A striking, historically significant, and very rare plan of Nantucket in 1834, when it was near its peak as the whaling capital of the United States as well as one of its wealthiest towns.
The plan is based on surveys conducted by William Coffin, Jr. a scion of one of Nantucket’s oldest and most prominent families. Executed at a very large scale of ca. 1”:250 feet (1:3000), it provides an immense amount of information about the town. Most impressively, the plan attempts to show property lines and the footprint of every dwelling and other significant structure, including for example meeting houses, wharves, the light house and rope walks. A legend at top left explains the symbols used to differentiate brick and wood houses, meeting houses (i.e., places of worship), reservoirs and windmills.
At the time the Nantucket economy was almost wholly given over to whaling and related industries, as evidenced by the number and size of the wharves and ropewalks as well as a note under the title: “Total number of Vessels belonging to the Port 140, viz. 73 ships,_ 20 Schooners,_ 46 Sloops,_ 1 Steamboat._ Total Tonnage, 29,550,_ engaged in the Whale Fishery, 25,357 Tons.” Within little more than a decade however, the town’s whaling economy would go into a steep decline, precipitated in no small part by the Great Fire of 1846 and the silting of the harbor, at a time when larger vessels were necessary for ever-longer voyages to the Pacific.
The map’s wealth of information renders it an invaluable resource for pre-Fire Nantucket, and much use is made of it by island historians and preservationists. It is also very rare. I know of three, perhaps four examples offered on the antiquarian market between 1999 and 2008 (including two by this firm), but to my knowledge it has not been offered since then. Examples are held by the Nantucket Historical Association and New York Public Library, but a strong indicator of the map’s rarity is that it is not represented in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society, Boston Public Library, or Yale.
William Coffin, Jr.
Surveyor and mapmaker William Coffin, Jr. (1798-1838) was a member of one of Nantucket’s oldest families: in 1659 ancestor Tristram Coffin and fellow investors purchased the island from Thomas Mayhew. The Coffins became one of the island’s great whaling clans; indeed, Thomas Worth’s 1763 poem “Whale-List” asserts that at the time no fewer than six Nantucket whalers had Coffin captains. William, Jr.’s father (1756-1835) was a prominent businessman, a Federalist and a Quaker, and his strong personality apparently led to much conflict with the island’s Quaker and Democrat-leaning elite. The apple seems to have fallen rather far from the tree, however: Nathaniel Philbrick’s Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People praises William as “a kinder, gentler version of his father. A school teacher, merchant, newspaper editor, cartographer, and eloquent temperance advocate…” An obituary in the Inquirer and Mirror for April 28, 1838 praised him as “Possessed of a remarkably philosophic mind,” “highly improved by classical attainments,” and “universally esteemed.”
How and where Coffin learned surveying and mapmaking is not clear, but on May 22, 1833 the Inquirer and Mirror ran the first announcement of his map. It reads in part:
“The subscriber proposes to publish a map of town of Nantucket, embracing all the streets, lanes & alleys, together with the edifices, public and private, situated on the same.
“The solicitations of friends, and the interest felt by the inhabitants of this place in every thing relating to their “own beloved spot,” are the inducements which have led him to undertake a work, attended with much labour & expense, and requiring considerable time for its execution….
“As the demand for works of this kind, in consequence of the merely local interest which is felt in them, is very limited, it has been found necessary to make the terms considerably higher than are usual for maps of a similar size. The proposed map will be about 2 feet by 3, and will be furnished to subscribers at $3 in sheets, and at $5 mounted with rollers, varnished, and otherwise furnished in the handsomest style.”
The NHA also holds a manuscript subscription form dated May 18, 1833 and featuring almost exactly the same language. The form bears the signatures of 16 subscribers, 15 of whom have gone all in for the mounted version, presumably a sign of locals’ attachment to their “beloved spot.”
At the time of his death in 1838, William Coffin was also working with fellow islander William Mitchell on a Map of the Island of Nantucket, which Mitchell eventually published on his own later that year. Coffin also made important contributions to Nantucket literature. Nathaniel Philbrick suggests that he helped Owen Chase write up his Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex (1821). Coffin also edited Obed Macy’s 1835 History of Nantucket and produced the small map of the island bound therein, as well as a manuscript plan of Tuckernuck in the holdings of the NHA.