History of Nantucket
“The Little Gray Lady of the Sea”
Nantucket is an island 30 miles south of Cape Cod. Together with the small islands of Tuckenuck and Muskeget it constitutes the town of Nantucket. The name Nantucket is adapted similar Algonquin names for the island perhaps meaning “in the midst of waters” or “far away land or island”. In 1795, the town which was first established on the north shore was called Sherburne after the home-place of some of the settlers but was changed in 1795 to Nantucket.
The 2010 census population of the island was 10,172. It has become is a tourist destination and summer colony that swells to a population of 50,000 in season. In 2008, Forbes Magazine cited Nantucket as having home values among the highest in the United States.
In 1966, The National Parks Service cited Nantucket as being the “Finest surviving architectural and environmental example of a late 18th century and early 10 century New England Seaport town”.
The earliest French settlement in the region began on the neighboring island of Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucket’s island’s original Native American inhabitants the Wampanoag people lived undisturbed until 1641 when the island was deeded by the English The authorities in control of all land from the coast of Maine to New York) to Thomas Mayhew and his son, merchants from Watertown, MA and Martha’s Vineyard. Nantucket was part of Dukes County until 1691 when it was transferred to the newly formed province of Massachusetts Bay and split off to form Nantucket County.
Early Nantucket developed into a community of small farmers and sheep herders. The manufacturing of wool was a vital industry in colonial New England.
As Europeans began to settle on Cape Cod, the island became a place of refuge for Native Americans in the region, as Nantucket was not yet settled by Europeans. The growing population welcomed seasonal groups of other Native Americans who traveled to the island to fish and later harvest whales that washed up on shore.
Nantucket’s settlement by the English did not begin until 1659, when Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to a group of investors led by Tristram Coffin “for the sum of thirty pounds…and also two beaver hats, one for myself and one for my wife”.
The “nine original purchasers” were Tristram Coffin, Petter Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swain, Thomas Barnard, Stephen Greenleaf, John Swain and William Pike.
Seaman and tradesman began to populate Nantucket, such as Richard Gardner (arrived 1667) and Captain John Gardner (arrived 1672).
In his 1835 history of Nantucket island, Obed Macy wrote that in the early pre-1672 colony, a whale of the kind called “scragg” entered the harbor and was pursed and killed by settlers. This event started the Nantucket Whaling Industry!
A.B. Van Deines points out that the “scraggwhale” described by P.Dudley in 1725 as one of the species hunted by early New England whalers, was almost certainly the gray whale, which flourished on the west coast of North America in modern times with protection from whaling.
Herman Melville commented on Nantucket’s whaling dominance in MOBY DICK (Chapter 14) “Two thirds of his terraqueous globe are the Nantucketers. For the sea is his, he owns it as emperors own empires”. The Moby-Dick characters Ahab and Starbuck are both from Nantucket.
For Nearly 150 years from the 1700’s – 1840’s Nantucket was the Whaling Capital of the World! On the island the economy was centered on the whale fishery, blacksmiths, boat building shops, ship chandleries, sail lofts and warehouses. Whale Wax was made by candle-makers that also lit domestic streetlamps! Supporting businesses were seaman boarding houses, grogshops, grocery and dry good shops.
By 1850, whaling was in decline as Nantuckets whaling industry had been surpassed by that of New Bedford and Salem. The island suffered great economic hardships, worsened by the July 134, 1846 “Great Fire” that fueled by whale oil and lumber devastated the main town burning and destroying over 300 buildings and some 40 acres. The fire left hundreds homeless and poverty stricken and many people left the island. Another contributor to the decline was the silting up of the harbor, which prevented large whaling ships from entering the port. In addition, the development of railroad made mainland whaling ports of New Bedford more attractive because of the ease of trans shipment of whale oil onto trains, an advantage unavailable to the island.
At this point gold was discovered in California and hundreds of Nantucket men went to seek their fortune. The Cival War also took it’s toll on Nantucket more then 300 Nantucket men served in the Union Army and 73 lost their lives. Between 1840 – 1887 the population dropped from 10,000 to 4,000.
As a result of this depopulation the island was underdeveloped and isolated until the mid 20th century. The isolation kept many of the pre-Cival War buildings intact and by the 1850’s enterprising developers began buying up large sections of the island and restoring them to create an upmarket destination for wealthy people in the North East.
The Summer visitor would be a catalyst for Nantucket’s recovery! As early as the 1840’s rooming houses and small inns were operating and the invigorating and delightful indulgence of Sea Bathing was being touted in off island newspapers be entrepreneurial types. In the 1870’s the first big summer hotel was erected and four more followed over the next ten years. With the war behind, Nantucket women opened their homes to summer boarders providing large airy rooms and nicely cooked bluefish. The town got behind the effort and “Two boats a day” was a lore the “SEASON” was created and NANTUCKET NEVER LOOKED BACK!
In the 1920’s the island became a popular artist colony. Noted who lived on or painted the island include Frank Swift Chase and Theodore Robinson. Noted authors including Herman Nelville have lived there.