Native Peoples

Introduction

The history of human habitation on Nantucket traces back approximately 12,000 years to the PaleoIndian Period, pre-dating the time when rising temperatures and sea levels turned gravel hills and sandy outwash plains, deposited by the retreating glacier and meltwaters, into an island. Over time, the erosional and depositional effects of ocean currents and wind influenced the island landscape, including the topography, dynamic shorelines, and formation of barrier beaches, dunes, harbors, kettle ponds, salt marshes, and coastal lagoons.

Native peoples who explored the southern New England region including Nantucket during the early post-glacial period were highly mobile bands who subsisted on a diverse diet of terrestrial, riverine, and marine resources, migratory fowl, nuts, fruits, and a wide range of edible plants. Sometime during the Late Archaic Period, approximately 3,000 to 6,000 years ago, sea level rise stabilized, resulting in the formation of tidal flats and estuarine zones in portions of Nantucket that provided habitat for shellfish species. After about 3,000 years ago, archaeological evidence indicates that shellfish resources were an important addition to the Native American diet. During this time, Native Americans also established settlement areas in specific regions of Nantucket that were occupied on a seasonal, semi-annual, or annual basis as part of the larger Wampanoag territory that included Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and coastal Massachusetts. Maize, beans, and squash were also components of their diet after about 1,000 years ago during the Late Woodland Period, however marine mammals including drift whales stranded on the shores, as well as fish were a primary source of food.

High quality stone for tool making derived from Nantucket beaches and outwash deposits, and clay for pottery production was available on both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Animal bones and shells were also utilized in the production of tools, utilitarian objects, and for personal adornment. Marsh grasses, sedge, and reeds were processed and woven into mats, house coverings, cording, and baskets. Native American traditional homes on Nantucket were articulated with the natural landscape and incorporated structural elements to insure protection from the strong prevailing winds.

When Martha’s Vineyard was purchased by Thomas Mayhew in 1642, there were four principal settlement areas on Nantucket under the leadership of four different Wampanoag sachems. Population estimates vary widely in secondary histories from 1,500 to 3,000 but the actual number of Indians on the island in the decades leading up to King Phillips War is unknown, as they had succeeded in remaining autonomous and independent from European settlement, and were also traveling to and from the mainland. After the first group of English settlers arrived on Nantucket in 1659, the island sachems succeeded in negotiating deeds related to grazing rights, use of commons, and rights to own horses while maintaining sachems rights to drift whales into the first quarter of the eighteenth century.

NHA Research Library vault.

Research

Research by Dr. Elizabeth A. Little, an accomplished physicist, archaeologist, and anthropologist who devoted over 30 years to scholarly research on Nantucket's Native American and Colonial population.More Read more from Research

Articles

A collection of articles and writings on Nantucket's native peoples.More Read more from Articles

Videos

Recordings of lectures discussing Nantucket's native peoples.More Read more from Videos

Search

Search the NHA collections for artifacts, books, and more. More Read more from Search

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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