History of Nantucket Island Massachusetts
By: Hannah Fillmore-Patrick
Long after Pilgrims settled on Cape Cod, the island of Nantucket was inhabited primarily by Wampanoag Indians, who had lived on the island for thousands of years. The name “Nantucket,” is an anglicization of the Algonquian name for the “distant, desolate” island. In 1659, a small number of English proprietors led by Tristram Coffin joined the Wampanoag Indians on the island. Soon after, English tradesmen also began to migrate from Plymouth Colony and Cape Cod to the up-and-coming island of Nantucket.
History of Nantucket
At first, the island’s original proprietors and its new tradesmen were often at odds. In 1686, however, Jethro Coffin, the grandson of proprietor Tristram Coffin, married Mary Gardner, the daughter of a prominent tradesman. This marriage ended much of the conflict between the two groups. The Jethro Coffin House, a traditional wooden saltbox home, is now the oldest surviving residence on the island.
In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, Nantucket was the world’s most productive whaling port. “Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s,” writes Herman Melville in his classic nineteenth-century novel Moby Dick, “For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires.” Nantucket ships left on whaling voyages that lasted up to five years and took sailors as far away as the South Pacific.
Today, the Nantucket Whaling Museum is dedicated to the island’s fascinating whaling history. The museum occupies a former spermaceti candle factory, where workers converted sperm oil from hunted whales into candles. It features numerous artifacts from whaling vessels, portraits and photos of sea captains, and the reassembled skeleton of a massive sperm whale.
Nantucket built the first lighthouse on Brant Point, at the entrance to the island’s main port, in 1746. In the years since, fires, strong winds, and erosion have destroyed Brant Point Light nine different times. Each time, the island has stubbornly rebuilt the structure. The current wooden lighthouse dates back to 1901 and is both a working lighthouse and a popular tourist spot.
According to the National Park Service, Nantucket is the “finest surviving architectural and environmental example” of a classic New England port. In the late-nineteenth century, the island’s shipping, fishing, and whaling economies collapsed overnight, plunging the island into an economic depression that lasted until tourists began visiting the island in the twentieth century. Much of the island’s architecture predates 1900.
The island you’ll visit on a day trip to Nantucket is much different from the historical island. Today, Nantucket is a popular summer resort that’s rich in natural beauty and history. Even the cobblestones on the street have a link to the sea. The stones, which began their lives in the fields of Europe, were dug from farm fields to make way for crops. Some were then used as ballast in ships, and were unloaded once the ship made port in Nantucket. Now these rocks make up the iconic bumpy streets of this historic port town.
Town Hall Address:
16 Broad Street
Nantucket, MA 02554
Phone: (508) 228-7216
Cost of Stickers:
Beach Stickers: $50 resident, $100 non-resident
Transfer Station Stickers: Likely no fees
Shellfish License: $35 resident, $125 non-resident