Like many English settlements in early New England, the one on Nantucket began as a closed corporation put together by a group of share-holding investors. This arrangement was intended to be temporary, with the shares transitioning to private ownership of specific parcels of land. Only on Nantucket did the proprietorship persist as a separate, parallel governing body, independent of Town Meeting.
Although Ralph Waldo Emerson described the island’s Wampanoags as Nantucket’s ”ancient proprietors,” what people generally mean when they speak of the Proprietors is a group of men who brought about the English settlement of the island in the mid-1600s. The first ten were Tristram Coffin Sr., Peter Coffin, Thomas Macy, Richard Swain, John Swain, Thomas Barnard, Christopher Hussey, Stephen Greenleaf, and William Pile, together with Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard. These ten investors took on partners as shareholders in the venture, all full shareholders on equal footing. The partners were Tristram Coffin Jr., James Coffin, John Smith, Robert Pike, Thomas Look, Robert Barnard, Edward Starbuck, Thomas Coleman, John Bishop and Thomas Mayhew Jr. They and their heirs were the Proprietors.
The “first purchasers” bought the rights to the island from everyone else who might claim it: Sir Fernando Gorges, the Earl of Stirling, and Thomas Mayhew Sr., who sold his interest in the island with the exception of a share he retained for himself. They also entered into agreements with sachems of Nantucket’s Wampanoag groups and paid them for part of the land and for grazing rights all over the island.