Walking Genealogical Tree":
Benjamin Franklin Folger, Nantucket's First Genealogist
by Nathaniel Philbrick
Genealogy on Nantucket begins not with the massive record compiled by Eliza Starbuck Barney, but with a quirky codfisherman and hermit named Benjamin Franklin Folger (1777_1859). For it was Folger, who lived in a cottage named Nonantum on the 'Sconset bluff, who provided Barney with much of the raw data that would become the basis of what is now known as the Barney Genealogical Record. Although recognized in the nineteenth century as the island's premier genealogist and historian, Folger is virtually unknown today, primarily because he left it to others to record the information he had collected. It is time we came to appreciate the man who, in the words of Eliza Barney, "rescued from oblivion . . . the History and Genealogy of the Island."
He was the only son of Barzillai and Miriam Gardner Folger and was fifth in descent from first settler Peter Folger, grandfather of the famed Benjamin Franklin, for whom, of course, Folger was named. According to Barney, it was his parent's "doting fondness" that gave Folger "a peculiar bias to his character." Even as a child he took an unusual interest in the island's history, constantly pressing his mother and an assortment of elderly Nantucketers for anything they could tell him about the past. Eliza Barney reported that "this knowledge rendered his conversation very interesting, as he had a happy faculty in the prime of his life, of relating piquant and humorous anecdotes, illustrative of the characters and habits of the preceding generations."
Folger was also something of an intellectual snob, refusing to read any literature that was not at least a century old and taking particular delight in the Greek classics. Although both of his parents were Quakers and Folger maintained a life-long respect for the society's principles, he refused to dress and speak like a Quaker. Instead, Folger dedicated himself to the past with an almost religious fervor, ultimately choosing to live alone in 'Sconset where he had, according to Barney, "abundant opportunity to indulge that dreamy indolence which was a marked feature of his life." Added Barney, "It is not enough to say that he was peculiar; the term original will more justly apply; and we shall look in vain to find another on whom his mantle rests."
Folger seems to have had the manner of an absent-minded professor, never paying much attention to his appearance and surroundings and, on occasion, misplacing things. After a trip to Middleborough, Massachusetts, in 1806, Folger received a packet containing seven dollars and a note from one Esther Bennet: "After you [left,] some school boys found some money [that] appeared to be yours."
Thanks to yet another child, this one from Nantucket, we know something of how Folger communicated his knowledge to others. Whether or not it was because he recognized that the only way to do justice to the stories he had collected was to tell them, rather than write, them, he refused to commit any of his knowledge to paper. Folger's belief in the sanctity of the oral tradition was such that visitors to his cottage were not allowed to write anything down in his presence. In 1895, Eliza Mitchell recounted how when she was a twelve-year-old girl, she used to sit and listen to Folger's "very interesting" stories: "But he never seemed willing to give me an opportunity to write any down. But simply said, 'Your memory is good enough, and you'll remember, because you cannot forget.' And so he would, when all was just right, tell me stories of the past."
But if Folger (in the words of Eliza Barney) "eschewed the use of the pen himself," he apparently received his share of letters as his reputation for learning spread well beyond Nantucket. In the NHA's manuscript collection are several letters to Folger from the descendants of Nantucketers who had moved south to Guilford County, North Carolina. For those Nantucket transplants, who were starved for the kind of sophistication and intellectual vitality found on the remarkably cosmopolitan island of Nantucket, Folger was the ideal correspondent. In 1807 the North Carolinian Thomas Gardner self-deprecatingly addressed his "respected cousin": "I have often thought of coming to Nantucket to see you, but the distance, my situation in life, and diffidence of presenting myself among a more polished and popular people have kept me back. We are backwoods people here, we live as we can, and communicate our ideas as well as we know how." One can only hope that Folger did eventually put pen to paper and write his landlocked kinsman a letter.
If Thomas Gardner from North Carolina had summoned the courage to visit Folger in 'Sconset, it is highly likely that he would have been aghast at the chaotic squalor in which his supposedly "polished" cousin lived. In 1834, a New Yorker by the name of Joseph Coleman Hart published a historical novel set on Nantucket entitled Miriam Coffin, or the Whale-Fishermen which begins with a trip out to 'Sconset to visit a Folger-like character. Although fiction, Miriam Coffin is based, in large part, on Hart's personal interviews with many Nantucketers in the early 1830s, and his novel can be trusted when it comes to its description of Folger and his surroundings.
In the novel's introduction, the narrator, in search of historical information about the island, walks out to 'Sconset on a brisk winter day. The village appears to be deserted, except for one cottage with smoke curling out of its chimney and a cart full of still-flopping codfish parked outside the door. Inside, the house is crowded with furniture and fishing gear, with several nets draped over the chairs to dry. Folger, however, is nowhere to be seen until he emerges from the sleeping loft upstairs:
face was much weather-beaten, and his head, bald
in some spots, was here and there covered with long
and thin tufts of whitey-grayish locks, standing
up and streaming out in admirable confusion. Deep
boots, resembling fire-buckets, together with drab
small-clothes, encased his legs; while his upper
garments were covered over with a huge shaggy wrapper,
which sailors call a monkey-jacket.
Although he depends on fishing to support himself, the Folger of Miriam Coffin is a man who lives in the past. Hart describes him as "a walking genealogical tree, whose leaves and branches, so to speak, would unfold the birth, parentage and education of every resident of the island, from the days of the first settlers downwards to the time present." Toward the end of the novel's introduction, Hart has Folger deliver a brief, but remarkably detailed history of the island. Given that Miriam Coffin appeared a year before Obed Macy's History of Nantucket, Hart's rendering of Folger's account might be regarded as the first published history of the island.
Hart was not the only one to act as Folger's chronicler. Historical articles appeared on a fairly regular basis in the Nantucket Inquirer based on information provided by Folger (who is referred to in one article as "'F' at 'Sconset"). But it would not be until relatively late in his life that Folger's immense knowledge would be conscientiously and methodically recorded.
When he turned seventy, Folger discovered that the inheritance he had hoped would support him in his declining years was "lost to him." It was then that Folger's friends, led by Eliza and Nathaniel Barney, began the process that would preserve much of what Folger had previously kept only in his memory. Interestingly, it is from none other than Henry David Thoreau, who visited the island in 1854, that we learn some of the details of Folger's life at the time. After speaking at the Nantucket Atheneum, Thoreau spent a day touring the island, which included a visit to 'Sconset. In his journal Thoreau commented on the Nantucketer who made his own stint of solitude in the Walden Woods look like a cakewalk: [A] singular old hermit and genealogist, over seventy years old, who, for thirty years at least, has lived alone and devoted his thoughts to genealogy. He knows the genealogy of the whole island, and a relative supports him by making genealogical charts from his dictation for those who will pay for them. Thoreau added that Folger "lives in a very filthy manner, and G. helped clean his house when he was absent about two years ago. They took up three barrels of dirt in his room."
Along with the dirt, Folger collected a sheaf of priceless documents relating to the island, including several letters from the father of his namesake, Benjamin Franklin. Although his financial woes would have easily justified the sale of some of these treasures (which included a 1715 letter written by Mary Coffin Starbuck, the founder of Quakerism on the island), Folger refused to part with them until, according to Eliza Barney, the "final disposition of his papers." At the NHA, on a small sheet of paper, are recorded Folger's final wishes concerning his collection:
I want Nathaniel and Eliza Barney or either of them, to have all my old and valuable papers, Books, etc. when I have done with them.
Siasconset Jan. 3, 1856
give them because they have been a stay to me in
my old age.
Today, these documents are the basis of the Eunice Barney Swain Collection at the NHA.
Even more than these documents, it is the vast array of information contained in the Barney Genealogical Record that is Folger's most enduring and important legacy. If in the near or distant future you find yourself staring at a computer screen full of genealogical information at the NHA's Edouard A. Stackpole Library and Research Center, just remember that it all started more than 150 years ago in 'Sconset with an unkempt hermit named Benjamin Franklin Folger, who kept it all in his head.
Philbrick is director of the Egan Institute of Maritime
Studies and an NHA Research Fellow.