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Nantucket is 26 miles at sea, a tiny spit of sand off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound defining its borders. It sits at latitude 41 degrees 15’ 22" north, and longitude 70 degrees 7’ 56" west. Just under 15 miles long and three and a half miles wide, much of life on the island is defined by the waters that surround it.
It is a place, wrote Herman Melville in his classic novel “Moby Dick," made an utter island by the ocean, that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as if to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois."
A century after Melville penned his tale of madness and whaling, Nantucket is still unlike anywhere else. Maybe it is a history so seeped into the very soil that one cannot help but come in contact with it.
It is likely that the first Europeans to discover Nantucket were the Norsemen in the tenth or eleventh century. Then in 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold sighted the island while on a voyage, and since then has been credited with “discovering Nantucket.”
When the first white settlers arrived, they found the Natick tribe living on the island. Thomas Mayhew and his son had been deeded the island by the Earl of Sterling, and purchased from the Indians what were called the "Sachem rights" to a large portion of the island in 1659. Soon after, Mayhew sold the rights to the island to nine purchasers, keeping 1/20th share for himself. A few months later 10 more purchasers bought in, so that by 1660 the island was owned by 20 men, known thereafter as "the Proprietors." The first permanent white settlers were 10 families from Salisbury.
The original settlement was located about two miles west of where Nantucket town is today. It was called Sherburne, near what is now known as Capaum Pond. Back then Capaum Pond was a small harbor, but when its entrance silted up, the settlers removed their houses, stick by stick, and moved two miles to the northeast to the town’s present location. It was not named Nantucket until 1795. It would not be long before the name Nantucket meant whaling around the world.
You can walk the cobblestone streets downtown, in the early morning or at dusk and hear the echoes of the past. You can stop in at the Nantucket Historical Association’s Whaling Museum and see the artifacts of that past. Today’s island is a place given over to those reflections.
By the Civil War, whaling and Nantucket were no longer synonymous. Today there is a small scallop industry, and only a handful of people here who make a living at commercial fishing. The former fishing villages of Madaket, on the west end of the island, and ‘Sconset, on the east end, are now places to watch a sunset or stroll down rose-lined lanes. Today tourism and Nantucket’s status as a world class resort reflect the island and its business.
The island has become an exclusive summer destination, and the major industries are tourism and the construction of multi-million dollar summer homes. As that part of the economy grows, the sky-high cost of living has driven more than a few islanders to the mainland. The pages of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821, are filled with the issues that will define Nantucket’s future.
The last U.S. census placed the number of year-round residents at 9,520, nearly what it was during the height of the whaling days. On any given summer day, the number of people here might swell to as much as five times that number.
IMPORTANT DATES IN ISLAND HISTORY
As Reported in “Argument Settlers: Island History at a Glance”
Published and copyright by The Inquirer and Mirror
1602 – Nantucket is discovered by Bartholomew Gosnold, an Englishman who sailed from England in a small bark with 32 persons onboard, bound for Virginia.
1641 – The island was deeded to Thomas Mayhew and his son, Thomas, by James Forrett, agent of William, Earl of Sterling.
1659 – Thomas Macy and his family, accompanied by Edward Starbuck and Issac Coleman, moved from Salisbury to Nantucket, and were the first white people who lived on the island. This year the island was deeded by Mayhew to the original purchasers for the sum of thirty pounds sterling and two beaver hats.
1663 – The first white child was born on the island on March 30: Mary Starbuck to Nathaniel Starbuck and Mary Coffin.
1667 – Abiah Folger, mother of Benjamin Franklin, was born on Aug. 15.
1672 – The first whale was caught from Nantucket.
1673 – Whaling in boats from the shore began.
1676 – The villages of Sesachacha and Siasconset were built.
1692 – The island, previously a part of New York, became (by request of the proprietors) a part of Massachusetts, under an act of Parliament.
1712 – Nantucket men killed the first spermaceti whale in a vessel captained by Christopher Hussey, whose sloop had been blown far out to sea by a gale.
1720 – A small quantity of oil was sent to London from Nantucket on the ship “Hanover.”
1723 –Straight Wharf, Nantucket’s first wharf, was built by Richard Macy.
1746 – A beacon light was erected at Brant Point, suspended between two poles. It was the first light established on Nantucket to serve as a guide to shipping.
1746 – The Old Mill (still standing) was built by Nathan Wilbur.
1757 – The first square-rigged vessels, of 100 tons burden and upward, were fitted out for whaling.
1769 – Great Point lighthouse was established.
1773 – Ships “Dartmouth,” “Beaver” and “Eleanor” sailed from Nantucket for London, laden with oil. After discharging their cargo, they were laden with tea, and on reaching America took part in the Boston Tea Party.
1775-1781 – 1600 Nantucket men lost their lives in the Revolutionary War.
1791 – The first Nantucket whale ship to sail around Cape Horn and into the Pacific was the ship “Beaver,” under the command of Capt. Paul Worth, with a crew of 17 men. The voyage lasted 17 months.
1795 – The name of the town was changed from Sherburne to Nantucket.
1797 – The streets of the town were named.
1803 – The first cistern was built.
1804 – The Pacific Bank was incorporated.
1810 – The first ship built on Nantucket, “Rose,” was launched from Brant Point.
1816 – The first island newspaper, “The Nantucket Gazette,” was published. It was discontinued the following year due to lack of readers.
1818 – The first steamboat, “Eagle,” crossed Nantucket Sound on May 5 with 60 passengers.
1821 – “The Nantucket Inquirer” was established by J. T. Melcher with Samuel H. Jenks as editor. The first issue was published on June 23.
1823 – Nantucket was the leading whaling port in the country with a total of 83 vessels in service. New Bedford was second with 42 vessels.
1824 – The milestones were placed along the Sconset Road by Peter Ewer.
1825 – The African Church, Newtown on West York St. was consecrated.
1826 – Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin visited the island and gave a sum of money to found a school for his kinfolk.
1827 – Two public schools were established, and the Coffin School was opened.
1838 – The Nantucket Fire Department was established.
1841 – Anti-slavery meetings were held on Nantucket. Frederick Douglass made his debut as a public speaker.
1843 – The decline of the whale fishery began.
1845 – “The Nantucket Weekly Mirror” was first published by the Hon. John Morissey. It continued until 1865, when it consolidated with “The Inquirer” and thereafter was known as “The Inquirer and Mirror.”
1846 – The Great Fire occurred on July 13 & 14 destroying more than one third of the town.
1847 – Maria Mitchell discovered a comet on Oct. 1.
1850 – Sankaty Lighthouse was erected.
1855 – Dorcas Honorable, the last full-blooded Indian on Nantucket, died in the town asylum.
1869 – Quahog beds were discovered near Smith’s Point and Tuckernuck.
1878 – The first telephone was used on Nantucket.
1881 – The Nantucket railroad was built to Surfside.
1894 – The state road to Sconset was built.
1900 – The Atheneum was opened as a free public library.
1901 – A wireless telegraph station was installed at Sconset. The first message was received from the steamship “Lucania” on Aug. 16.
1907 – A bill was passed in the Legislature permitting Nantucket Selectmen to exclude automobiles form the island from June 15 to Sept. 15.
1911 – All Nantucket-owned stock in the Steamboat Company was sold when control of the company passed to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad.
1915 – The Lifesaving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service were combined to form the Coast Guard.
1918 – The first aircraft to cross Nantucket Sound arrived from Chatham.
1921 –Sankaty Head Golf Club was incorporated.
1926 – The first deer were brought to the island.
1927 – Commercial air service began between Boston and Nantucket.
1942 – Nobadeer Airport was leased by the government and taken over by the navy the following year for use as a training field during the war. It was turned back to the town in 1946 and became Nantucket Memorial Airport.
1956 – Luxury liner Andrea Doria sunk 50 miles south of Nantucket after being rammed by the SS Stockholm in heavy fog.
1961 – Nantucket Memorial Airport’s instrument landing system was first put to use. The Air Traffic Control Tower began operation.
Visitors learn of the Island's whaling history while sitting under the skeleton of a sperm whale.