Mary Coffyn Starbuck – A Woman In History

If you follow me on Instagram or Facebook, you have seen my post about my 11th great-grandmother and her daughter from the seventeenth century. March was Women’s History Month, and how fitting for me to stumble across a great article in the New England Ancestors Fall 2008 issue.

As I read the whole article and dug a little deeper, it’s amazing the education the daughter, Mary Coffin (Coffyn) Starbuck, had. She was born in 1645 in Massachusetts and had a Puritan work ethic. What is amazing is that she not only knew how to read and write, but she also mastered Latin and Greek! A woman in the 1600s! Mary was very knowledgeable of the scriptures too. Her ability to read and write the classical languages was mostly only a skill obtained by young men studying the ministry at Harvard College.

At the age of sixteen, she was betrothed to her father’s business partner Nathaniel Starbuck. The marriage was probably arranged marriage by her parents. Mary’s brother had already married Nathaniel’s sister, so she knew Nathaniel as a family friend. Their marriage in 1661 was the first New England wedding on the island of Nantucket. Their daughter was the first white child born on Nantucket.

Women of Petticoat Row ca.1895. Courtesy of Nantucket Historical Association.

With her education, Mary was confident in portraying her knowledge of the world around her. She was unafraid to speak in town meetings, saying, “My husband and I….” They held many town meetings in their home, which locally became known as the “Parliament House.” Mary started a trading post or “country store” attached to the house shortly after their marriage. One of their best customers was the Algonquian Indians. The Nantucket Historical Association owns Mary’s account books! The books date between 1683 to 1757. They traded goods and labor in the store. Mary’s accounting books show as many as 200 Indians, primarily engaged in cod-fishing and fowling, performing routine manual work, and later whaling. They received necessary tools, cloth, and supplies in return for their efforts.

To view the account books, visit

Mary found her religious freedom and was allowed to sell items as she pleased. She was truly a free woman. Mary became a leader in introducing Quaker practices in Nantucket. She became a minister in the “Society,” as were several of her children. She was consulted upon all matters of public importance because her judgment was superior, and well-acknowledged as a great woman.

Although the first Meeting House on Nantucket was built in 1711, Mary did not live to see the official Nantucket Monthly Meeting be established. Mary Coffin Starbuck died on Nantucket Island on November 13, 1717, at the age of seventy-two. Fittingly, her body was laid to rest in the Friends’ burial ground next to the new meetinghouse built on land donated by her son and the Nantucket proprietors.

~ All my information is from the “Fall 2008 New England Ancestors” magazine and the “History of American Women.”

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