NHA Home | Historic Nantucket Articles | Bookmark and Share

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Historic Nantucket

Portuguese Islanders and the Old Mill
By Helen Seager

The centennial of the Nantucket Historical Association (1994), followed by the sesquicentennial of the Great Fire (1996) have sharpened interest in the events and trends of the second half of the nineteenth century. That period saw the decline of nearly everything that had previously defined Nantucket economy and culture, including whaling, the Religious Society of Friends, prosperity, and population. The 1850 census showed a population figure of 8,770; in 1900, only about 3,000 people still called the island their home. The population decline can be explained in large measure by shrinking opportunities on the island with the demise of whaling and whaling-dependent industries and the burgeoning opportunities elsewhere, epitomized by the California gold rush. As whaling ships and other assets were sold at a low price or abandoned by established island capitalists, people whose entrepreneurial opportunities had been limited were able to set themselves up in businesses. Other events and trends of the period are chronicled serially in today’s “Looking Backward” columns of the Inquirer and Mirror.

One of the major events of the early years of the NHA was the acquisition of the Old Mill in 1897, through purchase at auction. How did this auction come about? Who were the owners of the mill before it was auctioned? How and why did they acquire it? And why did they sell it? This article attempts to answer these questions by looking at the last three private owners.

At the time of the Great Fire, the mill was still referred to in deeds as the “Charles Swain Mill,” reflecting the fact that Swains had owned it from 1750 until 1828, when, it is said, Jared Gardner bought it from the Swain heirs for firewood. Instead of burning it up, however, Gardner applied his skills as a wheelwright to restore the mill to good enough condition to grind corn again. Gardner died of consumption without a will in 1842; his death record calls him a carpenter by occupation. His heirs partitioned the property in such a way that his daughter Elizabeth Gardner Macy and husband Peter and George C. Gardner II received the mill and land around it. The probate court accepted an appraisal of $639 for the mill, which probably meant that it was in working order. No receipts from operating the mill were reported to the court during the probate period following Jared Gardner’s death. The heirs of Jared Gardner didn’t sell the mill until 1854. These and other records do not show whether the mill was operated during the dozen years that it was in the hands of Gardner’s heirs. Although the sale, to George Enas, took place in October of 1854, it is not recorded in the Registry of Deeds until April 1865, and the record of the properly dated sale is found in the books for 1865 instead of 1854.

George Enas (sometimes recorded as Enos) paid $150 for the property, less than one fourth of the amount of the probate appraisal. The purchase at a bargain price illustrates the business opportunities on the island for new arrivals. He was the first of three private owners of the Old Mill. These owners had one thing in common: all were Portuguese islanders. Enas, owner from 1854 until 1864, had been born in 1815 on the tiny island of Flores, the most western island in the Azores, part of the Kingdom of Portugal. The Azores, sometimes referred to as the “Western Islands” in Nantucket records, are located well out in the Atlantic due west of Lisbon, in about the same latitude as Nantucket. As the crow flies, Flores is the nearest island of the Azores to Nantucket.

Enas was in Nantucket by 1850, when he was reported in the census as a “mariner” with a modest $350 in assets. He had married widowed Sally Maria Stockman, whose mother was Hepsabeth Coffin; he was Sally’s third husband, and they had no children. By no means the first Azorean to arrive in Nantucket, he was, by Nantucket standards, a relative newcomer. As established Nantucket entrepreneurial families gave up their holdings to pursue opportunities elsewhere, Enas and others were able to participate actively in the modest business opportunities that remained. In the late 1850s, Enas invested in island real estate other than the mill, acquiring six parcels during 1856–58 alone while selling only two. The 1860 census showed his holdings to include $700 in real estate and $1,200 in personal property.

Enas died of consumption in January 1866, at the age of 50. His death record names his occupation as miller; his will left everything to his wife. When she died in 1873, her will left everything in a charitable trust for “deserving poor,” especially the elderly. Although she probably inherited also from her parents, George Enas’s legacy constituted at least part of the assets of the Sally Maria Enas Trust. Her trust lasted until 1993, when its principal and income were distributed to the Relief Association of Nantucket, itself established the year after Sally Maria died. In recent decades, her trust contributed to, among other things, fuel assistance for the elderly, and continues to do so through the Relief Association. Thus, it can be said with truth that the effect of the life of the first of the Azorean mill owners is still felt nearly 130 years later.

In April 1865, the year before he died, Enas had sold the mill for $825 to Captain John Murray, a native of Graciosa, another island in the Azores. The sale included “sixteen picks, two jacks and falls, one crowbar, one handspike, one capstan, and the measures and fixtures. Also the goodwill of the trade, the said Enas hereby agreeing not to carry on the business of milling on Nantucket.” Captain Murray was still engaged in whale fishing out of Nantucket, as part owner and captain of the Abby Bradford. The clause that prohibited Enas from engaging in milling indicates that Murray wanted to operate the mill without competition. Since he sold the mill for $1,200 after owning it for only twenty months, one wonders whether he really intended to operate it. He did add to the value of the mill property in 1865 when he purchased, for $10, land “a little to the Eastward of the Eastern Wind Mill” (the Old Mill was the easternmost of several windmills on Mill Hill) from another mariner. On the other hand, Murray realized a handsome profit in a short time, so his motive may have been strictly capitalistic. Enas had written his will in 1842, naming Sally Maria as executor, but returned in 1863 “for providential reasons to again declare the foregoing to be my last will and testament.” Would “providential reasons” include intimations of his own mortality? Perhaps illness had already made it difficult for Enas to continue his occupation as miller, and the captain helped him out by taking the mill off his hands.

Two major events took place in Captain Murray’s life after he sold the mill in December 1866. In 1869 he captained a five-month whaling voyage to the Azores and stopped at Graciosa to pick up his son, John Murray Jr. Their relationship was a source of great satisfaction to the captain. In his later years, Captain Murray described him as “my dear son, John Murray, Jr. who has been the business partner and advisor of my middle life and the joy and comfort of my declining years, and through whose constant care and watchfulness I have acquired what little property I now possess, and who, though begotten by me out of wedlock, I here before God and these witnesses declare to be my natural son.” Father and son together operated a store on Orange Street for decades, and both were highly respected in the Portuguese and wider island community. Then, in 1871, Captain Murray married Nantucketer Harriet Appleton in the Congregational Church. She was twenty-eight-years old and younger than her husband by twenty-one years. In 1880, father, son, and daughter-in-law Anna, also from Graciosa, all were living on Orange Street. Harriet may have been living at that time in another house that the captain had purchased for her, perhaps the house with a “sitting room, parlor, and three bedrooms” on Warren Street that was part of her estate when she died in 1903. Records from other dates show all four in the house on Orange Street.

Captain Murray died in 1899, two years after the NHA acquired the mill at auction. His will named “my young friend” Lauriston Bunker as executor. John Murray Jr.’s name appears in several legal documents with power of attorney or as guardian or trustee in various matters, another indication of the high regard in which the community held him. His obituary in 1920 points out his important contribution to the construction of Alfonso Hall (now Rev. Joseph M. Griffin Hall) between Cherry Street and Williams Street and to the establishment of the Portuguese United Brethren on Nantucket.

John Francis Silva (whose name Nantucketers changed to Sylvia) probably arrived on Nantucket from the Azores after 1860. He is listed in the census records for the first time in 1870, as a mariner, age 50, married to Frances Silva, age 56, also from the Azores. Having bought the Old Mill in late 1865 for $1,200, Silva operated it with the assistance of an apparently rather colorful widower from Ireland, Peter Hoy, who lived near the mill with his six children.

Silva increased the value of the mill while he was owner. He acquired land adjacent to the site and made a deal for land with the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Land that enabled him to build a new road connecting the terminus of South Mill Street to Upper York Street (known later as West York Street). The surveying in 1885 for this and other deals provided valuable groundwork for the auction by which the NHA would acquire the site.

In the fall of 1877, the vanes of the mill were heavily damaged during a gale. Two letters to the editor of the Inquirer and Mirror describe the challenges faced by Silva after the storm. The first, entitled “Spare the Old Mill” is at the NHA but without a date. It describes the writer’s fear that “Mr. Sylvia . . . has decided to tear down” the mill because the business at the mill would “not warrant his repairing the damages.” The writer passes on suggestions he had heard from island friends “whereby the mill could be made a source of profit” as a tourist attraction, including “an observatory in its top [that] would bring in many dimes” and “a small restaurant on one of its upper floors. . . . [Let] a few windows be put in the dining room, and a hungry crowd would enjoy. . . sitting [at]. . . table among the cobwebs and dusty beams.” The writer also urged that some island organization rally to save the mill.

The second letter, dated October 14, 1877, from a Nantucket native living in Providence, recalled boyhood days (possibly around 1860) watching the miller do his work. The writer, who had clearly seen the first letter, acknowledged, “In a business point of view, it is possible that it has outlived its usefulness.” Even so, the writer went on “it ought to be permitted to remain . . . as a relic and landmark sacred to every true Nantucketer.” He closed by echoing the first letter: “Save the old mill.” An editor’s note following the second letter reported to readers that “Mr. Sylvia has this week had it repaired, and will continue to use it for grinding corn.”

A printed card in the NHA’s manuscript collection bearing John Sylvia’s name (and containing some misinformation) gives a brief history of the construction and early ownership of the mill. The card was presumably prepared for public distribution to attract visitors. Silva’s photograph, now in the archives of the NHA, appeared in island publications a number of times after he died.

Silva died in April 1896. Frances, his wife, had predeceased him. Silva’s will, signed in May 1889, left his estate to his brother Louis Francesco Cardozo and nephew Alexandre Marques, with John Murray Jr. as executor. Both heirs lived in Fayal, the major whaling island in the Azores, and in their absence were represented in the settlement of the will by John Murray Jr. The executor’s probate report on estate assets and income showed $100 in revenue for the estate from “two years of fees at the mill,” but it doesn’t say whether the fees derived from grinding corn, greeting tourists, or both. Probate also records an appraisal of the mill and “about two acres east of the old mill” at $700.

Silva’s heirs took steps, again through John Murray Jr., to sell at auction the mill and John Silva’s house on Spring Street, advertising the sale in the Inquirer and Mirror in July 1897. According to the minutes of its 1898 annual meeting, the NHA and others had already been raising funds for the possible purchase of the mill; they had raised $750 by the time of the auction. When that amount was insufficient to cover their $885 auction bid, summer resident Caroline French “generously gave the $135 necessary to make up the full amount.” A plaque in the mill suggests that Miss French purchased the building outright and donated it to the NHA. That is not consistent with the minutes.

By choosing not to tear down the Old Mill, John Silva cemented its place in the island’s heritage. The Old Mill—still operating—is beloved and has become the popular landmark that the writer of the second letter to the newspaper editor believed it should be. As suggested in 1877, an organization did rally and save the Old Mill.

Growing up in the Azores, the men who came to own the mill would have been well acquainted with the use of wind power for a variety of purposes. The mechanics of windmill operation were not a mystery to them. But in Nantucket, Portuguese mill owners of the nineteenth century did not strike it rich. They did, however, find economic opportunity despite (some might argue, ironically, because of) declining times, and they contributed to the island’s historical, economic, civic, and charitable life in ways that still have significance for the twenty-first century.

Helen Seager, a Nantucket resident and life member of the NHA, is a retired community organizer who spent the 1990s as convener of the Friends of the African Meeting House on Nantucket. She also developed the island’s Black Heritage Trail.

© Nantucket Historical Association. All rights reserved.