island history

In 1602, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England sailed past the bluffs of Siasconset and first put Nantucket on the map. However, settlement by the English did not begin in earnest until 1659 original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Indians, however, lived on the island, undisturbed, until 1641 at which point the island was deeded by the English to Thomas Mayhew and his son, merchants of Watertown and Martha’s Vineyard.

Settlement by the English, did not begin in earnest until 1659 when Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to the "nine original purchasers": Tristram Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swayne, Thomas Bernard, Peter Coffin, Stephen Greenleafe, John Swayne and William Pike – "For the sum of thirty pounds and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife."

English settlers originally settled on the land around the sheltered harbor of Capaum Pond where they established Sherburne. Settlers eventually moved to the “Great Harbor” and in 1795, the town was re-named Nantucket (Wampanoag for "faraway land") and became unique in the country as an island, a county and a town all with the same name.

For nearly 100 years (mid-1700s to late 1830s) the island reigned as the whaling capital of the world, with as many as 150 ships making port in Nantucket during its peak. Toward the end of the 1830s, upon the advent of petroleum in 1838,  the whale oil market took a  downward turn coupled by the fact that the sperm whale itself was becoming harder and harder to find. In 1846, the "Great Fire" roared through Nantucket Town destroying a large part of the town, and when gold was discovered in California, shiploads of Nantucketers left to seek new fortunes. In between 1840 and 1870, census figures document the loss of 60 percent of the island’s population, which plunged from an estimated 10,000 to 4,000.

During the 1800s Nantucket ranked third only after New York and Boston as a major port. As the whaling era ended, commercial shipping gave way to recreational boating, and daily excursions from the mainland on old steamers brought a new breed to Nantucket – the summer visitor. The first generation of "developers" on Nantucket sang the praises of pure air and saltwater bathing for health and pleasure and built cottages and summer houses advertising them in the Boston and New York newspapers.

Around 1880 the great American tradition of summer vacations had become firmly established, and Nantucket was discovered to be just about the perfect vacation spot. Once entrenched, tourism became the principle source of income for island residents. It still is, and in the last two decades Nantucket’s tourist season has extended from before Memorial Day to after Columbus Day. Increasingly, visitors are also attracted by the quiet beauty of the off-season, and can be assured of finding comfortable accommodations no matter what time of year.

More information on Nantucket’s History can be found in the most recent Official Guide to Nantucket, produced by the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce.

 

 

 

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