Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 51, no. 2 (Spring 2002), p. 15-18.
Dorcas Honorable: The Life and Heritage of an Oft-Married Woman
By Frances Ruley Karttunen
DORCAS HONORABLE, WHO today is generally recognized as Nantucket's "Last Indian," died early in 1855. She had outlived by a few months Abram Quary, who died in late 1854. Both had been born in the 1770s, at the time of the American Revolution, a decade after the "Indian sickness" killed 222 of Nantucket's 358 Wampanoags.
Quary, however, better fit the nineteenth-century image of "the Last Indian" because of the striking painting of him that hangs in the Nantucket Atheneum and because in old age he lived the life of a hermit and supported himself by making baskets and steaming quahogs for excursionists. Dorcas, on the other hand, kept out of the public eye, worked as a domestic, and was a member of the Baptist church.
The life of Dorcas's mother, Sarah, however, was romanticized just as Abram Quary's has been. She died in 1821 and was survived not only by her daughter Dorcas and by Quary, but also by Abigail Jethro, whom the nineteenth-century Nantucket historian Obed Macy considered the island's "last Indian."
Nonetheless, Sarah was also characterized as the last of her people. As stated in a fictionalized version of her life published in the Inquirer just a dozen years after her death, "old Sarah Tashemy, the last of the Indian race on the island of Nantucket" was "the daughter of a famous chief whose kindness to the Whites was prover bial—without whose generous influence they would never have succeeded in forming their settlement within her father's territories." Having lost her family and her suitor in the 1763-64 epidemic, according to this story, she lived a solitary, shunned life, and then at death, "She spoke in a language which was recognized as that of her departed nation, although no one present understood its purport."
In 1834 Joseph C. Hart published a historical novel about Nantucket entitled Miriam Coffin, or the Whale-Fisherman. In it he fictionalized the life of Keziah Coffin, and as a subplot he also fictionalized and romanticized the life of Sarah Tashama. In the novel, Benjamin Tashama's daughter is not orphaned by the epidemic but, despite the protection of her father, she is seduced by a white off-islander named Dr. Julius Imbert. Before the end of the 1800s, island readers had confused the content of Hart's novel with Nantucket history.
Also at the end of the 1800s, Eliza Mitchell produced a manuscript Book of Reminiscences in which she pasted Dorcas's photograph and wrote down her own version of the lives of Dorcas and her mother. This particular reminiscence turns out to be a mixture of Mitchell's personal memories and pieces of both the 1833 and 1834 published stories.
She was daughter of Sarah Tashma. Sarah was the last Indian female and a daughter of the famous Preacher and Teacher who lived before my time. Sarah was called Matta in Miriam Coffin, or the Whale Fishery. Imbert probably the father of Daucas. Sarah was a true Indian but was never known to smile after her visit from Imbert. I remember her well as she worked for my mother when I was very young. Been dead about 70 years or more. Daucus lived many years in the family of Capt' John Cartwright. 6 feet tall, a noble woman of her Tribe, always kept aloof from bad company, lived to be over eighty.
What emerges from historical documentation of the lives of Dorcas Honorable and her forebears is less romantic but at least as humanly rich as the several products of nineteenth-century imagination.
Dorcas's mother was Sarah Tashama Esop, daughter of Benjamin Tashama who was, indeed, both a preacher and a teacher. Prior to the epidemic, he kept a school for Wampanoag children. There he taught them to read and write their own language, which has been known over the years as "Massachusett" or "Natick," using the teaching material developed for the purpose more than a century earlier by John Eliot, New England's "Apostle to the Indians." In the 1770s, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, writing of Nantucket, observed that Eliot's 1666 Bible, catechism, and "many other useful books" translated by Eliot "are still very common on this island and are daily made use of by those Indians who are taught to read."
By the time Crevecoeur wrote this, however, the epidemic had carried off more than half the speakers of Massachusett. Benjamin Tashama's wife, Sarah Paine Tashama, had died. He and their teenaged daughter Sarah had survived, but at least thirty children can be identified from the list of epidemic victims. Benjamin Tashama's days as a schoolmaster had come to an end. When he died in 1770, the probate inventory of his estate showed that he had fifteen chairs, chairs that Wampanoag schoolchildren had not sat in for the past sixteen years. In 1917 the boulder that had marked the site of his house and school near Bean Hill on the Milestone Road was moved to the grounds of the Nantucket Historical Association's Fair Street Museum and is now at the entrance to the NHA Research Library.
There probably was no Imbert. Sarah Tashama Esop appears in one of the Nantucket deed books in 1778, when she sells the house that once belonged to her grandfather, John Tashama, another epidemic victim. As an adult Sarah married a man named Isaac Esop. The first mention of her daughter gives her name as Dorcas Esop.
Isaac Esop, like Sarah, was an epidemic survivor. The marriage of Isaac and Sarah is recorded in 1772, but her name is recorded as Sarah Titus rather than as Sarah Tashama. This may be a typographical error in the Vital Records of the Town of Nantucket or a confusion on the part of the original writer, since both the Tashama family and the Titus family were well known on Nantucket at the time. Or possibly Sarah Tashama, in her mid-twenties, had already made an earlier marriage to a surviving Titus. Adding to the confusion are the recorded marriage intentions of a woman named Sarah Titus and a man named Samuel Causam just the year before, in 1771.
Eliza Mitchell's ascription of Dorcas's paternity to an evil Imbert who destroyed for all time her mother Sarah's happiness is derived from two sources. Imbert comes from the pages of Hart's novel, and the loss of joy in life comes from the 1833 story, in which the deadly epidemic is the precipitating factor: "She had never been seen to smile from that hour."
Sarah may have grown destitute and lonely in her old age, but in the prime of her life she had a husband and a daughter, and she had the control of family property. In the 1800 census she appears, apparently widowed, as head of a household in Nantucket's African community of New Guinea. In 1804 Jenny Fenix, a black woman from a troubled family, was sentenced to a whipping for breaking into Sarah Tashama's house. The inventory of stolen goods includes pewter ware, pots, rice and flour, yard goods, and a hat. Clearly Sarah was not destitute as of the date of the burglary. Her dwelling appears labeled "Tashama's house" on a map of the town made in 1821, the year of her death.
There has been a pervasive romantic tendency to perceive all aboriginal people who are not distinctly young as "ancient," but there is no doubt that unlike most of Nantucket's Wampanoags both Sarah and her daughter Dorcas lived into old age. Without Sarah's birth date, we cannot be exact about her life span. Eliza Mitchell says Sarah was seventy-five years old when she died and Dorcas was past eighty. Another source gives Dorcas's birth date as April 27, 1776, and her death date as January 12, 1855, indicating that she died a bit short of her seventy-ninth birthday.
Dorcas Esop's first recorded marriage is to Isaac Freeman, in 1792 when she was sixteen. After a while Dorcas probably returned home to her mother, since the 1800 census shows Sarah as head of a household of two.
An abbreviated first marriage did not sour Dorcas on the institution. Subsequent records of marriage intentions pair Dorcas Freeman with Bill Williams in 1801, Dorcas Williams with Henry Mooers in 1808, Dorcas Mooers with John Sip in 1817, and Dorcas Mooers (not Sip) with Thomas Honorable in 1820.
Six years prior to when they filed their marriage intentions, John Sip, the one husband whose name Dorcas did not assume in the course of her marital history, appears in Nantucket court records as the victim of a vicious assault. On March 4 of that year, Abiah Golden, Joseph Capee, William Pompey, and Stephen Williams, "Black men, mariners," went on a rampage in New Guinea. They set upon Daniel Gardner, the head of a family there, and "did strike with a stone in the breast and did wound and bruise him the said Daniel so that he raised a great quantity of blood and other injuries and wounds to him. ..." They also broke the windows of his house and unhinged his door. The same day this gang of four attacked John Sip, ropemaker, and broke his collarbone.
The 1817 marriage intention of John Sip and Dorcas Mooers is the last record of him that has come to light so far. Sip does not appear in the 1810 or 1820 census, and there is no death record for him in Nantucket.
By the time of her union with Thomas Honorable, Dorcas was in her forties. Nonetheless, they had a daughter Emmeline, who married a man named Castro, continuing the Tashama line to future generations. The 1830 census shows Thomas and Dorcas Honorable, in their fifties, living in New Guinea. Twenty years later, the census shows a widowed Dorcas living in the household of Thaddeus Coffin and his family. Once again, Eliza Mitchell's memory strayed. It was octogenarian Phillis Painter, an African Nantucketer, who lived with Captain John Cartwright's family.
The 1850 census is the last to record Dorcas Honorable as a resident of Nantucket. Just five years of life remained to her before her Baptist church congregation laid her to rest.
If Dorcas Honorable and Abram Quary were the last native American people on Nantucket, then something more significant than recognized "Indian blood" finally passed from the island in the winter of 1854-55. They were the last two who spoke the Massachusett language. Their community, which would have kept their language alive, had collapsed ninety years earlier, when no children returned to Benjamin Tashama's school in the fall of 1764. The fifteen chairs were put away. The school books perhaps migrated a couple of miles eastward. Crevecoeur wrote of his visit to a family living in Siasconset, "I found very few books among these people, who have very little time for reading; the Bible and a few school tracts, both in the Nattic and English languages, constituted their most numerous libraries."
Jeffrey Summons was a black man who, like Benjamin Tashama, lived the latter years of his life in New Guinea and made a contribution to education within his community. In 1825 he sold land on the corner of Pleasant and York Streets to the Trustees of the School Fund for the Coloured People for a token $10.50, on condition that they build a schoolhouse there and that "a school be kept in it forever." When Summons died in 1832, his estate included precisely fifteen chairs. A few years later the estate inventory of yet another New Guinea resident, Philip Tyler, included twenty-four chairs. It is tempting to imagine the chairs from Benjamin Tashama's school leading a life of their own, moving from house to house in the neighborhood, stored against the time when they might be needed again for the education of Nantucket's nonwhite children. In fact, there is no evidence that these chairs were the same.
Eighteen hundred and fifty was the first year in which it was asked whether individuals enumerated in the federal census could read and write. Saddened though he would have been at the extinction of his native language, reading teacher Benjamin Tashama would have been gratified that his granddaughter Dorcas was not illiterate. He and Jeffrey Summons might also have taken satisfaction had they foreseen that before the end of Dorcas's life, the children of New Guinea would have gained admittance to all Nantucket's public schools
Frances Ruley Karttunen graduated from Nantucket High School in 1960 and has published books about linguistics and ethnohistory. She retired from the University of Texas in 2000. This article is adapted from research on "Nantucket's first Peoples of Color: Wampanoags and African Nantucketers." The work has been supported by a grant from the Nantucket Arts Council and a James Bradford Ames fellowship for 2000-2001. "It is gratifying that each time I enter the new NHA library, I tread on Benjamin Tashama's doorstone," she said.