Frequently Asked Question:

Brief History of Nantucket

SINCE 1659, WHEN ENGLISH COLONISTS FROM MASSACHUSETTS AND New Hampshire became its "first proprietors," Nantucket has held a unique position in the history of our country. First sighted in 1602 by the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, Nantucket was part of the New York colony until 1692 when by act of Parliament it became a part of the Bay Colony of Massachusetts. The town, which was first established on the north shore, was called Sherburne, after the homeplace of some of the settlers, but in 1795 the name was changed to Nantucket—the island, county, and town now claiming the name given by its native inhabitants.

Thomas Mayhew, a merchant and Christian missionary of Watertown and Martha's Vineyard, had been granted title to the island in 1641 by the English authorities then in control of all lands between Cape Cod and the Hudson River. Mayhew subsequently sold to the first settlers "all right and interest that I have in the Island of Nantucket... for and in consideration of the sum of Thirty pounds ... and also two bever hats one for myself and one for my wife" (this quoted from "a true copy" of the document that sealed the purchase, in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association).

Inhabited at the time of the English settlement by some 3000 natives of the Wampanoag tribe, the "faraway land" (as Nantucket is translated in their language) developed into a community of small farmers and sheep herders (the manufacture of wool was a vital industry in colonial New England). In addition to farming the land and hunting small game, the natives and the newcomers took sustenance from the waters surrounding Nantucket, in which varieties of finfish, particularly cod, and shellfish abounded. So-called drift whales occasionally washed ashore and were prized for their oil, but by the 1690s the Nantucketers had begun to organize whaling expeditions in small boats to pursue the "right" whales—so-called because they were of moderate size and slow moving and therefore easy to catch—that passed close to shore on their annual migrations. Whale houses with elevated platforms were established along the south shore, and when the spouting whales were spotted the boats set off through the pounding surf to capture them. They were towed to shore and the carcasses stripped of the blubber that would be "tried out" to extract the valuable oil.

Deep-sea whaling began around 1715, a few years after the first sperm whale had been taken by a sloop blown out to sea in a gale. Oil from the "head matter" of this gigantic creature was found to be of a quantity and quality unmatched by any natural or manmade product then available. But the great sperm whale inhabited the deepest parts of the oceans, so Nantucket men began to make offshore voyages of fifty miles and more, but needed to be within reach of shore to offload their catch and have it processed. By the mid-eighteenth century larger whaleships were being built and became seagoing factories, with all the equipment needed to extract and store huge quantities of oil. For the next hundred years Nantucket whaleships would traverse the oceans of the world on their legendary three-, four-, and five-year voyages in search of "greasy luck."

Back on the island, the economy was centered on the whale fishery, with rope-walks, cooperages, blacksmith and boatbuilding shops, ship chandleries, sail lofts, and warehouses. Supporting businesses such as seamen's boarding houses, grog shops, clothing shops, purveyors of groceries and dry goods sprang up. When the whaleships came back to port, their precious cargo was sold at great profit to mainland refineries and candlemakers, for use in domestic lamps and street lights, and for myriad industrial uses. Spermaceti candles, made from the solid wax derived from the head matter, were the finest household illuminants yet known and accounted for some of the impressive fortunes amassed in the industry. For almost a hundred and fifty years — from the early 1700s to the 1840s — Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. As Melville wrote in Moby-Dick: "Thus have these . . . Nantucketers overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders."

Throughout that period the island's political, economic, and religious leadership was dominated by the Religious Society of Friends — the Quakers. Their experience of persecution, in England to begin with and subsequently in the New World, led them to Nantucket's shores, where although they were not welcomed with open arms they were at least tolerated. By the turn of the eighteenth century the Friends, according to one historian, "had secured a hold upon the islanders such as no other religious denomination had ever acquired." Their rejection of worldliness, their spurning of adornment, and their "lack of sympathy for anything calculated to make earthly life happy or even pleasant" did not prevent them from having an astute business sense; many of Nantucket's first families — the Starbucks, Barneys, Coffins, Macys, Folgers, Gardners, Husseys, Colemans, Worths, and many others — Quakers all — would be pre-eminent in the conduct of the whaling industry.

THE PALMY DAYS WOULD NOT LAST. A SERIES OF EVENTS OVER A PERIOD OF THIRTY years or so would see the "Nation of Nantucket," as it was dubbed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, brought to its knees. In the 1830s the petroleum fields of Pennsylvania were producing kerosene, cheaper and more easily obtainable than the liquid gold the whalers pursued. A devastating fire — the Great Fire of 1846 — roared through the town on a July night, destroying over 300 buildings and leaving hundreds homeless. The on-shore ports of New Bedford and Salem had access to the newly built railroads. The years-long whaling voyages were horrendously costly. The entrance to Nantucket's magnificent harbor silted up and the heavily loaded whale-ships could not cross the resulting sandbar. Gold was discovered in California and hundreds of Nantucket men went there to seek their fortunes in the earth as they had sought them in the sea. The Civil War would be the death blow: more than 300 Nantucket men served in the Union army, seventy-three of them losing their lives.
Their families on Nantucket would have hard times. The once bustling waterfront was filled with rotting hulks; there was no industry that could succeed or replace the whale fishery. Between 1840 and 1870, the population of Nantucket decreased from almost ten thousand to a little more than four thousand. The demise of whaling coincided almost exactly with the dwindling influence of the Society of Friends. Torn apart by a century of factionalism, the Quakers slowly but surely faded out of the picture, leaving as heritage the ineffable, pristine quality of their architecture—and, of course, two centuries' worth of dynamic history.

THE SUMMER VISITOR WOULD BE THE CATALYST FOR NANTUCKET S RECOVERY. As early as the 1840s, rooming houses and small inns were operating, and the "invigorating and delightful indulgence of Sea Bathing" was being touted in off-island newspapers by entrepreneurial types. It was in the 1870s, however, that the first big summer hotel was erected, and four more followed suit over the next ten or twelve years. The war behind them, Nantucket women opened their homes to summer boarders, providing "large airy rooms" and "nicely cooked bluefish" as attractions. The town got behind the effort; "two boats a day" was a lure. The "Season" was created, and Nantucket has never looked back. Now one of the most popular and attractive destinations in the world, the present-day Nation of Nantucket is as prosperous a little "elbow of sand," as Melville described it, as can be found anywhere in the world.

THE FASCINATING, KALEIDOSCOPIC HISTORY OF THIS SMALL ISLAND IN THE GREAT sea will become alive to all who put to use the Guide to Historical Records and Genealogical Resources of Nantucket, Massachusetts, for there are few things quite so exciting as seeing with one's own eyes, on the very paper they are written, the writings and signatures of the people who made that history: a document actually signed by Tristram Coffin; the signature of Nickanoose, Wampanoag sachem; Maria Mitchell's journals; a lonely, homesick sailor's entry in a logbook; the language of the Quakers in solemn deliberation; the evidence of a person's life ... and death. The searcher's reward lies in the journals, letters, business papers, wills, deeds, photographs—even in the barebones statistics of census taker or tax assessor. For those records connect us to our past in ways that cannot be distorted by either memory or anecdote.

Elizabeth Oldham
Research Associate
NHA Research Library