Starbuck, Mary Coffyn (1644/45–1717)

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Starbuck, Mary Coffyn (1644/45–1717)

American minister. Born on February 20, 1644 or 1645, in Haverhill, Massachusetts; died on November 13, 1717, in Nantucket, Massachusetts; daughter of Tristram Coffyn (a magistrate) and Dionis (Stevens) Coffyn; educated at home; married Nathaniel Starbuck (a farmer), around 1663; children: Mary, Elizabeth, Nathaniel, Jethro, Barnabas, Eunice, Priscilla, Hepzibah, Ann, and Paul.

The seventh of nine children of a British immigrant and his wife, Mary Coffyn Starbuck was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts. The Coffyns taught Mary to both read and write, giving her a talent unusual for a young woman of her day. In 1660, when Mary was in her mid-teens, the family moved to the island of Nantucket after her father Tristram Coffyn, along with several business associates, implemented plans to purchase and colonize the tiny island off the Massachusetts coast. In this isolated community, Mary found a husband in Nathaniel Starbuck, a fellow Nantucket resident and the son of one of her father's business associates. Nathaniel and Mary had ten children, only two of whom lived to adulthood, as Nathaniel became a prosperous farmer and entered the local political arena.

Dissatisfied with both her family's religion and the Baptist leanings of her husband, Starbuck welcomed the arrival of several Society of Friends (Quaker) missionaries to the island between 1698 and 1704. Open to a religion that supported women as equal members and welcomed the ministrations of each of its members rather than a "professional" minister, she accepted their request that she host weekly religious services for family and friends. With the help of both her husband and her son, Nathaniel Starbuck Jr., and with the support of several Friends from the mainland, Starbuck was instrumental in helping the tiny island boast a substantial Quaker presence by 1710. A capable public speaker, she became Nantucket's first minister, as well as an active voice in community affairs and local politics. Together with her husband, she opened her home up for public meetings and gained a reputation as a fair adjudicator in local disputes, earning the nickname "the great Woman" for her efforts. Mary Starbuck died on the island of Nantucket in 1717 at the age of 72, her works surviving only as oral history recounting the early days of what would soon become one of the most prosperous whaling centers in North America.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Pamela Shelton , freelance writer, Avon, Connecticut

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Starbuck, Mary Coffyn (1644/45–1717)

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