A Quansoo attic find tells a tale of seagoing adventure

The Mitchell House overlooks Quansoo and the salt ponds beyond. — Photo by Madeleine Moore

Artist Laurie Miller was not expecting to find much beyond cobwebs, let alone discover a link to a seagoing adventure story from Martha’s Vineyard’s past, when he set about to clean out the attic of the historic Mitchell House on Quansoo Farm two years ago.

What he found was a set of marine charts, the oldest of which dates back to 1794, that depict the British Channel, the western coast of Ireland, and the coasts of Spain and Portugal. One map, dated 1804, charts the Orkney Isles of northern Scotland.

The maps bear the signature of Captain Samuel Hancock of Chilmark, a master mariner, who by some accounts lived in the Mitchell House with his wife, Frances, and their children.

The discovery

The story of the discovery begins in October 2007 with the gift by Mrs. Florence Harris of her 156-acre Quansoo farm and farmhouse to the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF), a private nonprofit conservation organization founded to preserve open space and wildlife habitat.

The farm, located on Black Point Pond within sight of the Atlantic on the Vineyard’s south shore, retains many of the wind-swept vistas that would have been familiar to 17th century Vineyarders.

The last inhabitants of the house, members of the Mitchell family, were descendants of the original builders of the house. Through the centuries, owners’ names changed from Mayhew to Norton to Hancock in the late 1700s and finally to Mitchell in the late 1800s, as daughters of the family married men with different last names.

Members of the Mitchell family spent parts of summers in the house as recently as the late 1990s, while more modern houses mushroomed up in the woods behind them, and the nearly-as-ancient Quenames farmhouse nearby was progressively modernized.

The Mitchells lived mostly in the kitchen, the newest part of the house. The crumbling, propped-up southwest room is the oldest section and shows evidence of wattle and daub construction, which dates it to the 1600s.

Adam Moore, executive director of SMF, said that one winter Mr. Miller took on the job of cleaning up the badly neglected house.

Mr. Miller was very thorough. He took on the attic. “I looked up above, and I saw a lot of junk up there. It was junk, but interesting junk,” he told The Times.

Under generations of dust and raccoon droppings he found the four rolled-up sea charts along with old whiskey bottles, 19th century seed catalogs, a set of buggy doors, and antique goods from Alley’s.

Mr. Miller did not open the charts. He took them directly to Mr. Moore, who brought them to a document conservation center in Andover.

“When I originally took them, I had them in a sort of a satchel to go to Andover,” Mr. Moore said, “It was stirring to go onto the ferry. I thought, the last time the charts were at sea, they were with Captain Hancock.”

Mr. Moore said he was hesitant to open the charts Two centuries of lying in the attic had subjected the charts to deterioration and mice.

Mr. Moore did not realize how large the charts were until the conservation center sent them back, along with facsimiles of each chart. The chart depicting the British Channel is almost eight feet long.

Mr. Moore describes the charts as “beautiful, with exquisite details.”

Mapmakers Laurie and Whittle of Fleet Street London produced the three charts dated 1794. The chart of the Orkney Isles is credited to William Heather of the Navigation Warehouse in London. Some of the charts include careful depictions of coastlines, used to help sea captains distinguish between foreign shores.

The adventures of Samuel Hancock

Mr. Moore has begun to research the life of Samuel Hancock. What he has learned so far is mainly based on readings from the Duke’s County Intelligencer, a publication of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, which drew on letters written by and about the sea captain.

Mr. Moore said that Captain Hancock was most likely one of many sea captains that Martha’s Vineyard produced during the late eighteenth century. Although Captain Hancock was not particularly a fisherman, his story is one of catch and release.

Mr. Moore described the adventurous tale in his remarks at the SMF annual meeting in July, where the newly restored maps were displayed for the first time in more than two centuries:

Capt. Hancock was born in 1773, and by 1797 he was a master mariner and captain of merchant vessels engaged in transatlantic trade. Several Dukes County Intelligencer articles paint a fascinating portrait of some of Captain Hancock’s Life.

In 1797, for example, he was the captain of a merchant vessel owned by a Boston shipping firm. He was directed to sail his vessel from Rotterdam to Lisbon, Portugal, and then to sell the ship if he could secure the desired price, and if not, to buy a load of salt and sail the salt back to Rotterdam. Now in those times, the captain not only had to sail the ship, but also make the business deals. So he went to Lisbon, couldn’t sell the ship, bought the salt, and started sailing back to Rotterdam.

He did not make it back to Rotterdam, however. While sailing through the English Channel, Capt. Hancock was captured by the French, who were at war with England. His ship and his cargo were confiscated, and he was falsely accused of being English and was thrown into a French prison. Eventually, contacts in England negotiated Captain Hancock’s release. This incident took place during a period known as the French Spoliation, and the claim from the incident was actually not settled until 1906, when an Act of Congress authorized the United States Government to reimburse the Boston shipping company for the loss of the ship and the salt.

After being freed from prison, Capt. Hancock came to England and spent a year or two there. These were perhaps the most important years of his life, because when in Liverpool he met his wife, Frances. In 1799 they returned to Chilmark and lived – according to the Intelligencer – at the Mitchell House with Captain Hancock’s parents. There, Samuel and Frances raised four children.

Some stories tell of a lonely Frances Hancock, missing her seafaring husband, longing for Liverpool, wandering the dunes of Quansoo.

Captain Hancock continued sailing, and one memorable voyage took place exactly 200 years ago — in the summer of 1812 — as he was sailing near the coast of England. Now the British at that moment knew something that Captain Hancock did not know, and that was that the United States had declared war on Great Britain. So Captain Hancock was captured again, but this time by the British. Frances received two letters from his shipmates advising her of her husband’s predicament.

Eventually, Captain Hancock returned to the Mitchell House and settled down in Chilmark. He and Frances are buried in the cemetery in West Tisbury.

The inscription on her grave at the West Tisbury Cemetery reads:

She who the Christian course hath run,

And all her foes forgiven,

Who measures out life’s little span

In love to God and love to man,

On earth, hath tasted Heaven.

Conserving the maps, and the property

Mr. Moore said that the future of the maps remains up in the air. “It’s pretty remarkable how well they’ve lasted. Now we will try to take care of them, be a steward of these maps, find the right home for them.

“Perhaps the Martha’s Vineyard Museum would be a good place for them. The town of Chilmark has expressed some interest in displaying them at the library. Perhaps they should go to Mystic Seaport. Maybe they belong in a library. Perhaps they are a dime a dozen. Laurie and Whittle could have made 500,000 of these,” he said.

Of more concern to SMF is the preservation of the house, one of the oldest standing houses on Martha’s Vineyard. Although the exact history of the home is debated, architectural historians agree that the southwestern room was built in the 1600s.

Although SMF is primarily focused on landscape preservation, Mr. Moore sees the house as part of its mission. “The house is part of the landscape that we are stewards of. In that respect, it is part of our mission to maintain the rural character of the landscape and care for this historic house and its setting,” he said.

SMF hopes to hire Brian Cooper, an expert in the preservation of historic homes, to guide them through the process. On a recent trip through the house, Mr. Cooper showed Mr. Moore carvings in the walls, most likely made by children long ago. Many of these carvings show sailing ships, complete with full rigging.

Are these depictions of the same ships that Captain Hancock sailed? Mr. Moore answered, “It is a mystery. There is always more you think you can probe into.”

Mr. Moore hopes to raise funds for the preservation of the maps and the home in which they were discovered. For more information on the Foundation and its plans, go to www.sheriffsmeadow.org.