Nantucketers’ traditional practice of opening freshwater ponds to the sea has generated controversy and any number of unauthorized openings over the last century. Well over a hundred years ago the Town’s authority to re-open a pond was at issue. This led to formation of a Committee on Long Pond and Madaket Ditch, which submitted its report on March 20, 1882.
The Madaket Ditch which connects Long Pond to Madaket Harbor was dug in the 1660s as a cooperative project by newly arrived English settlers and Nantucket Wampanoags. Fish weirs were constructed at the mouth of the Ditch, and well into the twentieth harvesting of herring and eels was conducted by dip net and eel spear along its banks.
In 1882 the Ditch had become clogged, and the question was raised about whether the Town of Nantucket had the right to appropriate money to clear it.
In its report, the committee members covered the history of the ownership of the island from the purchase of Nantucket in 1641 by Thomas Mayhew Sr. and his son for forty pounds to Mayhew’s sale in 1659 of nine tenths of the island to nine Proprietors for thirty pounds and two beaver hats. A 1664 grant specifically included all the “waters, lakes, fishing,” etc. While Nantucket was under the jurisdiction of New York, a new patent was issued in 1671 that granted to the English settlers on Nantucket “all the lands, soils, woods, meadows, pastures, marshes, waters, fishing, hawking, hunting and fowling.” A 1687 patent went even further, including buildings, timber, fences, highways, gardens, beaches, swamps, and other items as well as waterways, ponds, and fishing.
The colonial act of 1693 initiating the transfer of Nantucket from New York to the Massachusetts Bay Colony specifically declared that all rights and privileges acquired under the jurisdiction of New York were reserved to the people of Nantucket. This was understood by the committee to mean that ownership of all the ponds still rested with the Proprietors.
According to the report, “From the year 1665, five years after the English settlers came to Nantucket, up to 1841, the Proprietors of Nantucket improved, used, controlled, leased and exercised the exclusive ownership of Long Pond and Madaket Ditch as a fishery.” Then in 1841 the Proprietors ceded their rights in Long Pond Madaket Ditch, and Madaket Harbor to the Town of Nantucket, and the Town was authorized by a special act of the Massachusetts legislature to make regulation for “the free access, increase, preservation, and taking of fish in Madaket Ditch and Long Pond.” The Town was also authorized to appropriate funds for maintenance of the Ditch.
When Massachusetts passed a law in 1869 granting to the Commissioners of Fisheries the right to regulate access to the Great Ponds of the Commonwealth, it excepted the special rights of the Proprietors to the ponds on Nantucket.
The committee members noted that since the Town took over the regulation of the Madaket Ditch, it had periodically appropriated funds for maintaining it, most recently in 1876. They stated that they had examined the Ditch from the pond end as far as they could manage in winter weather, finding that “at several points of said Ditch obstructions exist which the committee believe detrimental to the fishery.” For this reason and backed by all the documentation and precedents cited in their report, they recommended the Town appropriate whatever was necessary for “clearing out, widening, and deepening Madaket Ditch, and otherwise improving it.”