What special right to seaweed have Nantucket residents enjoyed?

Mildred Jewett, known as Madaket Millie, working, raking seaweed on the shore of Hither Creek.

In 1904 a committee making recommendations for the management of the Cliff Bathing Beach included: “The right to collect seaweed from the beach, subject to the direction of the Cliff Bathing Beach Commissioners, shall be reserved to the town’s people.”  This was subsequently confirmed: “It is understood and agreed that there shall be left sufficient roadway room for teams to pass to and from the beach for the purpose of gathering seaweed, the public’s right to gather which shall not be annulled.”

Like a similar decision affirming the right of Nantucket residents to fish in the island’s ponds without a state fishing license, this was apparently in conflict with Massachusetts law. In 1914 The Inquirer and Mirror reported a case from Westport, Massachusetts, about two complaints of “larceny of seaweed.”  Citing a 1641 Massachusetts  Bay Colony ordinance, the judge in the case ruled that “It is a larceny to take seaweed from the shore when it has ceased to drift.” Since Nantucket did not come under Massachusetts jurisdiction until 1692, the argument could be made that the old ordinance does not apply to seaweed that has come to rest on Nantucket beaches.

On November 28, 1958, The Inquirer and Mirror published a vintage photo of a horse-drawn wagon full of seaweed (which actually appears to be eel grass) with the caption: “This was a familiar sight 50 years ago in the lanes of Nantucket as seaweed was gathered along the shores and carried to farms for bedding for horses and cattle. In the fall seaweed, which covered many of the shores at high water line, was used to “bank” the foundations of houses against the winter winds. We have noticed that even today, seaweed is still being used to cover small boats in Madaket to protect them through the winter.”

Yet other uses have been for insulation inside walls, mattress stuffing, and in island gardens.  The writer of an 1988 Inquirer and Mirror article about adding organic materials to gardens states that, “Eelgrass is perhaps the most readily available seaweed. When spread six to eight inches deep, it serves admirably as a mulch.”

For what it is worth, just as—despite the term “whale fishery”— whales are not fish, eelgrass is not actually a seaweed.  Its crucial importance is as an all-important nursery for bay scallops before it washes up on shore to be gathered for its secondary uses.

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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