Mary Coffin Starbuck’s “Account Book with the Indians” is a sheepskin-covered ledger tracking the credits and debits of the two hundred Indians who patronized her store. She began keeping the account book in 1683 and the book was completed after her death in 1717 by her son, Nathaniel Starbuck, Jr., in 17 66.
Tristram Coffin’s daughter “Great Mary,” or the “Great Woman,” as she is frequently referred to, was an exceptional woman. Born off-island in 1645, she and her husband Nathaniel were the first English couple married on Nantucket and parents of the first white child (a daughter, Mary) born on the island, in 1663. Mary (the mother) was the island’s first storekeeper and Nathaniel invested in whaling. In later life she had a deep commitment to Quaker ideals and was instrumental in the growth and development of Nantucket’s Religious Society of Friends.
The population in 1700 was approximately 300 whites and 800 Indians. Short of specie and wanting loyal suppliers, traders advanced up to ten pounds of cloth, fish hooks, shoes, shot, kettles, and more in exchange for feathers and fish – and Mary’s company store was born. The use of the credit system depended on the courts allowing the Indians to be sued for debt, and they were. Mary’s book shows accounts for as many as 200 Indians, who were primarily engaged in codfishing and fowling but were also performing routine manual labor, and later whaling. In return for their efforts they received necessary tools, cloth, and supplies as well as a lesson in the English economic system.
An example of one account in the book is for Tom Poney [Pone, Pony] who in 1734 and 1735 bought from the general store such items as blankets, cornmeal, meat, thread, tobacco, a great coat, women’s shoes, candles, molasses, and seed corn among other things. For the same years he was credited for “fish caught at Siasconset,” a “share of a whale got with John Russel,” “share of a whale got with Shubael Folger at Cansco,” fish caught at Shawkemo, and a “share of a whale caught with Jethro Folger.” He was also credited for his labor, “washing sheep” and “plowing two acreas.” In 1737 he was even given credit for labor performed by his sister: “carding wool.”
A study of the account book, held in the Edouard A. Stackpole Library and Research Center, introduces readers to Indian names, their businesses, and the economy of the island. According to Elizabeth Little, “it is a treasure trove of data about Indian life on Nantucket covering the years 1683, when the cod-fishing industry of Nantucket got under way, to 1764, when most of the Indians died of a tragic illness.” It is an invaluable research tool and a lasting document meticulously kept by a great woman of Nantucket.
From the FAll 1997 issue of Historic Nantucket