19th-century survey dividing Nantucket common lands at North Pasture

Daniel Allen and Daniel P. Macy, A plat of North Pasture laid out by the subscribers who were employed by the agents of the Proprietors by virtue of a vote of the Proprietors taken 3d of 4mo 1821 agreeable to the report. Nantucket 10mo 27th 1821. Received 27th 10 mo. 1821 and recorded in the Proprietors Book of Plats 2 mo 11th 1821. By Obed Macy Proprietors Clerk. Nantucket, Oct. 27, 1821.
Manuscript in ink on wove paper, 19”h x 27 ½”w at sheet edge. Added notes in ink and pencil throughout. Toning, soiling and staining; substantial fading of original ink; and several large chips at edges with some loss of manuscript. “Restored 1976 by Nelly Balloffet, Yorktown, N.Y.”, the restoration including overwriting to strengthen faded ink, repair of chips by patching in of new paper patched in and adding manuscript in facsimile. Poor.

An 1821 survey recording the division of common lands at the North Pasture a couple of miles east of the town of Nantucket, a process as controversial as it was important. Though this manuscript has obviously had a hard life, the document is a rare survival: While Nantucket institutions hold substantial cartographic archives related to land ownership on the island, such material is almost never encountered in the marketplace. 

The survey was executed by islanders Daniel Allen and Daniel P. Macy, who conducted many such surveys on behalf of the Proprietors. It depicts a vaguely triangular parcel, some 1587 acres in extent (per Obed and William Macy, The History of Nantucket, p. 37) The parcel straddles modern-day Pout Pond Road, with Pout Ponds lying near its eastern boundary and the western boundary abutting Shimmo. As usual with these surveys, the parcel has been divided into 27 lots of equal extent (more on which below), though each is shaped differently, reflecting the irregular bounds of the North Pasture parcel. Each parcel is numbered and bears the name of a proprietor. 

The “Common and Undivided Lands” of Nantucket
In the 17th and 18th centuries the “Common and Undivided Lands of the Proprietors of Nantucket” were inviolable, set aside for grazing sheep, cattle, and horses; for gathering wood and peat; and for communal agriculture. Owning a “Sheep Commons” at that time meant having the right to pasture one sheep on the common lands. (8 Sheep Commons = 1 Cow Commons; 2 Cow Commons = 1 Horse Commons). This state of affairs continued well into the 19th century, long after most other Massachusetts towns had subdivided their common lands and distributed them among the citizenry.

“The Proprietors of common land in Massachusetts By and Plymouth Colony had only one object, which was to divide the land among the owners as speedily as it could conveniently be surveyed and investigated…. At Nantucket a widely different purpose animated the settlers. The thousand hills and vales were to remain common and undivided as one vast pasture over which sheep could roam in search of food and water. Ultimate division was never contemplated.” (Henry Barnard Worth, Nantucket Lands and Landowners, p. 199)

An exception was made for house lots in the town of Nantucket, beginning with the Wesco Acre Lots (1678), the Fish Lots (1717) and the West Monomoy Shares (1726).  Each division was laid out into twenty-seven equal shares: one each for the twenty original proprietors, plus one-half each for the original fourteen half-share tradesmen. Those shares were apportioned among heirs many generations after the original Proprietors and Half-Share men had ceased to exist. Owners of portions of shares were free to sell to whomever they wished. The intricacies of land transactions within the town were carefully described and recorded, but the boundaries of the outlying lands, the former commons, were much more difficult to accurately document. In the words of one writer, “when it comes to searching a title at Nantucket, most conveyancers prefer to be excused.” (“Land Titles in Nantucket County,”  Boston Law School Magazine, vol. I no. 8 (Sept. 1897), p. 41)

By the early 19th century, there was a movement among some of the Proprietors to divide and distribute the common lands so that each Proprietor could claim private property, fence it, and use it as he liked. Quaker historian Obed Macy saw this movement as the end of a way of life, of a “brotherly” sharing of property for the benefit of all.  In 1811, Obed and his brother, Sylvanus, were the probable authors of a pamphlet published in Boston, titled “A Nest of Love Disturbed, or, The Farmer’s Dialogue,” wherein they lay out arguments for keeping the commons intact. They did not succeed in convincing the majority. The resulting “sheep wars” were eventually won by the wealthier proponents of private ownership, and the new rule was that any Proprietor owning a hundred or more Sheep Commons was eligible to have land set off to him. In 1821, the Proprietors voted to survey select areas of the commons, dividing each into twenty-seven equal shares.

Daniel Allen, Daniel P. Macy and Henry Coffin
Few documents remain to provide clues to the occupation and achievements of Daniel Allen Jr. (1756-1843), aside from bills relating to driving sheep, marking sheep, and surveying. Records show that he made surveys with Walter Folger Jr. and his brother Aaron Folger, and that he was married to their cousin, Phebe Folger, with whom he had seven children. He and Daniel P. Macy surveyed a number of the 1821 divisions of common lands, and he worked with others to lay out town roads, and divide Tuckernuck Island. He appears to have been a trusted surveyor and draftsman.

Surveyor Daniel P. Macy (1801-1839) was the son of Obed Macy, Proprietor’s Clerk. In 1820, he was one of the founders of the Nantucket Mechanics Social Library Association, which would later merge with the Columbian Library Society to create the Nantucket Atheneum. In 1821, he assisted Daniel Allen Jr. with the surveys of North Pasture, Middle Pasture, Trotts Hills, Head of Plains, Madaket, and Great Neck. The same year, he advertised that he was opening a school in his father’s house, where he would teach Arithmetic, Navigation, Lunar Observation, English Grammar, and Writing (Inquirer & Mirror, 27 Sept 1821). Sometime in the 1830s he relocated to Philadelphia where he was a partner in the firm of Macy & Wadsworth. Macy died in New Orleans, where he had traveled in hopes of improving his health.

The plat also bears the name of Henry Coffin (1807-1900), who presumably came into possession of it at some point. Coffin was 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 son Charles F.—were early developers of a plan for Surfside to become a summer cottage community that would rival Siasconset, a thriving resort on the east end of the island.

This survey originally belonged to a large archive of maps, plats and documents in the possession of Frank H. and Clara Low (1925-2016). Clara was the daughter of Henry Coffin Everett (1891-1963) and the great-great-granddaughter of the aforementioned Henry Coffin.

Some of the surveys in the archive were drawn specifically for Henry Coffin Everett. Others not specifically surveyed for him, relate to areas of the island where he owned property that had descended to him from Henry Coffin—this included almost every part of the island from Madaket to Siasconset: Trotts Hills, the Plains, Smooth Hummocks, Surfside, Shimmo, Pocomo, Plainfield, and the Southeast Quarter. The various early surveys more than likely belonged to Henry Coffin Everett’s father, also named Henry Everett (1859-1945), and some date back to the original Henry Coffin. The collection represented a family’s real estate holdings in an era before the rampant development of outlying areas of the island that began in the 1980s. Clara Low was owner of much of the family property in the mid-twentieth century. She and her husband were involved in dozens of land transactions worth many millions of dollars.

Most of this description is adapted from research performed by Betsy Tyler of Nantucket, who until 2016 held the Obed Macy Research Chair of the Nantucket Historical Association. An extended discussion of the Nantucket common lands is found in Henry Barnard Worth, Nantucket Lands and Landowners (Nantucket: Nantucket Historical Association, 1901), chapter 9. Another useful source is “Land Titles in Nantucket County,” Boston Law School Magazine, vol. I no. 8 (Sept. 1897), pp. 40-42.