Meet Mary Coffin Starbuck from Suzanne Woods Fisher’s The Light Before Day

Name: Mary Coffin Starbuck

Parents: Tristram and Dionis Coffin 

Siblings: Too many to keep track of!  

Places lived: Moved to Nantucket Island in 1660

Jobs: Wife, mother, ran a trading store for most of my life

Friends: Everyone I met 

Enemies: None that I know of, or care to know of

Dating, marriage: Married Nathaniel Starbuck when I was 17 years old; he is the love of my life 

Children: Ten children, eight of whom lived to adulthood

What person do you most admire? Peter Foulger—a true Renaissance man

Overall outlook on life: Optimistic and realistic, both

Do you like yourself? I am both content and grateful

What, if anything, would you like to change about your life? Other than losing two children to an early grave, there is nothing I lack 

How are you viewed by others? A curious question! John Richardson, an early Quaker preacher said of me, “The Islanders established her a Judge among them, for a little of moment was done without her advice.” 

Physical appearance: Small but mighty

Eyes: Brown

Hair: Once brunette, now salt and pepper

Voice: Gentle in tone, forceful in content

How would you describe yourself? As a woman who has been fortunate to find an important role to play in a man’s world  

Characteristics: Intelligent, logical; some say blessed with wisdom 

Strongest/weakest character traits: It is both—my ability to see what needs to change, and my tolerance in allowing time for change to occur

How much self-control do you have? More with every passing year

Fears: Standing at the grave of one I dearly love and facing life without them

Collections, talents: I have a quick mind for details and accounting

What people like best about you: Friends kindly refer to me as the Deborah of Nantucket

Food, drink: Mullein tea on a cold foggy Nantucket day

Books: The Bible, of course; books are scarce on an island 

Best way to spend a weekend: The same way as every other day

What would a great gift for you be? To have all my children together, under one roof…and all their children, too

When are you happy? Every single day brings a moment of joy

What makes you angry? Mistreatment of those who are less fortunate

What makes you sad? Same as what makes me angry

What makes you laugh? Little children, baby animals…oh, and my husband Nathaniel makes me laugh

Hopes and dreams:For our island to have unity, without oppression (remember, we came from the mainland, where the Puritans fined us for every little infraction)

What’s the worst thing you have ever done to someone and why? While still on the mainland, I stood by and watched friends and neighbors hurl rocks and stones at a Quaker woman 

Greatest success: When Quaker missionary John Richardson came to Nantucket in 1701 and I had a spiritual awakening

Biggest trauma: Burying two of my dear children

What do you care about most in the world?My family, my island, my faith

Do you have a secret? Oh my! There are no secrets on an island

What do you like best about the other main characters in your book?Well, they’re all my great great granddaughters!

What do you like least about the other main characters in your book? Absolutely nothing

If you could do one thing and succeed at it, what would it be:To end my life well

Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you: Here is an example, taken straight from my journal: 

Stephen Hussey came into the store this afternoon. He settled into Father’s rocking chair by the fire and drank gallons of my mullein tea, talking to every person who came in. He carried his ear trumpet with him, which struck me as ironic for, despite being a Quaker, he is not fond of listening, only of talking. Stephen Hussey never had a thought that he couldn’t turn into a sermon. 

            Today, though, he remained quiet until the store was brimming over with customers. He rose to his feet and announced in his loud shrill voice, “I have a riddle for thee, Mary!”

The store grew quiet, all eyes turned to Stephen, as everyone enjoyed a good riddle, and he enjoyed a good audience.

“What’s gray and old and likes to be everywhere at once?”

“Nantucket fog,” I said, hoping he would now go home. 

“Nay. The answer is…Mary Coffin Starbuck!” He laughed and laughed, thoroughly amused with himself, until tears ran down his cheeks.That man! He sorely tries my patience.

Thanks for allowing this peek into your story, Mary!

Suzanne Woods Fisher
is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including Phoebe’s LightMinding the Light, the Amish Beginnings series, The Bishop’s Family series, and The Inn at Eagle Hill series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peaceand The Heart of the Amish. She lives in California. Learn more at and follow Suzanne on Twitter @suzannewfisher and Facebook at SuzanneWoodsFisherAuthor.

Interview with Mary Coffin Starbuck from Suzanne Woods Fisher’s Minding the Light

Minding the Light-Book Cover


Novel Pastimes:

Today we have a very special guest. In her day, this woman was likened to Nantucket’s Deborah, the Judge of the Old Testament. Today’s guest is Mary Coffin Starbuck of Nantucket Island. Mary, like Deborah the Judge, lived during a time when women were not given much respect, yet she managed to rise above and stand apart. Welcome, Mary.


Mary: ‘Tis a pleasure to be here.


NP: Your last name is quite famous. Are you related to the Starbuck coffee company?


Mary: Nay. Tea is my preference, strong tea, like most of my countrymen.


NP: Ah, but of course! We’re jumping back in American history quite a few centuries. Mary, would you remind readers what year this is?


Mary: The year is 1663, and I live on Nantucket Island. My father draggedmoved us to the island a few years ago, with several other families from the mainland. It was rather a barren place, filled only with Wampanoag Indians who ignored us and generally kept to their side of the island.


NP: Why did your father choose to move to Nantucket?


Mary: ‘Tis a long and involved story. Suffice to say that my father, Tristram Coffin, left England to seek a better life the colonies. That worked for a while, until the Puritans’ invasive grasp drove him to seek a place where no one could tell him how to live. Hence, we now live on a cold and foggy island thirty miles off the coast, far, far away from the reach of the Puritans. Father seeks Utopia. Oddly enough, in his search, I have found my own version of Utopia.


NP: Don’t stop now. Tell us about your Utopia.


Mary (blushing): A young man named Nathaniel Starbuck also came to the island with his family. We married not many months ago. Currently, we are living with his family, but I have a hope that we might soon construct a home of our own, closer to my trading store. I do believe his mother has a hope for that, as well.


NP: How do you enjoy living with your in-laws?


Mary: My father-in-law, Edward Starbuck, is a dear man, though not often at home. He spends much time Christianizing the Wampanoags on the other side of the island. Nathaniel is frequently with the Wampanoags as well, but for different reasons. They are teaching him to capture whales. That leaves much time together with Catherine, my mother-in-law, and Esther, Nathaniel’s youngest sister. Esther is a thorn in my side.


We have very different views, Catherine and I. She would prefer that I not continue working at my trading store. Happily, Nathaniel disagrees. ‘Tis not often that he contradicts his mother, but in this case, he has supported my desire.


NP: It’s known that your husband was illiterate, yet you are a learned woman.


Mary (visibly stiffening her spine): There are many kinds of intelligence. ‘Tis in my husband’s blood to be a seaman. The ocean is his book. He reads it as well I can read any book.


NP: Tell us about your trading store.


Mary: ‘Tis my greatest joy. Apart from my husband, of course. With the store, I am able to interact with nearly everyone on the island. Everyone is in need of something. My brothers sail back and forth to Cape Cod quite often, so I send along with them items to trade and a long list of things to procure. It is has been quite a successful venture. I have no intention of giving it up, even after this babe is born.


NP: We’ve seen pictures of your accounting book. You certainly have a head for math.


Mary: Aye, I do!‘Tis nothing. Though I will say that keeping track of trade accounts takes a careful attention to detail. More importantly, the trading store has become the heart and hub of our community. As people come in and warm themselves by the fire, there is time for important conversation. Many tell me their troubles, and I do my best to help them.


NP: So what’s this about your journal? And tell us about the secret buried under the oak tree.


Mary (smile quickly fades until she is stone-faced): How did you happen upon that knowledge? Did Eleazer Foulger speak to you of this? I feared this very thing!


NP: No, no. We read about it in Phoebe’s Light, and more of it in Minding the Light. Can you tell us the end of the story? How do things wrap up in The Light Before Day?


Mary (indignant): Nay. Not a word will you get from me. A secret ‘tis a secret. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be off and tend to my customers.


Suzanne Woods FisherSuzanne Woods Fisheris an award-winning, bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including Phoebe’s Light,the Amish Beginnings series, The Bishop’s Family series, and The Inn at Eagle Hill series, as well as nonfiction books about the Amish, including Amish Peaceand The Heart of the Amish. She lives in California. Learn more at and follow Suzanne on Facebook @SuzanneWoodsFisherAuthor and Twitter @suzannewfisher.

Bonus pictures:

Mary Coffin Starbuck’s Accounting book…credited to Nantucket Historical Association.

All other pix…take by Suzanne