail Folger. Her two elder brothers and her father were lost at sea (brother Elisha in 1740, father and brother Peter in 1744), a tragic but not uncommon occurrence as the islanders turned increasingly to the risky but prof­itable whalefishery. According to her son Obed, Judith lived in her parents’ home until she married James Gardner in 1746.

At the time of her first marriage, Judith was seventeen-young but not unusually so. Crevecoeur had noted that “every man takes a wife as soon as he chooses, and that is generally very early,” an observation verified by more recent demographic studies. Between 1740 and 1780 the average age at marriage of native­born, white Nantucket men was just under 23 years, and the average for women about 21, both significantly younger than their mainland peers. Crevecoeur attributed the youthful marriages to Nantucketers’ love of family life, while more recent historians have stressed the opportunity afforded young men by whaling to acquire enough money to marry early. It is also possible to conclude, it seems to me, that Nantucket men married young not only because they could afford to but also because they wanted to, because they valued wives’ contributions to maintaining family and community while so many men were at sea.

Judith Macy’s contributions were certainly key to her husband’s success, at least that of her second husband. Her first husband, James Gardner, died of consumption in 1748, just two years after their marriage. In 1749, Judith married a second time, taking as her husband Caleb Macy. Acquiring Judith as a partner seemed to be a turn­around for Caleb, who had earlier moved fitfully between several occupations.

After first abandoning his father’s line of work (farming and milling) because, in son Obed’s words, it was “in nowise congenial to his feelings, neither did it accord with his genius,” and then trying a second occupation (shoemaking), Caleb finally “concluded to follow the Sea.” He went on several short whaling voyages and a few coastal trading trips but (again, according to Obed) “found his health incompetent to the hardships of a seafaring life, [and] therefore determined never to cross the ocean again.”

Caleb’s career pattern typified that of the Nantucket men we hear less about, the unsuccessful whalemen. Crevecoeur had described how island boys, after a few years of schooling, were first apprenticed to a landsman’s craft and then, in their midteens, sent to sea to “learn the great and useful art of working a ship in all the different situations which the sea and wind so often require….They then go gradually through every station of rowers, steersmen, and harpooners … and after having performed several such voyages and perfected themselves in this business, they are fit either for the counting house or the chase.” Caleb never quite “perfected himself” in the business, apparently, and like the others who recognized that a posi­tion of command lay beyond their ability, he returned to land where he took up again the cordwainer’s trade.

Happily for Caleb and his numerous progeny to come, at age 30 (shortly after leaving the sea) he managed to meet Judith, after which his fortunes took a marked tum for the better. His shoemak­ing enterprise prospered and he also invested in land, at one point owning a thirtieth of the island real estate.

Obed described his mother as “gen­erally healthy and of a strong constitution & remarkably industrious.” She must have been. Caleb was, Obed wrote, “a weakly man” who “often called for [Judith’s) assistance, not only in administering to his comfort in sickness but frequently in coun­seling together respecting his business.” Moreover, between 1751 and 1771, Judith bore ten children: a family somewhat larg­er than the Nantucket average, probably because Judith and Caleb married and began having children after Caleb retired from sea.

As if her husband’s and children’s care were not enough to keep her busy, Judith also looked after several men who, in typical preindustrial craft tradition, not only worked for Caleb but also lived with his family. Obed remembered that throughout his youth there were “fre­quently from ten to twelve workmen, besides the children & servants,” which added up to a household of some fifteen to twenty persons. “Notwithstanding this uncommon care & labour,” Obed observed, Judith “was never heard to repine, or frown, but was always patient, being an example of moderation through life.

Her life was long and, inevitably, in that era of random death and high mortality, punctuated by tragedy. Of her ten chil­dren, seven survived to adult­hood, but Judith outlived all but four. Three daughters died in infancy (including two named Kezia, perhaps after Judith’s sister).

Her first son, Elisha, like his father did not enjoy good health nor a capacity for hard labor; he died in midlife in 1806. Caleb, Jr., the fifth son, was feeble both of mind and body, and required care and supervision his entire life. Another son, Barzillai, died of consumption at age 30 in 1789, and Judith’s 22-year-old daughter, her name­sake, died just a few months later that same year. In 1818, Judith, by then a widow for the second time, also saw her daughter Ruth lose a husband. There were perils as well as pleasures in mother­hood and a large family.

Judith’s trials and tribulations did not shake her religious faith; perhaps with her experiences it only deepened. In con­trast to her sister Kezia, Judith remained a devout Quaker throughout her life: “a true devoted Christian,” one of her grandchil­dren remembered. Obed reported, “she was careful in the attendance of religious
meetings when the circumstances of her family would admit,” and “the last 15 years of her life was mostly spent in knit­ting & reading the Bible & other religious books.” Indeed, in the portrait her children commissioned less than a year before her death, Judith is pictured with a religious book in her lap.

Judging by her frequent appearance in the Quaker records, Judith was active and well respected among the Society of Friends. Particularly later in her life, when her domestic cares and responsibilities had subsided, Judith served in numerous capacities and on several committees for the Nantucket Women’s Monthly Meeting. Between 1787 and 1796, Judith was appointed Clerk of the Meeting and an Overseer of the Poor; she examined the preparednsss of prospective brides and attended marriages; and she represented the Nantucket Women’s Meeting at the Quarterly Meeting at Sandwich.
Historians have suggested that the same elements of Quaker theology and organization that enabled Nantucket men to excel in whaling also enabled Nantucket women to develop an independence unusual for the period. The Society of Friends advocated self-control, restraint, and a spiritual egalitarianism based on their understanding of salvation and the “inner light.” Their insistence on women’s spiritual equality with men was given con­crete form in the separate women’s meet­ings, an organizational autonomy which further contributed to women’s sense of authority and self-reliance. According to the accounts of her children, Judith Macy seemed to exemplify (and undoubtedly benefited from) these same qualities of strength and self-possession.

Judith’s family life, household responsibilities, and religious culture pro­vided the framework for the activities doc­umented in her daybook. She began keep­ing the surviving record later in her life, in 1783 when she was 54; she continued it erratically to 1807. The exchanges she recorded demonstrate that, while her hus­band and sons were prominent merchants active in the Nantucket whalefishery and other enterprises, she was dealing on her own account in a wide range of activities with many other women and some men in the community. Judith employed several women in spinning and weaving on a casual basis, in turn selling the yarn or cloth to other merchants. She also listed other transactions involving the produc­tion and provision of foodstuffs, especially milk, and she occasionally kept boarders (perhaps Caleb’s workmen).

Most of the activities listed in Judith’s daybook represent traditional female housewifery functions, but here they appear on a scale considerably beyond family maintenance. Yet neither the scope or the scale of Judith’s entrepre­neurship seemed remarkable or disturbing to her family or peers, unlike the dealings of her sister Kezia. According to Obed (perhaps somewhat of a biased observer, of course), Judith “attended to her domes­tic concerns with that economy & exact­ness as becomes the ornament of her sex.” Further, she was “strictly honest & upwright [sic] in all her dealings, kind and obliging to her neighbours …. She lived in peace with all mankind, careful to mind her own proper business, and did not concern herself with other peoples matters.”
How could such extensive enterprise be considered “her own proper business” in an era when married women generally had severely limited rights to property ownership and their legal identity was subordinate to their husbands’? In order to understand the forms of Judith’s industri­ousness, we must look to the broader con­text of married women’s work in colonial New England and to the specific ways in which it was extended on Nantucket.

Colonial wives were cast as “good­wives” or “helpmeets,” a role that stressed the wife’s subordination to her husband but allowed some flexibility. Though mainly concerned with domestic duties, the “goodwife” could also take on tasks outside the home or beyond the care of her families. When a husband was absent, for instance, his wife could and often did serve as a “deputy husband,” performing tasks he normally would have, such as set­tling accounts with creditors or debtors, paying taxes, and supervising or perform­ing agricultural work.

As Crevecoeur observed, this orga­nization of family and community life dovetailed neatly with the demands of the whalefishery. When their husbands were at sea, Nantucket “wives are necessarily obliged to transact business, to settle accounts, and, in short, to rule and provide for their families,” Crevecoeur wrote. “These circumstances, being often repeat­ed, give women the abilities as well as a taste for that kind of superintendency, to which, by their prudence and good man­agement, they seem to be in general very equal.” Indeed, the Frenchman wondered, “What would the men do without the agency of [their] faithful mates?”

Crevecoeur noted an apparent dan­ger in the married women’s authority, but insisted:

You must not imagine … that the Nantucket wives are turbulent, of high temper, and difficult to be ruled; on the contrary, the wives of Sherborn, in so doing, comply only with the prevailing custom of the island; the husbands, equally sub­missive to the ancient and respectable manners of their coun­try, submit, without ever suspecting that there can be any impropriety … both parties are perfectly satisfied.

Apparently Caleb and Judith were content, for Judith began her extensive business dealings while her husband was still alive, resident on the island, and active with his own affairs.

Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has described, in late eighteenth-century northern New England, the existence of two distinct family economies, one male and one female, within the typical rural household. In her scrupulous analysis of a Maine midwife’s diary, what Ulrich found “most striking … [was] the independence of men’s and women’s labors, not only in production but in management and uti­lization of resources.” Ulrich explains, “female trade was interwoven with the [primarily male] mercantile economy and with the [sex-integrated] family economies, of particular households, but it was not subsumed by either.”

Judith’s daybook suggests that in Nantucket, too, there may have existed a similar pattern of male and female economies, semi-autonomous but integrat­ed at particular points of overlap, operat­ing within and between households. Judith’s sons Sylvan us, Obed, and Brazillai operated as partners in several ventures. At the same time but in different enterpris­es, Judith’s unmarried daughters were serving as junior partners to their mother. For instance, in 1792 Judith kept a running account with a George Freeborn in which “3 Days Work by Ruth” were exchanged for lengths of “pershon” and sewing silk. In contrast, Judith carefully recorded for­mal transactions with her sons, listing their full names: e.g. “Obed Macy to 4 lb of tallow for the Brig Polly.”

What was singular about the Nantucket case was the way in which the female economy expanded along with the whaling industry. Perhaps the so-called “Petticoat Row” of shops owned by women on Centre Street and the other female mercantile activities on the island represented one aspect of a virtually communitywide, collective female assumption of the “deputy husband” role, which enabled the men to concentrate effort, attention, and capital on the fishery. Such an assertion clearly requires more research to substantiate, but the implications raised by Judith Macy and her daybook are intriguing. We have much more to learn about the women’s lives in eighteenth-cen­tury Nantucket.

According to both her son Obed and her granddaughter Eliza Ann Chase McCleave, Judith Macy’s considerable and life-long exertions enabled her to leave, on her death, numerous and devoted descen­dants: four children, twenty-one grand­children, and twenty-two great grandchil­dren. She also left a substantial estate, val­ued at over $4000, to be distributed among them. Shortly before she died, Judith “had as many silver dollars counted out, as she had grandchildren and great grandchil­dren, for each one to have a Dessert Spoon made in memory of her.” Judith Macy wanted to be remembered. It is up to us to continue recovering her story.


From the Winter 1992 issue of Historic Nantucket.

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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