Nantucket Prairie Girl

My friend Alyson sits looking out at Marblehead Harbor. Ironically we have come to find out that we are now cousins from our Nantucket connections, she through the Coffin family and me through the Folgers.

     If you were to look at a map of the United States, and were to pick a place right in the center, where you put your finger would most likely be in or very near Oklahoma. We are the landiest of the landlocked. Not a beach for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The ocean is not something in our every day vocabulary.

Replica ship Friendship of Salem in the Salem, Mass.  Harbor

   Because of this, my artist interest in sailing ships and the concept of a more “New England” seaside was always a little odd for me— because what do I know about ships and sailors? Still, I’d let these images stoke my imagination and it came out in several pieces of art over the years— and especially when I was expecting Robbie. All of his baby things had a nautical theme— we received beautiful items with boats and whales, and even a beautiful handmade quilt from our friend Briana with vintage material with patterns of Boston Harbor. This landlocked baby was nautical before he was even born!

  My interest in the New England seaside expanded into books too, and I have some beautiful decorating books I’ve collected through the years, with homes in Cape Cod and most recently, Nantucket. Looking through my Nantucket book, I remembered that long ago I’d noticed that someone way way back someone on my family tree was born in Nantucket. I told this to my friend Patricia, who is an awesome genealogist based in New York State, and what began as a pretty off hand side thought unraveled into an epic sea tale…

Sunset in Marblehead, Mass

  My great-great grandma’s name was Minnie Folger. Minnie Fayetta Folger to be exact, and she was super cute— I’ve seen photos of her in her victorian era dress and hat and glasses. She looks bookish and sweet. She fell in love with a boy coming through town hanging telegraph lines, and was born in a house called Button Place in Illinois. How cute is that?
   It was Minnie’s way-back grandpa who was born in Nantucket. I wondered, was his father a sailor? A rope maker, a (gulp) whale hunter? I honestly didn’t think they’d have more than just a middle class workerman’s family tale, but boy was I wrong!
   Through Patricia’s sleuthing, we found out that Folger is an important name in Nantucket— and they’ve been there, literally, since the first white man came on shore. Peter Folger, my 11 times great-grandfather, came first to Martha’s Vineyard in the 1630s as a young man. He began working with the native population to teach them English and religion (and, it can be noted, worked equally hard to learn their language and culture) and seemed to have also been a pretty talented jack-of all-trades. 
   Evidently he was deeply smitten with a young woman who made the ocean voyage on the same ship as the Folger family, and paid twenty pounds to end her indentured status with another family, which he would later call the best money he ever spend. Awwww, Peter, you are a 17th century sweetheart!
   He was enlisted to come to Nantucket with Tristram Coffin as an interpreter of the Wampanoag language. He was given some land as a half-sharesman, worked as a miller, weaver and teacher. He was called a “pious and learned Englishman” by Cotton Mather, but he also knew his own mind when it came to his religious beliefs. He even published some writings that would have landed him in hot water with Puritan Massachusetts, but luckily Nantucket was considered part of New York at the time.
   Part of me loves that, along with my Dutch East Indian Tradesmen relatives, my ancestors have been giving the uptight Pilgrims the side eye since the 1600s! Ha! And evidently there are some Quakers in the Folger line, and I love that too. Oh, and speaking of the Folger line….Peter’s youngest daughter was Abia Folger Franklin. You may know her as….Benjamin Fraklin’s mother. WUT!? Crazy Benjamin Franklin is my cousin?!

    Things like this is why I love history and love genealogy. Suddenly static things in an old history book become real. They are literally, in your blood. And although the only thing like a sea that I ever see is the wind billowing in the prairie grasses, there is a connection now for me with this far away place, through far away places. I love that. And I want to paint that. Funnily enough, I guess, I already have been– for years!

View from the old burial point in Marblehead, Mass.

This is a painting I did in 2010 called “The Sea Captain’s Wife.” I’m excited now to know that there was a real sea captain in the family, named (are you ready for this?) Barzillai Folger. His wife, the Sea Captain’s Wife, was Miriam Gardner, from the founding Gardner Family of Nantucket. I’m sure she spent many a day gazing out to sea, wondering if an incoming ship was the one bringing her husband back to the island.  I was also surprised to find several generations of sons named Robert going back in the Folger line, all the way back to the days of Nantucket. Strange how life imitates art and art imitates life.

   And so— fair warning; I have a feeling there will be salty sea flair coming to some of my future paintings! I am hoping too to get a glimpse of the sea when we travel up east this summer. Nantucket will have to wait for a later time, but one day, I’d like to stand on Folger street and feel a strange deja vu or sense of homecoming. And then I’ll eat a lobster roll with my bearded sea-captainesque looking husband and feel vindicated in my insatiable desire to buy all the nautical stripe shirts I come across 😉

   Because, you know, it’s in the blood.

   Thanks for coming by to visit with me today 🙂 
Til next time,

7 thoughts on “Nantucket Prairie Girl

  1. Oh Heather, this is so exciting about your New England Nantucket connections!!!! I love this story that Alyson helped trace for you and all of it's fantastic details. Nantucket has always been a place I have been drawn to and have no reason why except for it's wonderful history. One day I hope to visit as well . I am looking forward to your paintings with that salty sea flair of the sea faring people of Nantucket!!!


  2. This has been one of my absolute favorite projects to work on! My Puritan ancestors would find my joy in this work SINFUL! 😉 I seriously, and I really mean this, want to work on something with you in regards to Peter. We need to really chat about that in June!


  3. Sometimes, the things we love are truly in our ancestral line. It get passed down from generation to generation without us even knowing. Amazing story about your ancestors, Heather.


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