19th-century manuscript plan of the Nantucket village of Siasconset

Copied by W[illiam] C. F[olger], Siasconset 1835. Variation in 1834. 8° 27’ West. Nantucket, 1835/1883.
Manuscript in ink on two joined sheets of wove paper water marked “J WHATMAN 1875”, 19 ¼”h x 29 ½”w at sheet edge. Traces of staining and discoloration after washing, expert mends and restorations along edges.

Early manuscript copy of an 1835 survey of Siasconset on the island of Nantucket, a one-tine fishing village now renowned as a Summer resort.

Siasconset, located on Nantucket’s south eastern shore, had its beginnings in the 18th century as a village of shacks owned by the fisherman who line-fished for cod offshore. By 1835, when this survey was first drawn, the decline of the cod fishery had changed its character forever, and the village became a Summer getaway for well-off residents of the town of Nantucket. At the time the town had a population well over 7000 and was filled with the hustle, bustle and economic and social striving engendered by the wealth pouring in from the whaling industry. Siasconset, with but a few dozen houses set within yards of the Atlantic surf, must have seemed soothing by comparison.

By coincidence, Obed Macy published his History of Nantucket that very year, and he provides a charming snapshot describing Siasconset and its distinct appeal:

“This village is situated at the south-east extremity of the island, and contains about 70 houses. The cod fishery, which was carried on there a few years since pretty extensively, has recently dwindled, so that it can hardly be said to be the business of the place. The houses, with few exceptions, are occupied only in the warm season. As a summer resort, no place in the United States presents greater attractions for the invalid than Siasconset. It is not, indeed, the focus of fashionable life. But the fine bracing air, the excellent water, and the unique customs and “laws” of the place, are admirably adapted to refresh and invigorate both mind and body….


“The village is compactly built on a level grass plat, near the edge of a steep cliff; the land rises in the rear, so as to cut off a view of the town of Nantucket, and serve as a barrier to the cares and bustle of a turbulent world. In front, the eye rests on a broad expanse of the Atlantic, and below, the surf rolling and breaking, gives animation to the scenes by day, and lulls to repose by night.” (pp. 260-61)

The 1835 map of Siasconset
In 1835 the changing character of the village and the influx of money from Nantucket town must have prompted the Proprietors to order a survey to clarify property boundaries. The survey was duly conducted, though by whom is not clear, and the result presented on May 5, 1835:

“At a meeting of the Proprietors of the common and undivided land on Nantucket, held at the Town House 22nd 5 mo 1835, Voted that the Map of the Village of Siasconset exhibited at this meeting by the Committee appointed for that purpose be accepted & the Clerk is directed to lay it on file in his office, for the satisfaction of all concerned therein.” (Proprietors Records[,] Book No. 2, Folio 305.)

Offered here is an early copy of that survey, drawn by in 1883 by William C. Folger, about whom more below. It depicts the five main streets (today known as Highway, Front, Broadway, Centre and Shell) running parallel to the shore and several dozen properties, each identified with the initials of its owner. The survey must have been done by a pro, as the dimensions of each parcel and layout of each street have been measured with great care; in many cases lot dimensions are indicated down to the nearest hundredth of a rod (the equivalent of just under 2 inches).

It is not clear why Folger undertook to copy the 1835 map almost a half century after it was drawn. He was a committed antiquarian, so it may be have been pure scholarly interest… however, we also have in our possession a second Folger copy of the same survey, dated 1882, included in a large archive of Siaconset plans and plats. It seems unlikely he would have needed both for personal use.

More likely Folger’s motivation relates in some way to Siasconset’s “discovery” in the 1870s by New Yorker Edward Underhill, who invested in land there and built dozens of quirky cottages to rent to Summer visitors. These were designed to harmonize with the much older structures already in the village, and he advertised them as “All squatty, one-story affairs, no two alike,” and offered “Lots of new cottages built in the old style. Latch strings on doors. Quaint ornamentation.” (Kartunen) Taking another approach were Nantucketers Charles Robinson and Dr. Franklin Ellis, who more or less concurrently built a number of grander Victorian cottages as well as the Ocean View House and the Siasconset Union Chapel. The village’s economic success was assured with the construction of the Nantucket Railroad, which inaugurated service on July 4, 1881.

William C. Folger (1806-91)
Folger (1806-91) was a descendant of Peter Folger, a half-share tradesman who was a poet, miller, translator for the local Wampanoags, and surveyor. The Folgers were a family boasting some remarkably brilliant and creative members, including Benjamin Franklin, grandson of Peter Folger. William C. Folger was the son of Rebecca Folger and her cousin Alexander Folger, receiving a double-dose of the Folger genes. An obituary in the Inquirer & Mirror, since 1821 the island’s newspaper of record, sums up his accomplishments:

“Though possessing only ordinary educational advantages in his youth Mr. Folger early developed an aptitude for study and research and through life has ranked among the most intelligent of our citizens. When quite a young man he engaged for a while in the manufacture of oil and candles, then the leading industry of this place, his manufactory being located on Winter Street. Subsequently he taught school and for many years engaged in land surveying.   For a long period and at the time of his death he held the commission of Justice of the Peace. Though of Quaker antecedents he long since identified himself with the Baptist denomination and for many years has been one of the senior deacons of the Summer Street Church. In abolition times he was conspicuously identified with the anti-slavery movement and in late years was actively interested in temperance work and other social reforms. But it is perhaps through his antiquarian research and genealogical lore that Mr. Folger has become most widely known. On local history and genealogy he has long been an accepted authority and during his many years of study and research has collected a vast amount of valuable data and statistics. He has contributed many valuable articles to the press in years past, and was consulted on matters of family history by Nantucket descendants the world over. He leaves a widow.”

This manuscript was acquired as part of a group of some 150 Nantucket cartographic items, all related to division of common lands, property subdivisions, and surveys of individual parcels. As demonstrated by 20th-century correspondence that accompanied the archive, the material belonged to Frank H. and Clara Low (1925-2016) of Nantucket. Clara was the daughter of Henry Coffin Everett (1891-1963) and the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Coffin (1807-1900), one of the key figures of 19th century Nantucket. Henry built the house at 75 Main Street, across from his brother Charles G. at 78 Main. The men were in the whale-oil business together in the firm C.G. &H. Coffin. When that industry failed in the mid-19th century, they—along with Henry’s sons—turned to real estate development projects around the island, at Surfside, Siasconset and elsewhere.

Some background on Siasconset from Frances Kartunen, “Nantucket Places & People: ‘Sconset’s Sanguine Genius,” Yesterday’s Island, vol. 38 no. 10 (July 3-9, 2008) and also from “Builder Charles H. Robinson” on line at ‘Sconset 02564.