Three times during the twentieth century Nantucket received national publicity for threatening to secede from Massachusetts and join New York.
In the spring of 1937 the issue was electrical rates. Nantucketers demanded that the Massachusetts Public Utilities Commissioners “arrange quickly a schedule of rates for the Nantucket Gas and Electric Company that seem more nearly equitable to fair-minded citizens” or the island would secede from the Commonwealth.
Twenty years later, in the summer of 1957, the issue was that the state-owned and operated Steamship Authority, established in 1948, had built a “new and modern boat for better service” and also “remodeled the docks for quicker entrance and departure.” But the new vessel, unfortunately christened the Nantucket, had proven unsatisfactory. According to the Providence Journal, “It runs aground. It bumps other boats. It will not steer. It will not run in the fog. But most important, it does not run on time.” Once again, Nantucketers proposed secession from Massachusetts over poor management of a vital resource.
The third threat of secession came in the spring of 1977 with the elimination of the island’s independent seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Going forward, there would be one single elected representative for Nantucket County, Dukes Country (Martha’s Vineyard), and part of Barnstable County. Nantucketers felt that this consolidation would inevitably fail to support Nantucket’s interests in the state legislature. There were similar sentiments on Martha’s Vineyard. On April 21, 1977, the Inquirer and Mirror reported that, “The islands’ secessionist movement continues to generate nationwide interest.” Nantucket’s Committee on Representation or Secession unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
Every one of these threats involved Nantucket’s leaving the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and joining New York State. Why? Back in February 1937, the Boston Transcript provided an answer: “They recall the years in the seventeenth century when their bit of land was under the domination of New York.” Is this memory accurate? The short answer is yes.
The first English ”proprietors” of Nantucket in the late 1650s were in conflict with the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and sought to establish themselves outside the colony. Some of them, though not Quakers themselves, were in trouble for harboring Quakers—a punishable offense in Massachusetts. Others were inclined to the theology of Roger Williams, who—having been driven from Massachusetts as a heretic—had founded Rhode Island. For others, including Tristram Coffin and his wife Dionis Stevens Coffin, Puritan economic policies had become too confining for their business enterprises. The solution was to move to a place beyond the bounds of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony occupied the nearby mainland, so the only available location was one of the offshore islands. After some negotiation, they purchased interest in Nantucket from Thomas Mayhew and everyone else holding prior claim to it, including the Nantucket Wampanoag sachems. Mayhew retained his interest in Martha’s Vineyard and a share in the Nantucket proprietorship while selling the rest of Nantucket to the disaffected people departing from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These English proprietors or “first purchasers” of Nantucket were, in fact, seceding from Massachusetts.
Departure from the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not mean freedom forever from outside rule. That state of affairs lasted only until 1664 when King Charles II of England made a grant of New York, Maine, Long Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket to James, Duke of York. Six more years passed before that grant had any practical effect on Nantucket. At that point, Governor Francis Lovelace of New York commanded everyone with any claims to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to appear before him or forfeit their claims. In 1671 proprietors Thomas Macy and Tristram Coffin went to New York to show Lovelace their documents and the rules that had been devised for the governance of Nantucket. Lovelace agreed to the Nantucketers continuing to operate according to their own rules as long as they conformed to English law and were submitted to the governor for confirmation.
Communications between New York and Nantucket were rare, and New York had no way to enforce its authority. The only tax Nantucket delivered to New York was four barrels of fish annually.
Change began in 1673 when John Gardner was granted a half share in the Nantucket proprietorship in exchange for establishing a codfishing operation off Nantucket shores. In the same year Gardner was elected as one of the Nantucket selectmen. When he and his brother Richard went to New York to deliver Nantucket’s annual payment of fish, they conferred with Lovelace and returned to Nantucket with a list of privileges and “additional instructions” that were in part contrary to the original agreements for how Nantucket was to be governed. Moreover, the English settlement on Nantucket was henceforth to be named Sherburne, after the Gardners’ ancestral home in England.
This put the Gardners and their supporters on a collision course with the Coffins and their supporters. Years of political struggle ensued. Representatives of the Coffin faction went to see Edmund Andros, who had succeeded Francis Lovelace as governor, and returned to Nantucket with authority to punish the Gardner faction. They were unable to prevail, however. In 1675 Andros and the council of New York met to try to resolve the deadlock, but the outbreak of King Philip’s War rendered contact difficult. Petitions continued to be sent from Nantucket, but any directions from New York were ignored. In the summer of 1678 the dispute between the two factions was finally resolved locally through exhaustion and compromise.
Nantucket’s New York connection only lasted until 1691 when the English monarchs William and Mary issued a new charter incorporating Plymouth, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket into the Province of Massachusetts Bay.
In 1977, during the third secession threat of the 20th century, the question was raised “whether or not Nantucket was guaranteed any rights when the island left the New York territory and became part of the then Bay Colony.” But forty years earlier, when the issue was electrical rates, a different question had been put forward: “Just supposing that Nantucket secedes from Massachusetts and then New York says, ‘We don’t want you.’” Nantucket’s 1977 Committee on Representation or Secession, having been snubbed by Massachusetts governor Dukakis, never got to inquire whether New York would extend a welcome mat to the islanders whose ancestors had been so stubbornly independent and contentious in the 1600s.