Originally published in Historic Nantucket Vol. 55, No. 1 (Winter 2006), p. 11-14
The Portrait of Absalom Boston
By Frances Ruley Karttunen
Rare is the publication about Nantucket’s black community that has not been illustrated with the handsome portrait of Nantucket businessman, master mariner, and one-time whaling captain Absalom Boston. Yet documentary information about this painting is almost nonexistent. In Picturing Nantucket, Stacy Hollander contributes an essay that synopsizes Absalom Boston’s life, business career, and involvement in the fight for integration of Nantucket’s public schools. She also outlines a history of the Prior-Hamblin school of portraiture, to which she ascribes the painting, but as to the work itself, she can only state, “The identification of this unsigned portrait is derived from family tradition and provenance. The date of the portrait that is suggested by the clothing is between 1835 and 1845.”
A 1906 entry on page 286 of the Nantucket Historical Association’s Catalogue of Donations and Purchases states simply “Picture of Absalom Boston. Sampson D. Pompey.” That the portrait was donated by black Civil War veteran Sampson Dyer Pompey, who lived at 3 Atlantic Avenue, led to the mistaken identification by Edouard A. Stackpole in 1988 of that house as Absalom Boston’s own home. The misidentification is now pervasive. The house at 3 Atlantic Avenue was, in fact, the home of two generations of Pompeys, who were, like the Boston family, descendants of African slaves brought to Nantucket in the first half of the 1700s. The intersection at which the house stands—today known as “Five Corners”—was known in the mid- 1800s as “Pompey’s Corner.”
Deeds and probate inventories reveal that Absalom Boston owned a great deal of land and several houses on both sides of York Street beginning just to the east of 27 York Street, the house next door to the African Meeting House that Florence Higginbotham bought in 1920 and named “Mizpah.”
Absalom Boston was sixty-nine years old when he died in 1855. Even though he had made a will leaving his entire estate to be administered by his widow, Hannah (Cook) Boston, a probate inventory was made of his real estate and personal belongings. At the time of his death he owned three houses: one “with settlement” (probably a sailors boarding house) on the north side of York Street, and two on the south side of the street. One of the houses had a barn with harness and carriages. There was also a store on the north side of York Street, which is labeled on the 1858 Walling map as “Mrs. Boston Shop,” and there was a mowing lot, which appears to have been on the south side of York, bounded on the west by Pleasant Street.
The inventory is much concerned with horse tack and agriculture while rather cursory about the contents of the rooms of each of the houses. It mentions general categories such as “furniture” and “utensils” rather than specifics, but it does list two watches—one worth $25 and the other worth $5—and ten silver spoons. The total value of the estate was $1,351.50.
Despite Absalom Boston’s diversified business ventures, his family did not continue in comfortable prosperity. After his death, his widow Hannah sold some of the property on the south side of York Street, backing up on Boyer’s Alley, and although she was sixty years old, she went to work as a stewardess, making up staterooms and cleaning up after passengers on the steamboat Island Home.
The Weekly Mirror reported in December 1857 that Mrs. Boston had suffered a stroke while the Island Home was berthed in Hyannis. Brought home to Nantucket, she died three days later, on December 6, at the age of 62. According to the Weekly Mirror, “Her funeral on Tuesday was attended by all belonging to the boat and a large number of citizens.”
Before the month was out the three surviving children of Absalom Boston— Carolyn (Boston) Clough, Oliver Boston, and Thomas Boston—petitioned the probate court to appoint a new administrator for their father’s estate. The court then ordered a second inventory, just three years after the first. The focus of this inventory was more domestic than that of the previous one. Rather than just furniture and utensils, it listed every item found in every chamber of each house.
The new inventory reflects the sale of one of the houses on the south side of York Street and reveals a $75 mortgage on the house on the north side. What was left of the contents of the store was valued at only $5. The value of the estate as a whole had declined to $601.39. Yet the contents of the two remaining houses implies a very comfortable life (although one that was perhaps unraveling). There were bedsteads, bolsters and pillows, bedding, bureaus, fifteen chairs altogether, mirrors and a looking glass, a clock, lamps, vases, pictures, a stove, crockery, and a copper kettle. The spoons had multiplied from ten to an even dozen.
Notably, in the southwest chamber of the house on the north side of York Street there was a portrait. Other than the 1906 notice of Sampson Pompey’s donation, this item in the 1858 inventory is the only known documentation of a portrait belonging to Absalom Boston’s family, and it only came to light in 2004.
Carolyn (Boston) Clough was a married woman with a home of her own, and Oliver and Thomas Boston left the island after their mother’s death. At the time of the dissolution of Absalom and Hannah’s household the portrait was apparently conveyed to the Pompey family for safekeeping. For nearly a half century Sampson Pompey and his wife Susan looked after it. Then, after Susan’s death in 1904 and three years before he himself died, Sampson donated the portrait to the Nantucket Historical Association. Nursing care for Susan in her last years had been crushingly expensive, and even though the Pompeys’ New Guinea neighbors had kept them afloat with loans, the aged Sampson Pompey had gone deep into debt. Upon his death, his house at 3 Atlantic Avenue and its contents were auctioned to pay his creditors, but the portrait of Absalom Boston was safe for posterity.
Author’s note: I am indebted to Helen Seager for sending me back to Probate Book 19, where I had previously overlooked the second inventory of Absalom Boston’s estate.
FRANCES RULEY KARTTUNEN is an ethnohistorian and author of The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, published in 2005 by Spinner Publications, New Bedford. Also in 2005, Karttunen attended the world premiere in Prague of the opera La Conquista, by Lorenzo Ferrero, with whom she collaborated on the Spanish and English libretto and contributed the parts written in Nahuatl, the Aztec native language. She is a regular contributor to Historic Nantucket.