Today, the Massachusetts State Quarter Coin remembers the plunder of Nantucket 237 years ago and the islanders’ response.
First, we hear from General Gates from Our French Allies by Edwin Martin Stone, published in 1884:
“Providence, April 5, 1779. ”
“I am informed by Colonel Proud, of Tiverton, that ten sails of small vessels, mostly sloops and schooners, have appeared off Bedford and Falmouth, and are supposed to be intended to plunder Nantucket, finding they would meet with too much opposition at either of the other places.
“But this has the appearance of a feint, to divert our attention from the main design.
“I have in consequence written to the Council of Massachusetts Bay, and endeavored to prevail on them to stimulate the good subjects of their government to be ready at the shortest notice to defeat any invasion of these States.
“I have also recommended the immediate re-establishment of the beacons between this and Boston, and I wish Your Excellency would direct the same to be done from the boundary between Connecticut and this State, upon proper heights along the south side of your coast…
“I foresaw this in May last, and I did all in my power to prevent it.
“When will it please God to banish inordinate avarice and all its baneful effects from this our earth?
“I am with every sentiment of esteem and respect,
“Your Excellency’s most obedient, humble servant. H. G.” [General Horatio Gates]
Next, The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, published in 1875, gives the islanders’ history:
In the year 1779, a large party of refugees, with seven vessels and transports with soldiers from Newport, commanded by the renegade George Leonard, having an avowed purpose to destroy Nantucket, because they said the Islanders had performed some act of hostility toward them, landed a force of about 100 armed men on the island, and began to plunder the storehouses, taking principally from one Thomas Jenkins, formerly of Nantucket, but during the war residing in Lynn.
Timothy Folger at length succeeded in passing the guard, and advised Leonard to go off, for the people would not submit to such treatment much longer.
Acting on the hint, he left. The people believing that Leonard had no authority for his course, assembled in town meeting on the 9th of April, appointed Stephen Paddock, Benjamin Folger, Benjamin Hussey, Nathaniel Coffin and Stephen Hussey, a ” Committee to draw up a Memorial or Remonstrance in order to be preferred to the General Assembly of this State to see what Means may be Used to prevent any future Depredation being made on the Inhabitants of this Town ;” and Timothy Folger and Stephen Hussey, Esqrs., were appointed to carry and present it to the general court.
The following is a copy of the memorial.
“To the Legislative Authority of the State of Massachusetts Bay.
“The Memorial of the Inhabitants of Nantucket Sheweth:
“Whereas the peculiar Situation of this Island Rendering the inhabitants thereof continually exposed to invasions, ravages, and depredations of armed men, and having no power of our own to make the least resistance for our defense, being principled against all violent measures, and being left without the hope of succor, or relief from the continent were we disposed for defense:
“Therefore in this our distressed situation we would call on the Legislative body of this state for council & advice, and beg leave to lay before you our sufferings in a late excursion, made here by a sett of armed men from Newport, calling themselves Loyal Refugees, who say they were commissioned, and authorized by the Commander in Chief of King George’s forces, to make reprisals against the inhabitants of the several provinces in America.
“These associated Refugees being formidably armed with weapons of war, did on the 5th instant land on this Island, and immediately proceed to plunder several stores and vessels laying at the wharves of every valuable commodity, the particulars of which will be handed you by the Committee by which you will see our loss is great, and falls heavy on the poor peaceable Inhabitants.
“And as the Sufferers stand in need of redress & compensation, and having some hope of it by applying to the British Commanders at New York, or elsewhere, we beg your countenance and authority to impower Timothy Folger, and Benjamin Hussey to repair to New York, & Rhode Island, to solicit for the payment of the goods taken from the peaceable inhabitants of this town and endeavor to put a stop to future depredations of this kind from the ships and men under their authority.
“We need not remind you of the poverty and calamity of this town, even before this invasion, but now it must be considered as being but one step from total desolation.
“Nathaniel Coffin, Benjamin Folger, Stephen Paddock, Benjamin Hussey, Stephen Hussey.”
The court granted the desired permission, but the danger of invasion was not averted, for there soon came tidings that Leonard was planning another similar expedition, and the town was convened to see what should be done.
It was necessary to act promptly, and the result was that Dr. Benjamin Tupper, Samuel Starbuck and William Rotch were sent to Newport with instructions to proceed to New York if necessary, to prevent the consummation of Leonard’s design, and in the effort they were partially successful.
The sloop Speedwell, in which they took passage, was, however, intercepted by a spy-boat in the service of General Gates, and her purpose ascertained, and a copy of the commission taken and forwarded to him.
He immediately dispatched the copy, with some severe strictures, to the Hon. Jeremiah Powell of the Council of Massachusetts.
The subject was of course brought up, and a requisition served on the selectmen of Nantucket to appear, and defend themselves from the charge of corresponding with the enemy.
In accordance with this requisition, Frederick Folger, Josiah Barker, Micajah Coffin, Benjamin Hussey and Christopher Starbuck were appointed to draw up a reply, and Stephen Hussey, Esq., to present it to the general court.
The reply set forth the peculiar circumstances under which the commission was issued, the necessity for immediate action, and the fact that nothing more was sought but immunity from further depredations.
On these grounds the court in a carefully guarded resolve warningly excused the action.
It must be remembered in this connection that communication with Boston in peaceful times in these days was not a question of hours but days.
And when we consider that some time after the commencement of Leonard’s preparations must have elapsed before news of it reached the island, that many days of valuable time must be lost in communicating with the general court and receiving a reply.
And that in the meantime the object of the expedition may have been accomplished, it would certainly be unreasonable to blame the islanders for acting as they did.
The Massachusetts State Quarter Coin shows with a view of the South Shore of Nantucket, circa 1905.