Miacomet Indian Burial Ground
An inconspicuous cemetery borders the west side of Surfside Road just past the intersection with Miacomet Road. Like the Friends Burial Ground, it is a fenced field without headstones. Only a large inscribed boulder facing Surfside Road identifies it as the Miacomet Indian Burial Ground.
In this place were interred the victims of the “Indian Sickness” which claimed 222 victims in a matter of a few months in the fall and winter of 1763–64. There may have been other burials in this ground before and after the lethal epidemic.
From the beginning, this was a Christian burial ground associated with a church. Very old burials that sometimes come to light around the island have been easy to distinguish from those of Christians, who were laid out and buried in individual pine coffins.
Miacomet Pond lies in the south end of a valley that stretches from mid-island to the South Shore. According to early eighteenth-century documents, Nantucket’s Wampanoags built a dozen or so frame houses in the valley, and others lived there in traditional wetus (wigwams) after they had been dispossessed of land in other parts of the island.
At one time, Wampanoags had five Christian meetinghouses on the island—three Congregational and two Baptist. This reflected a split between two Englishmen who had first come seeking the Christian conversion of the Nantucket’s aboriginal population. Thomas Mayhew Jr. was Harvard-trained with deep roots in New England Puritanism. His assistant, Peter Folger, inclined away from this orthodoxy and eventually repudiated the teaching of Mayhew in favor of those of Roger Williams. The doctrinal disagreement between the two men was reflected in division of their converts, the island’s “praying Indians.”
The forms of worship observed by the Nantucket Wampanoags in their meetinghouses are obscured by the Quaker habit of referring to any congregation with a salaried clergyman as “presbyterian,” and by the general use of “antipedobaptist” to refer to anyone who objected to infant baptism. Despite eighteenth-century historian Zaccheus Macy’s assertion that the Wampanoags “were very solid and sober at their meetings of worship, and carried on in the form of Presbyterians,” the fact that Harvard-trained Timothy White ministered to both the island’s English Congregationalists and the Wampanoags at Miacomet identifies the Miacomet congregation as Congregational,
In 1732 building materials—boards, shingles, nails, hinges, and timber logs—were purchased for constructing a meetinghouse. According to Zaccheus Macy, who grew up bilingual in English and the Wampanoags’ Algonquin language, Miacomet “signifies a meeting place, and their meeting house they call Miacomor.”
The site of the Miacomet Meeting House appears on Ferdinand Ewer’s 1869 map of Nantucket. Near the meetinghouse was the burial ground, which also appears on Ewer’s map, as does the general location of a “village” at the head of Miacomet Valley.
Miacomet, with its English-style houses and its meetinghouse, was a last stand for Nantucket’s Wampanoags. They complained that the sandy outwash plain was no good for plowing and planting field crops as the English expected them to, but despite repeated appeals to the General Court of Massachusetts for restoration of some of their ancestral lands, they were unable to regain ground.
The Indian Sickness came more than three decades after the purchase of building materials for a meetinghouse. During those three decades it is likely that the Wampanoag faithful who died were laid to rest in the burial ground next to where they had worshipped in life. Nothing, however, could have prepared island residents—English and Wampanoag alike—for the task of laying to rest over two hundred deceased in the course of just a few months.
At first the sheriff ordered the English to stay away from the stricken community, lest they bring the contagion back to the English population. Some Quaker men and some Africans who had been brought to the island as slaves discovered that they could go among the sick and dying with impunity, and they made an effort to feed the sick and to rescue orphaned children. Historian Obed Macy, writing seventy years after the fact, claimed that the English assisted in burying the dead, and this seems to have been borne out in the late twentieth century, when some of the burials were accidentally disturbed, and it was found that the epidemic victims had been laid to rest in individual coffins, not in a mass grave.
When the epidemic burned itself out, there were only around 150 survivors among Nantucket’s Wampanoags, and many of them were anxious to leave the island as soon as possible and never come back. A few did come to their ends on Nantucket, nonetheless, and they probably were buried alongside the epidemic victims.
The wetus of the epidemic victims were burned, but timber was so scarce on Nantucket that the wooden houses were spared. After their contents were pulled out and burned, the houses themselves were dismantled or moved elsewhere. The meetinghouse stood by the burial ground, alone and unused until it too was cleared away.
Over time the burial ground gradually disappeared. Obed Macy knew where it was in 1835, writing that it was “situated at Miacomet about one mile south of town, without enclosure or paling to denote what it really was except some of the small hillocks among a spot of bushes.” Diarist Charles Dyer wrote in 1846 of the burial ground’s location a mile from town, and mapmaker Ferdinand Ewer knew still knew its location in 1869, although pines planted in 1866 were beginning to claim the open land. More trees were planted at Miacomet in 1875, and eventually woods grew right to the roadside.
In 1890 an old Bible turned up with a list of the epidemic victims, providing a record of most of the people interred in the Miacomet burial ground, even in the absence of headstones. But without headstones or a fence, the burial ground itself was, by then, lost in the woods.
Ewer’s map, however, remains ubiquitous in public and private places all over town, which makes it all the more surprising that the Miacomet Indian Burial Ground was accidentally re-opened on December 21, 1987, during excavation for foundations for a low-cost housing development.
Four sets of remains that had been buried in wooden coffins were exposed. Work was suspended and the authorities called. In short order the prospective housing was relocated, and the mainland Wampanoags came to Nantucket to re-consecrate the burial site.
It is the preference of today’s Wampanoag elders that there should be no informative signage at the burial ground beyond the simple boulder with its name. Nor do they want walking tours or school field trips to the site. They simply want it fenced, maintained, and left in peace.
They have very good reason for this. Utterly forgotten in the history of the island is that the phrenology craze of the first half of the nineteenth century swept Nantucket in the 1830s. A series of phrenology lectures were initiated at the Atheneum in January 1835, and a local Phenological Society was formed. Almost immediately a series of articles appeared in the Inquirer debunking the notion that anything about the nature of a person’s moral character could be determined from the exterior contours of the head. The articles were signed “M,” and may have been written by the Atheneum’s young librarian, Maria Mitchell, or by her father William Mitchell.
M.’s articles did nothing to dampen the ardent desire of some Nantucketers to lay their hands on skulls. An 1838 letter to the Inquirer deploring the neglect of the Founders Burial Ground consoled the writer that at least the local phrenology enthusiasts had not dug over the settlers’ graves in search of skulls as they had the graves of Nantucket’s Indians.
At around the same time, Nantucket’s official “last Indian,” Abram Quary, was supposedly brought before the magistrate for having run off diggers in Shimmo. When asked whether he really would have shot them if they had not desisted, he is said to have replied that they were there to disturb the graves of his ancestors, and he most certainly would have pulled the trigger if necessary.
Quary’s concern was well-founded. In 1835 Mary Cushman Edes, on island for a visit with her future parents-in-law, wrote that, “R. just came in to get two skulls (which he found Saturday afternoon in exhuming from the Indian burying place) to carry back.” He was not returning them for re-interment, however. He was taking them to a meeting of the Phrenological Society.
Eleven years later Charles Dyer recorded in his diary that, “One mile from town is the old Indian burial where many graves have been dug over to get the skulls. Some of the other bones are left in the ground but too much decayed to be worth bringing away.”
The looters had, however, missed a few skulls after all, and it was one of those whose emergence in December 1987 led to the recognition and protection of what was left of the Miacomet Indian Burial Ground.
Recently, without knowledge or permission of the Nantucket Cemetery Commission, a memorial bench and a memorial tree for nonindigenous individuals were placed between the inscribed boulder identifying the Miacomet Indian Burial Ground and the Surfside Road bicycle path. They have been removed, and greater vigilance on the part of the commission will insure that nothing will be intruded there in the future.
This description is excerpted from Nantucket Places and People 4: Underground by Frances Ruley Karttunen (2010).