In 1602, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England sailed his bark Concord past the 'Sconset bluffs and put Nantucket on the map. The Wampanoag Indians--original inhabitants of this faraway enclave--lived undisturbed until 1641 when the island was deeded by the English to Thomas Mayhew and his son, merchants of Watertown and Martha's Vineyard.
The history of Nantucket’s settlement by the English began in earnest in 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.” Before ultimately settling on the shores of the Great Harbor, the new 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.
The Dawn of Whaling
In 1690, island inhabitants--both Indians and settlers--began to whale "alongshore", pursuing the right whale from the south shore in 20-foot whaleboats manned by six-person crews. In 1712, the sperm whale was discovered to be the source of the finest quality oil, with vast quantities stored in the giant mammal's head. Islanders were soon pursuing these leviathans along the Gulf Stream edges between Bermuda and the Carolinas and as far north as the Arctic Circle. Thus, the age of Nantucket’s greatest prosperity began and the long sea voyages of Nantucket whalers--which could last upward of five years--became legendary for feats of endurance and courage, as well as marked by tragedy. From the mid-1700s to the late 1830s, Nantucket was the indisputable "Whaling Capital of the World", with as many as 150 ships making port here during its peak.
An Era Closes
Within a few decades, this changed drastically. Kerosene had begun to replace whale oil as an illuminant, and the sperm whale itself had become more difficult 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 whaling ship outbound from Nantucket– the bark Oak –departed in 1869, never to return to her home port.
The Dawn of Tourism
Nantucket was port-of-call for transatlantic packets and coastal vessels from the early 1800s, ranking third 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 visitor. First-generation island "developers" sang the praises of pure air and saltwater bathing for health and pleasure. They built cottages and summer houses, advertising in 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. Around 1880, the American tradition of summer vacations was firmly established, and Nantucket was discovered to be an ideal locale. Once entrenched, tourism became the principal source of income for island residents, as it does to this day. In the last two decades, the island's tourist season has extended from before Memorial Day to after Columbus Day. Visitors are increasingly attracted by the quiet beauty of the off-season, and can be assured of finding gracious accommodations at any time of year.