A holokahiki is a Hawaiian mariner who has journeyed to distant lands. William Owen was one of many Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders who came in ships to Nantucket in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Most were transient seamen who departed after only a brief stay. A number died on Nantucket. The very few who stayed long-term typically found housing in the island’s New Guinea neighborhood, where Nantucket’s Black community largely lived. William Owen was the exception. Born on the island of Hawai’i in 1828, he was unique among the Pacific Islanders who came to Nantucket in that he settled, took an Irish-born wife, raised a large family, and, throughout his adult life, functioned in many capacities within the village community of Siasconset. He and his family are among the few individuals not of English descent included in Eliza Starbuck Barney’s Genealogical Record of Nantucketers. His life on Nantucket demonstrates the fluidity of racial classification as well as its consequences.
In autumn 1819, the whaleships Balaena of New Bedford and Equator of Nantucket arrived in Hawaiian waters. After taking a whale in Kealakekua Bay along the coast of Hawai’i, the two ships sailed to Maui where they took on two Native Hawaiian men they called Joe Bal and Jack Ena. These men traveled to New Bedford and then shipped out again back to Maui. Upon their return home, they were replaced aboard ship by four other Native Hawaiian men who went by the names of Henry Harmony, George Germaine, John Jovel, and Sam How. So began long-distance contact between the two major New England whaling ports and what were known to the whalemen as the Sandwich Islands.
In the 1820s, Pacific Islanders became a common sight on the streets of Nantucket. Some received sabbath school training with the intent that they might carry Christianity back to their home islands. When a writer n an off-island newspaper suggested that young Pacific Island men were enacting “frantick orgies” of pagan worship in the streets of Nantucket and that the town needed a seamen’s bethel to curb such practices, one Nantucketer wrote to the Inquirer to say such accusations were fantasies and to wonder “why so much pains should be taken” to represent Nantucket as “a nest of people involved in heathen darkness and suffering for the want of missionaries.” Readers should let “all nations walk in their own ways.”
Over the coming decades, the island continued to be a destination for Pacific Islanders. For many, the visit unfortunately proved fatal. The surviving evidence suggests that infectious disease was the leading cause of death among Pacific Islanders who came to Nantucket.
Between 1832 and 1848, at least thirteen Pacific Islander deaths were recorded on Nantucket. Records identify most of the deceased as “Sandwich Island Canakers.” Some succumbed to “consumption” or “lung fever,” which generally meant tuberculosis. One died of typhus. Five arrived suffering from smallpox and died within days in quarantine at Nantucket’s pest house. In February 1832, one unfortunate Pacific Islander who “came on a whaleship from around Cape Horn” and had been living in Nantucket’s inland New Guinea neighborhood walked several miles to a barn on a bluff over-looking Nantucket Sound and was later found frozen there. Almost the same story repeated itself in 1837: “A Sandwich Island Indian or Canacker, came here in one of our Whaling Ships from Round Cape Horn” was found dead on February 27.
The 1850 Federal Census returns for Nantucket include a list of nearly six hundred seamen aboard Nantucket vessels. The list contains the names of sixty-five Pacific Islanders of whom forty-five were from the Hawaiian Islands. The census taker classified ten of the forty-five, all with English surnames, as “white,” while he classified thirty-five as “black.” Some of these men used Kanaka, the Hawaiian word for “man,” as their surname, while others had island names such as “Oahu” and “Mowee” (Maui). The youngest of the Native Hawaiians was four-teen-year-old Peter Mowee, who was one of six men using this same surname. Others of the “black” Pacific Islanders used English surnames. Among them were two Owens, twenty-year-old Joe and twenty-three-year-old William. There were five teenagers including Peter Mowee among the transient Pacific Islanders, but most, like the Owens, were young men in their twenties.
The expanding southern edge of the town of Nantucket was known as Newtown. It was never a strictly segregated neighborhood, but since the late 1700s a locus within it had been known by multiple names: Negro Hill, Negro Village, and New Guinea. Enslaved Africans had been brought to Nantucket in the late 1600s and the first half of the 1700s. Once the last instances of slavery on Nantucket came to an end in 1775, the freedmen and other free Blacks on the island actively consolidated land within Newtown in the vicinity of several wind-mills to create a neighborhood of homes, churches, workshops, and boarding houses for transient seamen. Upon arrival in Nantucket, Pacific Islanders were likely to be directed to the Canacka Boarding House.
According to family lore, William Owen first went to sea around 1841 at age thirteen to begin his career on whaling vessels. By 1850, he was a seasoned whaleman and may have had a younger sibling, Joe Owen, in tow. As “black” men, the Owens would have put up in New Guinea.
Joe Owen does not appear again in Nantucket records, but William Owen set down roots on the island. In 1853, he purchased approximately two acres of land in Siasconset. This was accomplished through an intermediary, Robert Pitman. Pitman purchased the property from Alexander Swain on November 15, 1853, for sixty dollars, and two days later he sold it to William Owen for the same amount. At some point, William Owen acquired a house “under Mill Hill” that had formerly been the home of Jared Tracy and moved it seven miles to this property. Having secured his real estate, William Owen executed a power of attorney to “my friend Robert Pitman” and sailed from New Bedford as second mate on the bark Marcella bound for the Pacific Ocean. The Marcella and its crew returned home three years later.
On November 12, 1861, William Owen, mariner, now 33 years old, marred Julia Leonard. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, to Michael and Rose Leonard. The 1850 Federal Census lists her living in the household of Samuel B. and Ann (Folger) Swain. Although working in the Swain household, she had attended school with-in the year. The Swains’ primary residence was in the center of town, but, like many Nantucket families, they also maintained a summer cottage in Siasconset, which may be where she and William Owen met. Of note, town clerk William Cobb classified the groom in the town marriage register as “white,” and gave the bride’s family name as “Linnett,” a mishearing of Leonard that also appears in the census, the local newspaper, and the Barney Genealogical Record.
The couple settled into married life in ’Sconset, but, six months after their wedding, William took to the sea again, this time as first mate of the bark R. L. Barstow, which “cleared this port for a whaling voyage in the Atlantic Ocean.” Before his departure, he executed a new power of attorney, this time committing his affairs to his wife Julia. A whaling voyage in the Atlantic was generally of shorter duration than a voyage to the Pacific. Nonetheless the R. L. Barstow was gone for nearly three years, just as the Marcella had been. William rejoined Julia on land in 1865.
Whaling from Nantucket was in steep decline by the 1860s. The R. L. Barstow sailed again in November 1865, but William Owen was not aboard. He had joined fellow ’Sconseters in codfishing by dory. Codfishing off Nantucket’s shores was not new, but doing it from dories was a recent innovation. Credit is given to Asa Jones of ’Sconset for initiating it in 1856.9 Like William Owen’s friend Robert Pitman, Jones was a core member of the year-round group of ’Sconset fishermen that subsequently included William Owen in all its activities.
The Owens had married relatively late and then been separated by a whaling voyage. They finally welcomed their first child, a daughter, on June 24, 1866. They named her Ann Swain Owen after Ann Swain in whose household Julia had lived and worked as a young girl. “Annie” was the first of seven daughters born to William and Julia over a dozen years between 1866 and 1878.
Days after their second daughter, Carolina Louise “Carrie” Owen, was born on October 17, 1868, William Owen participated in the rescue of a fellow doryman in an autumn storm. The October 24, 1868, issue of The Inquirer and Mirror reported that a sudden gale had swept through on the previous Saturday. Vessels out on Nantucket Sound had dragged anchor and sustained damage while watchers from the town’s South Tower could do no more than relay what they could make out to those in the street below. The newspaper went on to describe the rescue of Captain Obed Bunker, whose dory was farthest out to sea off the eastern shore when the storm broke and was being swept toward the maelstrom of Pochick Rip. A crew of his fellow ’Sconseters, William Owen among them, launched a lifeboat. They managed to take him safely from his dory into the lifeboat, but they were unable to make headway back to shore. The fishing schooner Mary Potter of Noank, Connecticut, was in the vicinity. Seeing Bunker’s empty dory awash in the heavy seas, the schooner’s master, Captain Potter, went to give aid. Through skillful handling, he brought his vessel alongside the lifeboat, transferred all the men from it into the Mary Potter, and towed the lifeboat into calmer waters from where the Nantucketers could make their way home. In a card of thanks published in the same issue of The Inquirer and Mirror, William and seven other ’Sconset men, including Captain Bunker, thanked Captain Potter and his crew for rendering them assistance from their “perilous situation off the east end of our island during the gale of Saturday last.”
The 1870 Federal Census lists William Owen, “mulatto seaman,” and his wife Julia, born in Ireland, together with their two “white” Massachusetts-born daughters. Their third daughter, Elizabeth Pitman Owen, was born in December 1870, after the census had been taken. The Owens celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary in November 1871. Forty well-wishers gathered in ’Sconset to congratulate them and present them with gifts. A fiddler was engaged for the party, and The Inquirer and Mirror reported, “Our ’Sconset friends know how to get up, and how to enjoy, a right good social gathering.”
The following August, William Owen was again part of a ’Sconset crew that went out to render assistance. The fishing schooner Rebecca Bartlett of Gloucester went aground on Bass Rip four miles from shore. Eight ’Sconset men, including Owen, launched a lifeboat, rowed out, and boarded the schooner to help the crew kedge the vessel free. At five that afternoon, the ’Sconseters left the schooner afloat off Sankaty Head and rowed home.
The Owens’ fourth daughter, Martha Shiverick Owen, was born on November 3, 1872. To support his growing family, William continued fishing for cod off the ’Sconset shore. The local newspapers frequently reported that he had caught the earliest cod of the season or a great number of cod in one day or a remarkably large cod. He was well known to the point of being a local celebrity.
Dory fishing was as perilous as whaling, arguably more so, and in December 1874 William Owen had an unprecedented and potentially fatal experience. As he was rowing in at the end of the day, he was struck from behind and temporarily knocked senseless into the bottom of his dory. When he recovered, he found feathers embedded in his neck and a sea duck with a broken neck dead in the boat with him. Apparently the bird had flown blind directly into him with tremendous force. The story was reported in the local newspapers, then versified by Dr. Arthur E. Jenks and included in a book of sea ballads published by the Cape Ann Advertiser. It is hardly any wonder that the Owen girls were said to stand weeping on the shore as their father set off to fish in the mornings.
Another daughter, Charlotte Pitman Owen, was born to William and Julia on November 4, 1875. The couple undoubtedly hoped for a son during Julia’s next pregnancy, but instead, on February 26, 1878, forty-two-year-old Julia gave birth to twins Priscilla Almy Owen and Winnifred Coffin Owen, completing their family of seven daughters.
The 1880 Federal Census classifies William and all seven children as “mulatto.” It also contains faulty information, reporting William Owen’s birthplace as Fayal in the Azores, and Julia’s birthplace as England rather than Ireland.
In the years since William Owen had acquired his ’Sconset property in 1853, the character of the village had changed. Previously, Nantucket families such as the Swains moved out to the village during the sum-mer. With time, the village’s seasonal residents came to include increasing numbers of off-island visitors. Some were accommodated in hotels, such as the Ocean View House, opened in 1873 and expanded in 1876, but most rented cottages, a plethora of which were built on the edges of the old fishing village. Codfish Park, as the beach in front of the village was called, was still dotted with fish houses and codfish flakes, but, with the health benefits of ocean bathing being vigorously advertised on the mainland, by the 1880s ’Sconset was developing into a bustling summer resort. It acquired two grocery stores, a post office with a postmistress, an “ice cream saloon,” telephone and telegraph services, street light-ing, and, beginning in 1884, train service from town. The Rev. Phebe Coffin Hanaford, ’Sconset’s notable daughter, wrote of the village’s growth, “When only the villagers were at ’Sconset, there was no need of any-thing to mark the places of residence, for everybody knew where every other body lived, and it was enough to say, ‘Gone to Capt. Pitman’s, or Uncle Alfred’s, or William Owen’s, or to the pump, or his boat-house,’ and at once the inquirer would know how to proceed to find the man he sought.”
For a number of years, the town of Nantucket made payments to William Owen “for lighting and care of ’Sconset lanterns.” His pay for this service rose from $24 for the year 1884 to $62 for 1889. In spring 1884, Owen also took on the position of assistant foreman in the newly organized ’Sconset volunteer fire company. At almost the same time William Owen was appointed a special policeman for duty in ’Sconset. According to The Inquirer and Mirror, “The appointment is a good one, and it is also a fact that such an officer is needed there quite frequently.” He continued to serve as special policeman for several years.
The village’s growth affected the Owen family in other ways. In 1882, the Nantucket county commissioners laid out a thoroughfare, Chapel Street, through several properties in ’Sconset, including William Owen’s, to connect Main Street to New Street. One newspaper explained that “This road will obviate the necessity of making long detours getting around the village and will be appreciated by the residents in that section.” To accomplish the plan, the Owens’ house had to be cleared from the path of the new street “opposite the Ocean View House through to the North Street.” The house was moved to a lot “west of the chapel” in a single day in October.
The amount of William Owen’s compensation for the land he gave up for Chapel Street is not entirely clear, but in 1886 he paid tax on one property of between one and two acres in size and a three-acre mowing lot. His relocated house was valued at $200, in addition to which he had a barn and outbuildings valued at $50.
Having come in off the water at the end of the day, cleaned up, and dined, the men of ’Sconset had little to do on winter evenings. They began planning a men’s social club, and William Owen was one of seventeen charter members of the ’Sconset Club Association formed in February 1887. The members were all core ’Sconseters: three Coffins, three Pitmans, two Folgers, one Bunker, one Cathcart, one Gardner, one Jones, one Morris, one Raymond, one Rogers, one Sylvester, and William Owen. The men chipped in ninety dollars and built a small clubhouse and reading room in the center of the village on the Shell Street property of Asa Jones. It was furnished with a long table, twenty chairs, and a lamp. In winter, with stores and the village post office closed, mail and newspapers from town were left on the clubhouse table for pickup. “As the season changes the members begin to resort thither to enjoy the papers and other literary matters that are being contributed by the friends of the association.” In the clubhouse, men smoked their pipes, chewed tobacco, commented on world affairs, and spun yarns. Members were said to stay out at the clubhouse until ten or eleven in the evening, to the disapproval of their wives.
Prentice Mulford, a journalist from New York, visited the club and recounted that William Owen had suggested that the ocean bathers who were now flocking to ’Sconset in the summers should “employ kanaka surf-boards in bathing, not only as a measure of safety but to add to the pleasure of buffeting the billows. Not only learners, but skillful swimmers take to them kindly, for the boards have sufficient buoyant power to sustain them longer in the water without tiring. Bathers rest on them either on their breasts or backs, throw them aside and take to them again, ride with them over the wave crests, sit astride of them and indulge in various antics in sporting in the water.” According to Mulford, Owen’s fellow club member George W. Rogers had al-ready made a number of surfboards and was receiving orders for more.
In 1887, William Owen sold a portion of his land along Chapel Street to his now-married daughter Carrie Winslow. Eleven years later, Carrie sold it to Selma Rogers, wife of George W. Rogers, William Owen’s fellow social club member and fabricator of the “kanaka surf-boards.”
Willliam Owen died on September 22, 1889, of “quick consumption.” He was approaching 61 and still actively fishing as well as carrying out his other village functions. Consumption generally meant tuberculosis, but “quick consumption” may indicate pneumonia. His death certificate listed him as a “laborer” and as “coloured,” but he was not interred in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery. Instead, he was buried in Prospect Hill Cemetery, where he was later joined by other fam-ily members. On his death certificate the lines for place of birth, parents’ names, and parents’ birthplaces were all left blank.
Is there more to be learned about Owen’s parents, John and Mary Owen? Owen descendant Cameron Texter surmises from their English names that there may have been a missionary connection on the island of Hawai’i in the 1820s that led to their conversion and taking of new names. He also suggests that the surname “Owen” might derive from the middle name of missionary Horton Owen Knapp.
William Owen’s daughter Priscilla, in the words of Cameron Texter, “insisted until her death that William had some connection to Hawaiian royalty, and she and her family would have gotten land if she and her sib-lings or descendants returned to the island and made a claim.”22 This is similar to the story of Humehume of Kaua’i, born about 1799, who, in 1804, was entrusted by his chiefly ali’i nui father to an American captain to be delivered to New England for education and then returned to Kaua’i. Things did not go well, and fifteen years passed before Humehume, known as “George Prince,” returned home aboard the brig Thaddeus in the company of the members of the first Christian mission to the Sandwich Islands. Things went even less well for him as he sought to reintegrate himself into ali’i society, to assume the mediating role the missionaries expected of him, and eventually to attempt to take on his deceased father’s chiefly status. All ended in tragedy.
The descendants of William Owen also believe that in the 1880s visitors from Hawai’i came to see William Owen in ’Sconset, but such a visit would hardly have passed unremarked by the Nantucket newspapers, especially in view of how often William Owen himself appeared in their pages. It is perhaps significant that in 1887 Hawai’i’s Queen Kapi’olani and Princess Lili’uoka-lani visited Boston, a visit widely reported in the news-papers, including Nantucket’s Inquirer and Mirror.
Unlike many Pacific Islanders who came to Nantucket, William Owen did not contract any of the crowd diseases that stalked them aboard ship, and he survived be-yond the age of sixty. Also unlike them—and although variously classified as black, mulatto, and colored to the end of his life—he seems to have evaded the hindrances of racism, except, possibly, for needing an intermediary for his 1853 land purchase. Unlike the federal censuses, the local newspapers never described William Owen in racial terms. Only the reference to kanaka surfboards alluded to his birthplace.
Compare his career on Nantucket to those of two fellow Polynesians. Forty-six-year-old John Swain’s April 1865 death notice in The Inquirer and Mirror identifies him as a native of Lahaina on the island of Maui. As a “black” man he was interred in Nantucket’s Historic Coloured Cemetery. Author Frank Morral identifies him with the John Swain whose name was the last to be inscribed on Nantucket’s Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Monument, erected in 1874. The Hawaiian John Swain who died in 1865 did so, however, “in this town” and of heart dis-ease, not on a battlefield or in a military hospital. There is no service record for him, but several others among the war dead whose names are inscribed on the monument also lack service records. If the Hawaiian John Swain did serve in the Civil War, then he is the only per-son classified as “black” honored on the monument.
A generation older than William Owen, William Whippy was born in New Zealand in 1801, perhaps the son of a Nantucket member of the Whippey family and a Maori mother. William Whippy made his way to Nantucket, married a woman from an African family in New Guinea, and became an entrepreneur. With his wife, Maria, William Whippy operated the Canacka Boarding House. The couple had three children, all of whom died in childhood. Whippy himself succumbed to tuberculosis at age. Although he does not have a headstone, he was undoubtedly buried in the Coloured Cemetery with his children.
Whippy married an African-American wife and ran a business serving transient seamen of color. Unlike William Owen but like John Swain, he never held a paid town-appointed job. Swain’s and Whippy’s racial classification, and perhaps their own self-identification, as “black” and their residence in New Guinea defined them and their possibilities. Being part of the New Guinea community dictated whom they married, how they were employed, and where they were buried. Ultimately it also extinguished their family lines. Today there are no descendants of any of the families of New Guinea living on Nantucket.
William Owen, on the other hand, may have resided in New Guinea when he first arrived in Nantucket, but he bought property as far from New Guinea as possible. He married an Irish woman and established himself and his family in ’Sconset. He seems to have been enthusiastically integrated into the ’Sconset community: a man among equals on the water and a public servant on land. Yet he was not passing as “white.” The Owen daughters were raised aware of their Polynesian heritage, and there was the matter of the surfboards of ’Sconset. The Owen daughters’ heritage did not impair their marriage prospects. They found husbands from Nantucket’s oldest English families. The couples are listed in Eliza Barney’s Genealogical Record, which typically omitted all people of color, and all of them were civically engaged, as were their offspring.
The descendants of William Owen are the only individuals of Native Hawaiian heritage with known Nantucket connections. One of them, Helen Winslow Chase, grand-daughter of Carrie Owen Winslow, was a distinguished local historian who traveled to Hawaii, New Zealand, and a number of Pacific Islands to research Nantucket’s whaling history. Her aunt, Bessie Winslow Cartwright, Carrie’s daughter, was married to Archibald Cartwright, famous as the last Nantucket man to go on a whaling voyage, in 1902, and who was later custodian of the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum.
Although five of the seven Owen daughters had children, today there are surviving descendants of just three, Caroline L. Winslow, Martha S. Folger, and Priscilla Russell. Cameron Texter, Priscilla’s great-grandson, has exhaustively researched his family and made available the in-formation he has gathered. Other descendants of Priscilla reside on Nantucket today, while additional Owen descendants are scattered across the United States and the United Kingdom. They have had their Polynesian heritage confirmed by genetic testing and are pleased to acknowledge it.
William Owen’s life on Nantucket as a holokahiki, a Hawaiian mariner who journeyed to lands far from home, was unique. Perhaps the year-round ’Sconset community of the nineteenth century, in its unconditional acceptance of him and his family, was unique as well.