The Elihu Coleman House was built in 1721–22 by Quaker carpenter Elihu Coleman (1699– 1789) when he was still in his early 20s. Just at that time, an encroaching sandbar had blocked Capaum Pond, which up until then had been the harbor for the original English settlement. Residents of other dwelling houses in the area dismantled their buildings, moved them east to Nantucket Harbor, and re-erected them in the location of the present town.
The name “Sherburne,” imposed on the previously nameless English settlement by New York Governor Francis Lovelace in 1673, moved with the houses to the new location. After the American Revolution, the town petitioned to divest itself of the name and became the Town of Nantucket in 1795.
The imposing Elihu Coleman House, sometimes described as the second-oldest house on the island, remained behind, the sole dwelling house at the previous settlement site. Much of its original 18th-century fabric, including its vast central chimney, has been maintained to the present by generations of dedicated preservationists.
Some of Nantucket’s English settlers were Baptists and others Congregationalists, and a few had once been Quakers, but they and the first two generations of their Nantucket-born descendants avoided establishment of any sort of organized religion on the island. Then, in the opening years of the 1700s, Quaker ministers visiting the island won a number of Nantucketers to acceptance of the tenets of the Religious Society of Friends. By 1708 there were enough convinced islanders to form a Nantucket Meeting.
Eight years later, when Elihu Coleman was in his mid-teens, the Nantucket Quakers experienced a revelation that it “was not agreeable to Truth for Friends to purchase slaves and keep them for a term of life.” They reported this to the New England Yearly Meeting, which was located in Newport, Rhode Island.
Another 13 years passed until Friend Elihu Coleman, having built his house, sat down to write a treatise setting out in detail the Nantucket Quakers’ radical revelation under the title A testimony against that anti-Christian practice of making slaves of men, wherein it is shewed to be contrary to the dispensation of the law and time of the Gospel, and very opposite both to grace and nature. In it Coleman wrote, “No one can use the excuse for making Africans slaves because of their being either ignorant or wicked, for if that plea would do, I do believe they need not go so far for slaves as now they do.”
Publication of Coleman’s treatise required permission of the Yearly Meeting. Despite the fact that some Newport Quakers were slave owners and some were profiting from the slave trade, permission was granted in 1733, making it one of the first abolitionist publications in American history, if not the very first. Nonetheless, even some Nantucket Quakers continued to hold people in slavery decades after publication of Coleman’s treatise. Benjamin Coffin, who freed Rose and her two sons in 1775, was a Quaker. Nonetheless, Elihu Coleman lived to see the total end of slavery on Nantucket before his death in 1789.
The solitary house at a distance from the town endured through the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the local collapse of the whaling economy, the American Civil War, and the resurrection of Nantucket as a summer resort. Like the Jethro Coffin House (the “Oldest House”) on Sunset Hill, it was not demolished, moved, or renovated. It passed from hand to hand, sometimes occupied and other times vacant, until in the early 1900s it began to be cared for by a succession of preservation-minded women. The house was purchased in 1938 by poet and novelist Elizabeth Hollister Frost (1887–1958) and her husband William D. Blair.
Frost’s 1942 historical novel, This Side of Land, is the story of twin girls growing up in the Elihu Coleman House. Frost, from a multi-generation family of Nantucket summer residents, thanked the Nantucket Historical Association and many individual Nantucketers for assistance in her research for the book, in which she strove to replicate Nantucket speech patterns of the early 1800s.
Frost was herself a twin; horticulturist Harriet Hollister Spencer (1887–1962) was also a long-time summer resident of Nantucket, as was their younger sister, Isabelle Hollister Tuttle (1895–1970), noted painter and active early member of Nantucket’s Artists Colony.
Ownership and stewardship of the Elihu Coleman House has now continued through two generations of Elizabeth Hollister Frost’s descendants.
Nantucket’s Quaker history is told in Quaker Nantucket: The Religious Community Behind the Whaling Empire by Robert Leach and Peter Gow (Mill Hill Press 1997).