Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 6

Thursday. 17th.

Saturday. 19th.

Friday. 18th. CFA Friday. 18th. CFA
Friday. 18th.

The town of Nantucket is a narrow and ill looking one. But the people appear industrious and kindhearted. Mr. Burnell formerly a Senator of the State and now Cashier of the Bank called here and we accompanied several gentlemen to see the new Wharf and the Spermaceti candle works of a Mr. Folger, thence to the Museum which they are commencing under very favorable auspices,1 and from thence to 220the tower of the South Church to see the view. The day was as all our weather has been delightful. From here we were taken to visit a private School of a Mr. Pearce for boys and girls and the Coffin School, so named because founded by Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin for the descendants of the first Coffin who settled in Nantucket. This business of visiting schools and having to admire whether you do or not is a tax levied upon distinction. Thus the morning went.

Mr. Davis had arranged a party to Siasconset and we accordingly started for the purpose of dining there. A very good Carriage and pair of horses took us seven miles to the little settlement. Nantucket is a curious place. The poverty of the spot, its utter nakedness and the rich subsistence it affords through the active disposition of it’s citizens are worthy of philosophical consideration. Siasconset is the Nahant of this Community. Originally a fishing settlement, the huts were gradually deserted by their original tenants and taken by the comfortable citizens for the purpose of affording clear air and change of scene for the two summer months. They are all of a similar construction, of one story and protected from the external air by shingles over boards. They are rarely painted and probably cost five or six hundred dollars to build. The houses are placed within a very few feet of each other and the people when there make a sort of general society. There is a primitive simplicity about this whole thing which I have met with nowhere else.2 A simplicity which is amusing to imagine although perhaps not agreeable to practise. Every body in the settlement must of course be aware of every body’s daily doings. The gossip must all be of each other’s domestic matters with the usual modicum of scandal.

We rode half a mile further to Sancota Sankoty head, the highest land on the Island and mused from there as man always muses upon the swelling of the wide surface of the Ocean. The waves roll in upon this beach with everlasting regularity, and without the least attention to man’s wants or his wishes. Sometimes wafting to him the means of his subsistence, sometimes bearing for him immediate destruction. We returned to the neat inn where we had ordered dinner and found Mr. Paine, Dr. Morton the Collector of the place, Mr. Burnell, a Dr. Webb and Mr. Athearn who joined our party. The dinner was neat and composed of Nantucket dishes. Chicken chowder, pumpkins dressed in the shell and corn puddings. Fish could not be procured in time. The neatness of every thing was remarkable. Several more gentlemen joined us after dinner and took us to the bowling alley, but we had promised to be at Nantucket early so we cut very brief.3

As it was we had barely time to call upon Mr. Folger the old As-221tronomer of Nantucket. I recollected when he was in Congress many years ago and being then told of this fancy of his, but I was surprised when he showed us his clock which gives the moon’s cycle and her daily course with that of the sun and the motions of the nodes, and his telescope even to the glasses of his own making. He showed us also tables for Encke’s Comet, which he has made. Mr. Folger has got into some squabbles with the rest of the town and is very unpopular, so much so that I think he is not properly appreciated. He is a mathematician as well as an observer, but I afterwards found that neither Mr. Paine nor Mr. Mitchell admitted he could see, excepting what was not to be seen.4 There is no knowing what to decide in such cases. A prophet is rarely honoured in his own Country.

We hurried home to be ready for the next Lecture of Professor Silliman which we attended in the same form. The subject tonight the chalk formations and what are called tertiary. There is no chalk in this country. The various ichthyolites and petrifactions of shells made the Lecture amusing but not so much so as that last evening. Returned home pretty well fatigued with our day’s experience and were glad after dipping into the Boston Newspapers of yesterday to retire.

1.

The Nantucket Athenaeum, Library, and Museum had been incorporated in 1834 and was then recently installed in a building that had been occupied by the Universalist Society and in which it would remain until 1846, when the building and its contents were destroyed by fire (Edward K. Godfrey, comp., The Island of Nantucket, Boston [1882], p. 19–20).

2.

Siasconset (“Sconset”) and its whale houses are the subject of Henry Chandlee Forman’s Early Nantucket and its Whale Houses, N.Y., 1966. The houses of Sconset are illustrated in the present volume; see also p. xviii, above.

3.

The luncheon and bowling were at the establishment of George B. Elkins at Sankoty, on the extreme eastern end of the island.

4.

The telescope entirely made by Walter Folger Jr. is now on exhibit in the Peter Foulger Museum on Broad Street, Nantucket. Folger’s ingenuity extended to other fields as well: when elected a representative to Congress (1817–1821), “Mr. Folger and his sons carded, spun, and wove his cotton and woollen cloth, cut out and made his whole suit, and he went to Congress dressed — clear of hat and shoes — entirely in home-made clothing” (Godfrey, The Island of Nantucket, p. 107–108). On Folger’s career, see DAB .