“So you say your great-great-great grandfather is Tristam Coffin”: Using the Barney Genealogical Record

Keeping History Column

by Georgen Gilliam Charnes

ebA frequent request received at the Nantucket Historical Association Research Library is: “My great-great-great grandfather is Tristram Coffin – can you print out my family history and send me a copy?” At many repositories, the answer to this question is a long-winded explanation of how genealogical knowledge is attained only by doing “primary source research,” including grueling hours sitting at a microfilm reader or trying to decipher nearly illegible handwritten records. And, unfortunately, it’s often difficult to explain the procedures of primary-source research to novice patrons. Accustomed as we are to immediate delivery of all our needs, from McDonald’s hamburgers to medical information through a simple web search, people doing genealogical research often assume that all the information is “in the computer” and only needs to be printed out. Archivists and librarians usually have to explain to eager researchers that they’re going to have to sit at the microfilm reader and get ready to start squinting. However, in the NHA Research Library, this is not the case. We have a wonderful resource — the Barney Genealogical Record — that provides an excellent first step in genealogical research for many Nantucket family lines.

The Barney Genealogical Record is a set of six large ledger books that contain the names, of some forty thousand individuals arranged by family names. A typical entry (from volume 6, page 88) looks like this:

1787 Valentine Long son of Abraham and Mary, m. in 1811 A. 40 28-1-1827
27-1-1795 Nancy his wife, d. of Obed and Desire Luce. Her 1st hus. 16-4-1871
23-9-1812 Mary G. d. single. A. 16. 31-8-1828
1813 Valentine C. m. Elisabeth J. Abrams d. of Geo. and Elisa. 3-3-1895

This records the birth, marriage, and death dates of the Long family members. The entries were created by Eliza Starbuck Barney, and continued by her granddaughter, Eliza Barney Burgess. Barney gathered family history information from several sources. Often she added a few other details. An entry might include such notes as “D. in asylum,” or “Moved to North Carolina,” small notes that mean a lot to those looking for more information about their ancestors. It doesn’t, however, offer information about everyone who lived on the island, but it is often invaluable.

One of several sources Barney used in the creation of this record was an the eccentric hermit, Benjamin Franklin Folger, who lived in a Siasconset cottage named “Nonantum.” Often cited at the time as a fount of historical knowledge, Folger lived in a notoriously untidy fashion, devoting himself to the study of the island’s genealogy. While he did not himself write his knowledge down, many interested in genealogy at the time, including Barney, appreciated his expertise and endeavored to record it. Her contact was not unappreciated, since Folger left to her and her husband, “all my old and valuable papers, Books, etc. when I have done with them.” Folger is now buried in the Quaker cemetery. His is one of the few stones in that yard, a small rectangle stating:

B. Franklin Folger
born 11 of 4 mo. 1777
died 22 of 3 mo. 1859

Eliza Starbuck Barney’s six ledgers have always been a wealth of information. However, as you can imagine, they can be difficult and cumbersome to use-requiring a lot of thumbing through volumes.

Luckily, far-sighted librarians at the Nantucket Historical Association (Betsy Tyler and Betsy Lowenstein) guided a program of inputting the information into an in-house database. With the help of several generous grants from the Tupancy-Harris Foundation and a small grant from the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, three people over several years transcribed the data into a computer. We now have a database allowing us to give a printout of genealogical information upon request.

The database is also available through the Internet. Unfortunately, you cannot print out reports specifically targeted to your particular family through the website. However, you can more easily look at the information, and, as I’m learning, people living all over the world are connecting the dots and finding their family’s roots on Nantucket. Rarely a day goes by when we don’t receive an email that starts: “My great-great-great grandfather is Tristam Coffin…”

Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004.