Who was Long Tom Coffin?

Long Tom Coffin is a character in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1824 novel The Pilot. The novel was published ten years before Joseph C. Hart’s Nantucket novel Miriam Coffin or the Whale Fisherman and twenty-seven years before the publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. All three novels capitalize on Nantucket’s charisma as center of the global whaling industry, although The Pilot is about armed privateer activity, something anathema to Quaker Nantucketers. Men belonging to the Nantucket Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends stood in danger of expulsion for so much as setting foot on an armed vessel.

Not all Nantucketers were Friends, however. One non-Quaker was six-foot four-inch tall Reuben Chase (1754–1824), who is believed to have been the model for Cooper’s Long Tom Coffin in The Pilot. At the age of 23, with just a year behind him as an able-bodied seaman, Chase shipped with John Paul Jones (often described as the father of the American Navy) aboard the U.S. warship Ranger. In 1779 John Paul Jones made Chase a midshipman aboard the warship Bonhomme Richard. The Bonhomme Richard subsequently engaged in a famous battle at sea with the British warship Serapis, but Chase missed that battle, having been sent to conduct a prize ship to port.

Chase concluded his naval career in 1782 and married the next year, eventually becoming the father of six children. For five years he commanded transatlantic packet ships out of New York for various European ports. It was on one of these transatlantic passages that Cooper met Chase and was impressed by him.

Only at 34, an age at which Nantucket captains tended to think of retiring from the sea, did Reuben Chase enter the whaling business. For a decade or so he mastered a number of whaleships before finally leaving the sea for business ventures on land. He died at home on Nantucket on his seventieth birthday and is buried in Old North Cemetery. The inscription on his headstone reads, “Capt. Reuben Chase Died Feb.15, 1824, AE 69. He was an honest man, Revolutionary officer, and pensioner.”

Cooper’s Long Tom Coffin is a physical giant of a man. Contrary to the order of Reuben Chase’s career on the sea, Long Tom comes to his service with John Paul Jones (the Pilot of the novel) as a veteran whaleman, carrying his harpoon with him at all times like Melville’s Queequeg, and using it to defeat an adversary in one of many pitched battles. Ultimately Cooper has Long Tom go down with a ship on a storm-tossed rocky coast, fulfilling the book’s epigraph, “These waves, to me, are what the land is to you; I was born on them, and I have always meant that they should be my grave.”

For more about Nantucket’s cemeteries, see Frances Karttunen’s book, Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground, available from the NHA Museum shop.

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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