Mother Cary






On the eve of the Civil War, the November 1860 issue of Harper's Weekly included an article by writer and illustrator David Hunter Strother describing his visit to Siasconset, "the Newport of the Nantucketoise," illustrated with a memorable, but unflattering, drawing of "Mother Cary," proprietor of a shop in her house on Broadway, Shanunga, mat carried "dried codfish, bottled beer, sugar-candy, fishing lines and hooks, eggs, whiskey, ginger-cakes, opodeldoc [liniment], pork, cigars, cheese, Radway's Ready Relief, tobacco, ship biscuit, Pain Killer, jack-knives, lucifer-matches, and jewelry." Mother Cary outfitted Strothers {whose pen name was Porte Crayon) and his companion for a day of bluefishing, and afterwards they and their new fishermen friends gathered at Shanunga for several rounds of her finest whiskey.

Hailing from a well-to-do and respected Nantucket family, Betsey Swain Cary (1778-1862) was the daughter of whaling captain Uriah Swain; she married James Cary (17771812), noted China Trade captain of the island's most successful ship in that enterprise, the Rose. James died on a voyage to China in 1812, when he was thirty-five, leaving Betsey with two young children, Betsey Junior and James Junior. She struggled financially, as proprietor of the Washington House on Lower Main Street—consumed by the fire of 1846—and later, as proprietor of the humble shop and public house in Siasconset where Porte Crayon depicted her, at age eighty-two, with a whiskey bottle in each hand.



"Mother Cary," by Porte Crayon
From: "Summer in New England, Third Paper," by D. H. Strother. Harper's new monthly magazine. Nov 1860. Volume 21, Issue 126, pp. 745-764


A digital exhibition by the Nantucket Historical Association