What does a controversy about fishing in Nantucket’s ponds have to do with New York?

In the spring of 1954 two young Nantucket men were arrested by the game warden for fishing in Long Pond without a Massachusetts fishing license. Judge Caroline Leveen heard the case, and the issue was presented by attorney George M. Poland, who asserted that Judge Leveen’s ruling in the case “would be the most important piece of litigation on the island in more than a hundred years.”

Poland cited Nantucket history back to the 1660s with special attention to the conveyance of Nantucket from New York to Massachusetts in 1692. Previous to that, in 1647, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had passed an ordinance about the rights of the public to the Great Ponds (those over 10 acres), but Poland pointed out that this ordinance did not apply to Nantucket, which was not part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the time. He argued that in the 1670s and 1680s, while Nantucket was still under the jurisdiction of New York, a series of grants to the Nantucket Proprietors included the ponds. In 1841 the Proprietors granted rights to Long Pond (where the defendants were fishing), the Madaket Ditch, and Madaket Harbor to the Town of Nantucket, while retaining rights to the other ponds.

“The ponds on Nantucket never changed their status as private property, and regarding the fish in these ponds, they are as much private property as Your Honor’s goldfish,” Poland asserted.

Judge Leveen made the decision that the State of Massachusetts had no rights regarding Nantucket’s ponds and found the defendants not guilty.  Her decision left the game warden and the Town Clerk in a quandary about issuance of state fishing licenses and enforcement of state law.

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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