Beginning with the English settlement, the “faraway land,” as Nantucket is translated, developed into a community of small farmers and sheep herders (the manufacture of wool was a vital industry in colonial New England). In addition to farming the land and hunting small game, the natives and the newcomers took sustenance from the waters surrounding Nantucket, in which varieties of finfish, particularly cod, and shellfish abounded. Species of small whales occasionally washed ashore and were prized for their oil, but by the 1690s the Nantucketers had begun to organize expeditions in small boats to pursue the “right” whales—so-called because they were of moderate size and slow moving and therefore easy to catch—that passed close to shore on their annual migrations. Whale houses with elevated platforms were established along the south shore, and when the spouting whales were spotted the boats set off through the pounding surf to capture them. They were towed to shore and the carcasses stripped of the blubber that would be “tried out” to extract the valuable oil.
Deep-sea whaling began around 1715, a few years after the first sperm whale had been taken by a sloop blown out to sea in a gale. Oil from the “head matter” of this gigantic creature was found to be of a quantity and quality unmatched by any natural or manmade product then available. But the great sperm whale inhabited the deepest parts of the oceans, so Nantucket men began to make offshore voyages of fifty miles and more, but needed to be within reach of shore to offload their catch and have it processed. By the mid-eighteenth century larger whaleships were being built and became seagoing factories, with all the equipment needed to extract and store huge quantities of oil. For the next hundred years Nantucket whaleships would traverse the oceans of the world on their legendary three-, four-, and five-year voyages in search of “greasy luck.”
Excerpt from “Nantucket in a Nutshell” by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Winter 2000, Vol. 49. No. 1