A Starbuck in Seattle

A monument memorializing the arrival of the ship EXACT in Seattle.

This past June, I was excited to attend the first workshop ever offered by NEHGS in Seattle. It was a bit of a drive from my home in Salem, Oregon, but definitely worth it, and the most useful thing I learned was that many older Massachusetts deeds can be browsed free of charge through FamilySearch.org.

I’d hoped one day to revisit the Massachusetts island of Nantucket – where a branch of my family lived for the first two centuries of European settlement – largely to do additional investigation at their Registry of Deeds. The staff there was incredibly helpful when I visited in 2013, but even in the off-season, staying on the island is not exactly cheap, especially with a cross-country flight thrown in. Imagine my joy to discover that I could now do this work from home 24/7!

Speaking of Nantucket, there is a strong connection between that island and the city of Seattle … but it’s not what you may be thinking. People often assume that the Starbuck family, early purchasers and colonizers of Nantucket, founded the coffee company bearing their name, but (sadly for my bank account) this is not true. According to its most pervasive creation myth, the global coffeehouse chain was named for Starbuck, first mate in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.

So what is the connection between Nantucket and Seattle, and why might I care? Back when my grandfather was born in 1906 – shortly after his mother survived the San Francisco earthquake – he was given the name Folger, another old Nantucket name long associated with coffee.

In due course, my father was named Folger Athearn, Jr., and then my brother was given Folger as a middle name. (Naturally I loved to reveal this to his friends, with predictable teasing ensuing.) The only thing my brother and I knew about his torturous name was that it was in honor of some man on the East Coast who had tracked down my great-grandfather in California to bestow a legacy.

Early in my genealogical work, I discovered that Folgers Coffee was founded during the California Gold Rush by a Nantucket native named James Athearn Folger, and that his oldest son went by the name of Athearn Folger.[1] Surely there had to be a connection! As it turned out, however, “our” Mr. Folger’s origins lay in another direction. Thanks to a copy my aunt[2] had of the letter accompanying our ancestor’s legacy, I discovered that Mr. Folger was G. Howland Folger of Boston[3] … the only surviving son of George H. Folger,[4] a native of Nantucket and nephew of my great-great-great-grandmother, Lydia Ramsdell (Starbuck) Athearn.[5]

Click on the Starbuck chart to expand it.

I then happened upon the blog of Andrew Craig Magnuson,[6] describing the schooner Exact, which brought the first white settlers to Seattle. The Exact was owned at the time of this 1851 trip by George H. Folger; his uncle Obed Starbuck (dubbed Nantucket’s “Golden Boy” by historian Nathaniel Philbrick); Henry Coffin, his uncle by marriage; Edward H. Morton, a distant cousin of mine through other branches of my tangled Nantucket family tree; and Captain Isaiah Folger, son of renowned island genius and Congressman Walter Folger.

A few years before its historic voyage, the ship had been owned by my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Levi Starbuck; his grandson, George H. Folger; and his son-in-law, Henry Coffin.[7] I was beyond thrilled to discover that my family’s ship had played a pivotal role in the founding of Seattle! I was also intrigued that all its owners were either named Starbuck, or had close relations by that name … so there really is a Seattle connection to the Starbuck family, but it has nothing to do with coffee.

As for that Folgers Coffee guy, a red herring,[8] it turns out that he was named for my great-great-great-great-grandfather, James Athearn, a merchant and ship owner, as well as cashier (and later president) of Nantucket’s Pacific Bank.[9]

Before driving home from NEHGS’s Seattle seminar, I visited two monuments commemorating the schooner Exact. One is a granite obelisk on the beach where the ship landed; the other is a Duwamish story pole carved by a descendant of Chief Si’ahl, for whom the city was named. I had only a vague idea where they were located, but eventually I tracked them both down. After all, if my family could navigate uncharted seas, I could surely find two memorials on a small peninsula!


[1] James Athearn Folger (1835–1889) was succeeded in the family business by a son and grandson bearing his name. Another descendant by the same name was born in 1982.

[2] My father’s only sister married a man whose brother is named Peter Folger Herb. It seems that our family is keeping the famously endogamous “Nantucket stew” on a low simmer!

[3] George Howland Folger, Jr. (1857–1924) worked for many years for the Boston & Maine Railroad, finishing his career as assistant general superintendent.

[4] George Howland Folger (1816–1892) represented Nantucket in Massachusetts’s General Court in the early 1850s, then moved to Boston and later Cambridge.

[5] Lydia Ramsdell (Starbuck) Athearn (1813–1889) and her sister Eliza (Starbuck) Coffin (1811–1903) considered and referred to themselves as sisters of George H. Folger, since he was reared in the home of his maternal grandparents following his mother’s death, and they were only a few years older.

[6] http://www.craigmagnuson.com/exact.htm.

[7] Henry Coffin also owned (with his brother) the whaling ship Achushnet, which Herman Melville sailed on; Melville’s experiences on this ship inspired his novels Typee and Moby Dick.

[8] James A. Folger was a first cousin of George H. Folger; they appear in the uppermost left section of an illustrated Folger family tree owned by NEHGS, and available as a reprint through their online store. Capt. Isaiah Folger’s branch of the family had split off several generations previously.

[9] James Athearn (1784–1852) was born in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1806, he moved to Nantucket, where he soon married his first cousin, Lydia Cary; he died in Boston.

Pamela Athearn Filbert

About Pamela Athearn Filbert

Pamela Athearn Filbert was born in Berkeley, California, but considers herself a “native Oregonian born in exile,” since her maternal great-great-grandparents arrived via the Oregon Trail, and she herself moved to Oregon well before her second birthday. She met her husband (an actual native Oregonian whose parents lived two blocks from hers in Berkeley) in London, England. She holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon, and has worked as a newsletter and book editor in New York City and Salem, Oregon; she was most recently the college and career program coordinator at her local high school.View all posts by Pamela Athearn Filbert