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.
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.