Who were Nantucket’s first settlers?

From the bluff of Sankaty Head in Siasconset, looking eastward straight across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain, it is not difficult to imagine a late summer’s day in the year 1602 and in the mind’s eye sight the bark Concord, under the command of Bartholomew Gosnold, tacking along­shore. The vessel had embarked from Falmouth, England, and having passed around Cape Cod was bound for the Virginia colony; Gosnold did not go ashore, but was the first to chart the island’s location—a remote remnant of “the glacier’s gift.”

For the next several decades Nantucket would con­tinue to be populated solely by some 3000 natives of the Wampanoag tribe, whose subsistence depended on what they could grow, hunt down, or take from the ponds and shorelines. There would be no incursion of Englishmen until 1641, when the island was deeded by the authori­ties then in control of all lands between Cape Cod and the Hudson River to Thomas Mayhew and his son, also Thomas, merchants of Watertown and Martha’s Vineyard. From their base on Martha’s Vineyard, the Mayhews not only grazed sheep on Nantucket but had zealously “Christianized” much of the native population, who would come to be known as “praying Indians.” Now the Mayhews owned the island and would hold onto it until 1659, when they sold it to nine solid citizens from the Merrimack Valley who were seeking to improve their circumstances; among them were Tristram Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, and Richard Swain, whose names would resonate throughout Nantucket’s history. The Nantucket Historical Association’s contem­porary “true copy” of the purchase agreement suggests that it may have been Thomas Macy’s occupation as a merchant and clothier that prompted Mayhew senior to include in the purchase price of thirty pounds sterling “And also two Beaver Hatts, one for myselfe, and one for my Wife.”
Although the purchase of Nantucket from the Mayhews was primarily a business venture, the “first set­tlers” — especially Thomas Macy, who had had a doctri­nal run-in with the town fathers in Salisbury — wished to extricate themselves from the increasingly repressive conditions being imposed by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thus, in the late fall of 1659, the Macy family, with several neighbors and friends, twelve people in all, sailed in a small boat bound for Nantucket, rounding the hook of Cape Cod — where even today sailors keep a weather eye for shifting winds and rough water — at last coming ashore at the west end of the island. Fortunately for the settlers, the Wampanoags were friendly, and had it not been for their hospitable succour during the long cold winter at Madaket the newcomers might have starved or frozen to death. It would be a long time before those hardy souls would be followed in sufficient numbers to form a com­munity. By 1700, only about 300 white people and 800 Indians were living peacefully with one another, the native population having been decimated by diseases introduced by the Europeans.


Excerpt from “Nantucket in a Nutshell” by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Winter 2000, Vol. 49. No. 1

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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