The first Folgers to immigrate to the New World came from the village of Diss, 20 miles southwest of the town of Norwich, in East Anglia, England. Part of the Great Puritan Migration, they crossed the North Atlantic on the Abigail in 1635 and landed in Boston. Living initially in Dedham and Watertown in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, they settled on Martha’s Vineyard. By “first Folgers” I am referring to the illiterate hog-reeve John Folger (1593?–1660) and his son, the “pious and learned Englishman,” Peter Folger (1617–1690). The colorful and talented Peter Folger married an indentured maid he had met on the crossing, Mary Morrell. Peter moved his family of eight children to Nantucket in 1663. Their last child, Abiah, was born on Nantucket. Abiah married a soapmaker from Boston named Josiah Franklin and they had a child named Benjamin.
Folgers have lived on Nantucket ever since. Many left their mark. Whaling captain Timothy Folger gave his first cousin Benjamin Franklin his early chart of the Gulf Stream. Walter Folger Jr. was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Massachusetts. James A. Folger founded Folgers Coffee. A Civil War Honor Roll on four sides of obelisk not far from the Peter Whaling Museum in Nantucket records these casualties: James Folger, Charles C. Folger, Edward P. Folger, and Henry Folger. Henry Clay Folger and his wife Emily assembled the largest collection of Shakespeare in the world and built a marble monument to house it two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Henry Folger wrote, “Had I not collected Shakespeariana, I would have collected Frankliniana.”
To mark the 400th anniversary of Peter Folger’s birth in 1617 and the 350th anniversary of Abiah Folger Franklin’s birth in 1667, the Nantucket Atheneum (the island’s public library) invited me to lecture on the Folger family, concentrating on the founder of the Folger Shakespeare Library, Henry Clay Folger. Anyone asked to step up to the Atheneum podium cannot escape the gaze of Frederick Douglass from a portrait on the nearby wall. No fewer than five times––in 1841, 1842, 1843, 1850, and 1885–– from that podium Douglass described to rapt audiences his life in slavery and argued for emancipation.
I was not alone on the Atheneum stage. Right behind me all the time––almost looking over my shoulder––was an honor guard in the form of a ship prow figurehead of British origin. The young blond girl in the picture is a Folger and bears the name, Abiah, pointing to the name Abiah on the Abiah Folger-Franklin bronze tablet. Abiah’s grandfather, Dr. Gordon M. Folger Jr., the patriarch of the current clan, sat in the front row with his family. His father owned the Sea Cliff Hotel and Old Point Breeze Hotel on the island. Folger names are all over Nantucket: Folger Avenue, Folgers Lane, Folger Road, Folgers Court, Folger Hill, Folgers Marsh, Folger’s Creek.
The last Folger family reunion was held on the island in 1959, during a tricentennial celebration of the first island deed in 1659. The reunion of August 26–28, 1959 brought together 123 Folgers. The highlight was the dedication of Folger-Franklin seat and memorial boulder on Peter Folger’s homesite on the Madaket road on the western side of the island. Five homes were open for inspection. A group photo was taken at the old Folger homestead on 153 Main St.
Stephen H. Grant is a senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal. His latest book, Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger.