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Nantucket History & Trivia

Nantucket Facts


  • First reported sighting by Norsemen in the 11th century.
  • The Wampanoag Indians were the original inhabitants of Nantucket Island.
  • 1602 - Captain Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England sailed past the island on his way to found the Jamestown colony.
  • 1641 - the island was deeded by the English (the authorities in control of the land from the coast of Maine to New York) to Thomas Mayhew and his son, merchants of Watertown and Martha’s Vineyard.
  • 1659 - Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to the "nine original purchasers": Tristram Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swayne, Thomas Bernard, Peter Coffin, Stephen Greenleaf, John Swayne, and William Pike. Some of these names are still common on the island.
  • That same year, Thomas Macy and his family, accompanied by two young men, moved from Salisbury, MA to Nantucket. They were the first European settlers to live on Nantucket
  • 1660 - Ten more families moved to Nantucket from Salisbury.
  • 1671 - The English town (then around Capaum Pond) was incorporated.
  • 1673 - The governor of New York imposed the name "Sherburne" on the town.
  • 1673 - Offshore whaling began. By 1715, there were 6 vessels engaged in whaling. By 1719, that number increased to 25, and in 1766, 118 whaling vessels shipped out from Nantucket.
  • The English presence drastically changed the healthy Indian population and, over the next century, the Wampanoag population is weakened by disease, alcohol, and debt servitude.
  • 1700 - 1720 - The town was moved to the Great Harbor, it was still Sherburne until after the American Revolution.
  • Shortly after 1700, Quakerism began to take root and, by the end of the eighteenth century, the Society of Friends was the major denomination on the island, a refuge for Quakers being persecuted in other areas of the Bay Colony.
  • In 1795 the town successfully petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts to change the name from Sherburne to Town of Nantucket. That's why there was a big "centenary" celebration in 1895 with a parade of floats, etc.  It was to celebrate a hundred years since the name change.
  • The Nantucket Quakers became extremely influential in business and government. Many of their dwellings have been continuously occupied and stand today along cobblestone Main Street and other lanes on the island.
  • From the mid-1700s to the late 1830s the island was the whaling capital of the world, with as many as 150 ships making port in Nantucket during its peak.
  • 1838 - Petroleum began to replace whale oil as an illuminant, and the sperm whale itself had been harder to find.
  • 1846 - The "Great Fire" burned through Nantucket Town fueled by whale oil and wood in the docks and warehouses, leaving hundreds homeless and impoverished.
  • 1840 - 1870 - Gold is discovered in California, many islanders go west to seek their fortunes. Census figures document the loss of 60 percent of the island’s population, which plunged from an estimated 10,000 to 4,000.
  • 1869 - The last whaling ship leaves Nantucket and never returns.
  • When the whaling era ended, commercial shipping gave way to recreational boating. Daily excursions from the mainland on the graceful old steamers brought the first summer visitors.
  • The first generation of "developers" on Nantucket built cottages and summer houses, advertising them in the Boston and New York newspapers. Island housewives took in summer boarders and great hotels were built in town, as well as on the seashore at Brant Point, Surfside, and Siasconset.
  • 1880 - The American tradition of summer vacations was firmly established. Nantucket was discovered as an ideal spot for vacationing. Tourism became the principle source of income for island residents.
  • 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.


  • The Nantucket year-round population is a little over 10,000. At the peak of the summer there are as many as 56,000 people here with their cars.
  • Cobblestones were laid on Main Street in 1838. Despite all rumors, there is no proof that the stones were used as ballast on whaling ships. More likely they were laid to cope with New England spring mud.

  • Sperm-whale oil is still considered one of the purest oils known to man. Its viscosity remains constant at any temperature and has been used in space programs for that reason.

  • There is a harpoon in the Whaling Museum that was removed from a sperm whale caught twice by the same man-nine years apart.

  • Nantucket Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends was the first in the nation to speak out against slavery.

  • Nantucket has the largest concentration of Native American place names in the country. Nantucket is translated as "far away land" in the Wampanoag dialect.

  • R.H. Macy was a Nantucket boy who made his mark in retailing. Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloons were designed by longtime summer resident Tony Sarg.

  • Frederick Douglass gave his first speech before an all-white audience in the Nantucket Atheneum's Great Hall in 1841.

  • Nantucket African-American whaling Captain Absalom Boston was the first to lead an all-black crew on a whaling voyage, aboard the ship, Industry, in1822.

  • Nantucketers discovered and named more than twenty islands in the South Pacific, many of them with Nantucket surnames.
  • Sheep storms were what the islanders called those periods of intense fogginess which often preside over the moors in late June and early July.  In the 1800s, the islanders knew these days were coming, and they also knew that after several days the fog would drench the thick coats of the many sheep grazing on the moors (in pasturing sections called the Sheep Commons).  They also knew that after the fog inevitably came hot, sunny days during which the coats would dry. That was the time for shearing, which meant the famous Sheep-Shearing festivals, with fun and games and food for one and all.  

  • There was, long ago, a wide wooden gate called the New Town Gate, across the rough one-track-rutted road to Siasconset.  Near the first milestone on what is today a veritable highway, compared to most thoroughfares on the island, this gate was supposed to prevent sheep from getting into town.  This wasn’t always successful.  
    Just beside that New Town gate was a field that held a gallows, hence it was quite reasonably called Gallows Field.  It is said that only a few people were dispatched upon that gibbet before 1840, when it was apparently taken down.  (There was a less severe yet quite painful mode of punishment near the location of the Civil War Monument on Main Street at Gardner; this was a bona fide whipping post.)  

  • The Town of Nantucket passed a law in 1680 saying "For the prevention of such misdemeanors which some take occasion to practice on the Lord’s Day by reason of absence of most people from their habitations and such temptations as vagrant persons are exposed to, thereby the court orders that no person present in Lord’s Day to be absent from their homes or usual places of abode…."

  • Polpis was probably the first farming settlement on the island.  Those Nantucket farmers worked long and hard and they didn’t put on airs; certain in the old days of horses and wagons and unpaved roads, it didn’t make much sense for them to dress up fancy to take their goods into town.  At some point in Nantucket history, certain of the more narrowminded townspeople took to calling those industrious residents “Polpisy,” because they were considered to be unsophisticated.  Today Polpis is one of the most beautiful areas of the island, and to be called Polpisy might, in fact, be a compliment.

  • Brant Point Lighthouse is the second oldest in America, first constructed in 1746. It was blown down in 1774, burned and was rebuilt in 1782, burned and was rebuilt again in 1783. In 1788, Brant Point light was again destroyed in a storm.

  • About 50,000 white-oak casks had to be produced every year for the whaling industry by the more than 20 coopers’ shops that were on Nantucket during the mid-1700s to early 1800s. And about 35,000 boxes had to be made a year for the shipping of the spermaceti candles made at the candlehouses.

  • During the heyday of whaling on Nantucket there were more than 10 ropeworks factories,  and the sailmaking business flourished, as did the blacksmith shops and ironworks.

  • During the early 1800s, most whaling voyages lasted from three to five years.

  • The eastern coast of Nantucket was the first place in the U.S. to see the first sunrise of the new millenium.

  • The last ship to depart on a whaling voyage from Nantucket Island was the Oak, which left in 1869.The Great Fire of 1846 destroyed one-third of downtown Nantucket. Approximately 800 people were homeless. Total losses were in excess of $1,000,000 (the equivalent of approximately $24,000,000 today).

  • When English colonists arrived on Nantucket in 1659, they found more than 2,500 Wampanoags living there.

  • Between 1815 and 1860, more than 1, 300,000 barrels of oil were brought to the island by whaleships.
  • In 1977, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard unsucessfully attempted to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

  • Nantucket was the last community in Massachusetts to lift the ban on automobiles (in 1918).

  • One business survived well over many years; this was the straw factory.  The reason? It was largely “manned” by Nantucket women. The industry began in the old Friend’s Meetinghouse on Main Street in 1852.  At one time 300 women worked at the trade; the business expanded when the workers ultimately were allowed to take the straw to their own homes to work upon.  Said William Easton in a report to the October 12, 1872 Inquirer & Mirror, “The sewing [of the straw] is a neat employment, and a very advantageous one to this community.”

  • Benjamin Franklin’s mother, Abiah Foulger Franklin, was born on Nantucket in 1667.

  • Nantucket’s weather is affected by both the warm Gulf Stream and the cooler Labrador Current.

  • During its whaling days, Nantucket was the third largest city in Massachusetts, with a population of 10,000. Only Boston and Salem were larger.

  • Nantucket has more than 82 miles of beaches.

  • Nantucket is a town, a county, and an island.

  • Two of the three ships in the Boston Tea Party were Nantucket ships: the “Beaver” and the “Dartmouth.”

  • A bomb shelter was built on the island for President John F. Kennedy in 1961, disguised by the United States Navy as a "Jet assist takeoff fuel bottle storage area," but was never used.

  • Nantucket was part of Dukes County, New York until 1691, when it was transferred to Massachusetts.
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