Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 49, no. 4 (Fall 2000), p. 15-17
Researching the Diary of Martha Fish: Writing a Woman's Life
by Christina Gessler
I DO NOT KNOW WHY MARTHA BURGESS FISH (1844- ) decided to keep a diary. She had two small children and her husband Abner to look after, and a farm to help run. She had neighbors to visit and food to prepare. There was laundry, sewing, and housekeeping. There were coats to make to earn extra income for her family, and Martha often went to help out at her sister's.
She was, it is fair to say, a busy woman. And yet, each night, she recorded bits of information. She wrote about her day on Cherry Grove Farm and about her neighbors. She noted births and deaths, calls paid and received, items bought and sold. She wrote about the hired help on her farm, and when the help quit. She tracked events at the school and in the town, the weather, and the state of the harvest. She wrote all this in brief, often unpunctuated entries in small diaries, and then copied them into the large, heavy ledger books (11 3/4 inches high x 7 inches wide x 2 inches deep) given by Martha's descendant, Martha Hussey Bouton, that are now in the manuscript collection at the Nantucket Historical Association.
The books suffer from some mold damage, the bindings are loose in places, and the pages crumble a bit at the corners. They have that dusty smell old books proudly bear. These markers of their age and testament to their survival help give them a life independent of the words Martha recorded on their pages. Their weight and their scent create a presence, which has outlasted the meals Martha cooked, the coats she sold, the life she led. Without them, there would be little to know about Martha, a woman whose death was not recorded in the newspaper, and whose gravestone is in an unknown location in one of the island's cemeteries. Perhaps without intending to, Martha's diaries create her biography and that of those who entered her farmhouse, for their comings and goings are marked in the pages of these large books.
The diaries span several volumes, covering the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Martha's entries record the names and events of Nantucketers after the great whaling era, and before tourism had fully revived the economy. From Martha's diary it is possible to reconstruct the story of a woman's life, and the story of a small community of families trying to earn a living on sandy, windswept soil.
Among entries about tending hens, baking, and sewing are Martha's notations about the Gibbs family. Mary Burgess Gibbs was Martha's sister. Over the course of many pages, woven in small pieces, is the story of Mary becoming so ill that her family took her to the town asylum. They brought Mary home again, the diary reveals, before she died of consumption. Mary's husband Thomas never remarried, and his daughter Lillian remained by him throughout her life. There is seldom an entry in Martha's diary, after Mary's passing, that mentions Thomas without mentioning Lillian. Even when Lillian married her cousin and had two litde children, she remained devoted to Thomas. When she died of consumption in 1891, she was the second child Thomas had lost to the disease, in addition to his wife.
Martha was seldom introspective in her diaries, so it is difficult to record her own reactions to these circumstances. As was typical of diaries left by nineteenth-century New England farm women, Martha's diary reads more like our modern date books than what we think of today as diaries.
While middle- and upper-class urban women in the nineteenth century wrote of their religious concerns and recorded key political events such as the Civil War in their diaries, rural women tended to write sparse entries about farm work and farm life. Deaths, even those of close friends or family, often occupied only as much space on a page as a notation about finishing the wash. Yet markings on nineteenth-century gravestones, and copies of old sermon tracts indicate that death was dreaded and loved ones were greatly mourned.
Martha's diary seldom dwelt on one person or one event. Because of this, we can also find the story of her two brothers, David and Richard Burgess, who ran a meat market, D.W. and R. E. Burgess and Sons first on South Water Street, then on Main Street. David's wives — first Susan, then Eliza, and finally Marietta — also show up in the pages of Martha's diaries. Unlike Thomas, who remained a widower after Mary died, David was never single for long. David and Richard surface on the pages of Martha's diary because they often purchased livestock from Martha and Abner's farm.
Some people who appear in Martha's diary cannot be identified. There are many references to "Henry." Martha had a nephew named Henry, and her husband had a hired man named Henry. The Henry in Martha's diary has no last name, and disappears and reappears in her entries, often after long absences. The mysterious Henry illuminates how not all stories that emerge in a diary can be completely unraveled. Reading such a diary is often confusing, because most people are mentioned only by their first names. "Nelly" is sporadically mentioned in Martha's diary. Unlike Henry, who was human, Nelly turned out to be a horse. Who exactly Martha is talking about can be further confused by the variety of spellings and misspellings for people's names, and by the occasional use of abbreviations. Martha knew who she was talking about and she did not need to be more specific.
Even when the people can be identified as immediate family members, mysteries remain. For example, Martha had two children. Her daughter, legally named Martha like her mother, was always called Mattie. Even her death records at the town clerk's office list her under this name. Mattie spent a large portion of her childhood at her maternal grandparents' house, grew up to marry Oliver Hussey, and eventually moved into her parents' farmhouse, now located at 32 Hummock Pond Road, to run the farm after they moved away to run the Town [Poor] Farm in Quaise. (also referred to as the Quaise Farm).
The story of Martha's other child is more difficult to unravel. Although Freddie Fish is identified in many records, no birth record exists for him on Nantucket, and his legal records list him as a full year older than Martha's diary records indicate. Why? Was Freddie born off-island? Was he adopted? The records do not answer these questions.
While Mattie had children and lived on Cherry Grove Farm, Freddie married Marie, a woman later declared insane. Exactly one month after Marie entered Taunton State Hospital, Freddie took his own life in an arsenic overdose. His death record, dated October 19,1930, indicates that he was an alcoholic.
Martha's diaries spanning Freddie's early life give no indication of what his fate would be. Indeed, diaries are fascinating resources because of the stories they introduce and yet cannot finish. Martha's writings cannot tell us that Marie continued to live at Taunton years after Martha passed away, and they cannot tell us where Martha herself is buried.
In an age of "The Antiques Road Show," it is easy to think that old objects have worth only if they are deemed rare or pristine. There is no doubt that Martha Fish's diaries look worn and well used; her entries are misspelled and sometimes illegible. The people she mentions are not famous; some of them are entirely unidentifiable to modern researchers. The stories she tells unravel themselves, at best, slowly, and sometimes not at all.
Indeed, her life was ordinary, and her death did not affect those outside her circle of family and friends. Martha is a woman who passed through life and into death and the history books never noticed her. But her diaries have value far beyond what their covers would indicate. Indeed, for the stories introduced here and the others too numerous or complicated to tell, her diaries are invaluable. Her diaries record not only the untold events of one woman's life, but of an entire family, a neighborhood, a community, and an island.
Christina Gessler is currently working on her Ph.D. at the American University in Washington, D.C. Her dissertation is entitled "Harvest of the Heart: Themes From the Diaries of Nineteenth-Century New England Farm Women." Gessler was the Nantucket Historical Association Visiting Research Scholar in 2000 and is continuing her research on Nantucket and New England with a C.A.S. Dissertation Grant from the American University.