Who were some of Nantucket’s latter-day American Indian women?

When German-born artist Hermine Dassel came to Nantucket in 1851 to paint a portrait of Maria Mitchell, she stayed to do three more portraits. Two canvases—one at the Nantucket Atheneum and one at the NHA–depict Abram Quary, generally considered at the time to be Nantucket’s “last Indian,” although we now know that was not the last person of Native descent to live on island. The Rhode Island Historical Society owns another Dassel painting originally cataloged as “An Indian Girl” but in the twentieth century called “Nantucket Indian Princess.” It is a portrait of a shawl-wrapped young girl with black hair and large, luminous eyes. The model was without doubt eleven-year-old Isabella Draper (1841–1882). She was a descendant of the Wampanoag Mingo family on Nantucket, and on some census forms both she and her mother are classified as “Indian.” When Isabella grew up, she married Missouri-born Hiram Reed who had been freed from slavery by the Union army and sent to Nantucket. From Nantucket Hiram Reed enlisted in the Union cavalry to fight in the Civil War. Decorated for bravery, he returned to Nantucket and married Isabella. They made their home on Pleasant Street, and, when they died, they were interred in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery. They had no children.

Another Native woman to live on Nantucket after Abram Quary was Charlotte Tyler Barreau (1837–1922). According to her obituary, “The island of Nantucket was the birthplace of Mrs. Barreau, and of a long line of ancestors, for she was descended from the Nantucket Indians who originally inhabited the island.” She was descended from James Dyer, who came to Nantucket with his brother Sampson Dyer. The brothers had married sisters by the surname of Allen in Newport, Rhode Island, and brought them to Nantucket in the late 1700s. On some census forms and maritime protection papers, the Dyer brothers are described as “Indian.” Charlotte Barreau’s obituary goes on to say, “Gifted with a voice for concert singing, Mrs. Barreau became well-known through her public appearances as soloist.” One of those occasions was March 1, 1874, when she sang the closing piece at Nantucket’s memorial service for Massachusetts senator and abolitionist Charles Sumner.

Nantucket-born Ruth West (1895–1964) also had a concert career. Descended from Martha’s Vineyard Wampanoags at both Aquinnah and Chapaquiddick, she was a member of the Federation of American Indians and performed around New England as Princess Red Feather, “the singing princess.” According to her obituary, “She was a descendant of the Indian Chief Massasoit and was a pianist as well as a noted singer. She started piano lessons at the age of nine and when a young lady studied voice in New Bedford.” She married Mashpee Wampanoag Darius Coombs, who moved to Nantucket with his brother Otis. They are all interred in a family plot in Prospect Hill Cemetery.

Image: Ruth West Coombs dressed as her persona Princess Red Feather. Gift of Adele Pitt Ames. PH31-4-4.

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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