Nantucket has a long history of maritime pursuits and the three lighthouses that guard the island’s northern tip, eastern shoreline and harbor are proud reminders of a time when Nantucketers took their harvest from the sea. They are symbolic of how the past and present coexist on the island and have proudly stood through decades of history as Nantucket evolved from the whaling capital of the world to a premier vacation resort. Now majestic landmarks, Great Point Light, Sankaty Head Light and Brant Point Light all played important roles in guiding sailors home, with their bright beacons leading vessels safely around the shoals and through the fog. Located on the northern tip of the island, Great Point Light overlooks miles of pristine conservation land and beaches favored by bird watchers, picnickers and surfcasters. Sankaty Head Lighthouse, high atop Sankaty Bluff, overlooks one of Nantucket’s finest golf courses and has been moved back from the bluff due to erosion. Finally, as you arrive in the harbor you’re welcomed by the familiar Brant Point Lighthouse. With its original structure erected in 1746, it was the second lighthouse built in America.
The island’s beginnings in western history can be traced to its reported sighting by Norsemen in the 11th century. But it was not until 1602 that Captain Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England sailed his bark Concord past the bluffs of Siasconset and really put Nantucket on the map. The island’s original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Indians, lived undisturbed until 1641 when the island was deeded by the English (the authorities in control of all land from the coast of Maine to New York) to Thomas Mayhew and his son, merchants of Watertown and Martha’s Vineyard.
As Europeans began to settle the area around Cape Cod, the island became a place of refuge for regional Indians, as Nantucket was not yet discovered by white men. The growing population of Native Americans welcomed seasonal groups of Indians who traveled to the island to fish and later harvest whales that washed up on shore. The history of Nantucket’s 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.”
At this time, the true demise of the island’s Indian population began. This English presence drastically changed the healthy Indian population, and over the next century the Wampanoag would be weakened by disease, alcohol and debt servitude. Before ultimately settling on the shores of the Great Harbor, the new English settlers moved to the land surrounding the small sheltered harbor of Capaum Pond, on the north shore, where the first white settlement – Sherburne – was established. In 1795, the town (now nestled on the Great Harbor) was 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.
Missionaries – notably, Thomas Mayhew of Martha’s Vineyard – had “Christianized” part of the Native American population by the 1670s, and later that century white settlers built their first meetinghouses (Congregational, Baptist, Presbyterian). 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. The Nantucket Quakers also became extremely influential in business and government matters.
Long before the white man came to the island, the Indians salvaged dead whales that drifted ashore, recognizing the value of the oil and meat that could be extracted. It is thought that island inhabitants began to whale “alongshore” in 1690, pursuing the right whale from the south shore in 20-foot whaleboats manned by six person crews. The Indians and the white settlers were not rivals for the prize, but manned the boats together and shared the spoils that were valuable enough for a small industry to build up around them. It was not until a small sloop was blown out to sea by a gale in 1712 that the sperm whale was discovered to be the source of the finest quality oil, with quantities of it stored in its great head. Soon islanders were pursuing sperm whales along the Gulf Stream edges between Bermuda and the Carolinas and as far north as the Arctic Circle. So the age of Nantucket’s greatest prosperity began and the long sea voyages of Nantucket whale men – which could last for years at a time – became legendary for their feats of endurance, courage and tragedy. For nearly 100 years –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.
As Nantucketers’ whaling voyages took them farther from their home, the crews of these ships became more diverse. Cape Verdean men played a key role in Nantucket’s whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, seeking relief from the dry spells that plagued their archipelago islands situated 400 miles off Western Africa. With drought and famine common on Cape Verde, and unable to support their families through local fishing or agriculture, Cape Verdean men began seeking opportunity by signing onto Nantucket whale ships. Between 1825 and 1875, an average of 100 whale ships called on Cape Verde each year for men, supplies and leisure. By the 1840s, approximately 8 percent of the Nantucket whale ship crews were Cape Verdean.
Through the years, as the whaling industry and population on the island burgeoned, so did the ethnic diversity of Nantucket’s inhabitants. A strong African American presence can be traced to the early 1700s when many references to black slaves can be found within Nantucketers’ wills. Soon, a strong abolitionist movement developed within the Quaker community, with local legend indicating that slavery ended on the island in 1770 when a court case was won and a Nantucket slave freed after being signed onto a whale ship. Despite its strong spirit of abolitionism, Nantucket was a strictly segregated community for many years. Black islanders and Cape Verdean residents called the area of town surrounding Five Corners at lower Pleasant Street home, where they built churches, stores and a graveyard. This area of town was known as New Guinea, and one of the churches built there still stands today – the African Baptist Church. Located at the intersection of York and Pleasant streets, it is currently known as the African Meeting House on Nantucket and serves as a museum and historic site.
Bustling Island Life
It was only after Moby Dick was published in 1851 that Melville set foot on Nantucket. His descriptions of the island were products of an active imagination, based on hearsay and what he had read. He would have discovered a lot more than “an elbow of sand” had he arrived in the 1830s, when Nantucket was the busiest whaling port in the world. The wharves and harbor were scenes of never-ending activity and enterprise. Hundreds of people worked in ropewalks, candle factories, chandleries, cooperages, and sail lofts. Warehouses were filled with exotic imports, fragrantly reminiscent of the Spice Islands and the Orient, from which goods were brought home by merchant vessels that plied the sea lanes in the wake of the whaling ships. The entire town was a bustling marketplace of shops, food stores, banks and counting houses. There were three newspapers and four banks. The Quaker merchants – soberly dressed but very wealthy – went quietly about their business while great cask-laden wagons rumbled over the cobblestones and the thick smell of whale oil hung in the salty sea air.
The End of an Era
Within a few decades all that changed drastically. Kerosene – first derived from petroleum in 1838 – had begun to replace whale oil as an illuminant, and the sperm whale itself had become harder to find. In 1846, a “Great Fire” roared through Nantucket town under the cover of night, leaving hundreds homeless and impoverished. When gold was discovered in California, shiploads of Nantucketers left to seek new fortunes; the heaviest blow to island economy was possibly struck in 1849 when 14 ships commanded and crewed by Nantucket seamen sailed around Brant Point headed for the Golden Gate. In the 30 years 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. The death knell for whaling had been sounded. The last ship outbound from Nantucket in a search of the giant sperm whale – the bark Oak –left in 1869, never to return to her home port.
Tourism Sets Sail for Nantucket
Nantucket was a port-of-call for transatlantic packets and coastal vessels from the early 1800s and, indeed, ranked third only after New York and Boston as a major port. When the whaling era ended, commercial shipping gave way to recreational boating. Daily excursions from the mainland on the graceful old steamers brought a new breed to Nantucket – the summer visitors. The first generation of “developers” on Nantucket sang the praises of pure air and saltwater bathing for health and pleasure. They 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. It was not until around 1880 that the American tradition of summer vacations was firmly established, and it was then that Nantucket was discovered to be just about the ideal spot for vacationing. Once entrenched, tourism became the principal 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.