Nantucket History

Although Nantucket’s rich and colorful history spans more than 350 years, it is her golden years as the whaling capital of the world that continues to fascinate islanders and tourists alike.

Early Nantucketers found great success and prosperity in the pursuit of the gentle giants of the sea, but it was their near-total dependence on the whaling industry that also brought devastating periods of adversity. In their remote and precarious location, wars, rumors of wars, and the ever-changing price of oil resulted in long periods of despair and economic hardship. But the courageous and determined Islanders, fiercely devoted to their home, struggled and persevered time and time again. Their legacy lives on and the island that they loved so dearly draws thousands of visitors every year.

Original Purchasers – “27 shares”

Captain Bartholomew Gosnold of Falmouth, England, sighted the island as he sailed past the bluffs of what is now Siasconset on his way to Virginia in 1602. Although he never set foot on Nantucket, he is usually credited with its discovery by virtue of an entry in his ship's log.

In October 1641, William, Earl of Sterling, deeded the island to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts Bay. In 1659 Mayhew sold an interest in the island to nine other purchasers, reserving 1/10th of an interest for himself, “for the sum of thirty pounds…and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife.”

Each of the ten original owners was allowed to invite one partner. There is some confusion about the identity of the first twenty owners, partly because William Pile didn’t choose a partner, and sold his interest to Richard Swain, which was eventually divided between John Bishop and the children of George Bunker.

Anxious to add to their number and to induce tradesmen to come to the island, the total number of shares were increased to twenty-seven. The original purchasers needed the assistance of tradesmen who were skilled in the arts of weaving, milling, building and other pursuits and selected men who were given half a share provided that they lived on Nantucket and carried on their trade for at least three years.

By 1667, twenty-seven shares had been divided between 31 owners.

Original Ten Partners Half-share men

Original Ten Partners Half-share men
Thomas Bernard* Robert Bernard John Bishop
Peter Coffin James Coffin Nathaniel Wier
Tristram Coffin Nathaniel Starbuck Joseph Coleman
Steven Greenleaf* Tristram Coffin Jr.* Eleazar Folger
Shoemaker & Blacksmith
Christopher Hussey Robert Pike Peter Folger
Thomas Macy Edward Starbuck John Gardner
Thomas Mayhew* John Smith Joseph Gardner
William Pile* Interest divided
John Bishop (1/2)
Bunker Children(1/2)
Richard Gardner
John Swain Thomas Coleman Nathaniel Holland
Richard Swain Thomas Look Thomas Macy
Samuel Streeter
William Worth

* indicates owners who never lived on Nantucket

Although some of the original owners never lived on the island, most of the proprietors did make Nantucket their home, and many of their descendants still live there today. Of the 19 unique surnames, seven cannot be traced to Nantucket, but there are a large number of Coffins, Folgers and Gardners on the island even now, with the Macys, Starbucks, Husseys and Swains close behind. The names of Barnards, Colemans, Worths and Wyers are also quite common.

First Settlers

Thomas Macy and his family arrived in 1659 from Salisbury, Massachusetts and became the first permanent settlers. Macy and his parents had left England in 1640, to escape religious persecution, as did many others. However, Massachusetts would not be the safe haven Macy’s family had hoped for. After giving shelter to four Quakers in the middle of rainstorm, for less than an hour’s time, Thomas was cited by the court and fined. Unwilling to live among these intolerant, narrow-minded people who had come to America seeking religious freedom, but were unwilling to extend it to others, Macy gave up his home and any property he couldn't carry with him to move to a remote unsettled island inhabited only by native Indians.

Edward Starbuck, James Coffin and Isaac Coleman arrived with Thomas Macy and stayed through the winter and then returned to Massachusetts. Edward Starbuck returned in 1660 with ten families and more settlers arrived the following year.

The white settlers found Nantucket inhabited by about 1600 Wampanoag Indians who were hunters, farmers and fisherman. Unfortunately the arrival of the white man brought disease, alcohol, and debt servitude to the island, all of which exacted a cruel toll on these peaceful people over the next 100 years. By 1763 only 358 Indians remained, and that number was tragically reduced later that year when 222 died of the plague. It is believed that the last Indian, Abram Quary, died in 1855.

The Englishmen first settled on the north shore of the island near Capaum Pond where the first white settlement was established. More families continued to arrive. By 1700, the island population consisted of about 800 Native Americans and 300 European settlers who lived together in relative peace. Tristram Coffin, one of the original ten, was considered the patriarch of the island.

Birth of the Whaling Industry

The Indians had been “whaling” long before the white men arrived, retrieving the drift whales that occasionally washed up on shore - but never hunting them in the open water.

Although they understood the value of the whales, the original purchasers were inexperienced, and it was several years before the white settlers took an active interest. They found the island perfect for raising sheep and the primary occupations were sheep raising, spinning and weaving, along with farming and fishing along the shore. In fact, it is said that there were more than 10,000 sheep on the island at one time.

According to Obed Macy, the first whaling expedition was undertaken by some of the original purchasers in the early 1670s. Tradition holds that a whale “of a kind called scrag” came into the harbor where it stayed for three days. Desiring to prevent the whale’s return to the sea, the men created a wrought iron harpoon, which they used to attack and kill the whale. The success generated new interest in whaling as an occupation.

Nantucketers sought an experienced whaling instructor and hired Icabod Paddock from Yarmouth, Massachusetts. Paddock moved to Nantucket and lived there for a number of years. He appears to have met with great success in teaching the islanders to whale from boats.

At this time, their energies were directed to hunting the right whales that returned every autumn, usually within 30 miles of shore. The oil refined from the blubber of the right whales was of an inferior quality and only good for outdoor lamps and lubrication, but the heads of these whales were filled with hundreds of strips of baleen or whalebone, a hard but flexible material used by whales for straining food from the sea.

Pursuing the "Right" Whale"

The right whales were pursued by companies of six men stationed at various points on the south and east coasts of the island. The Wampanoag took an active part in the hunt for whales and generally made up a large portion of the crews. When a whale was sighted, the crews set out in boats and tried to harpoon it. If they were successful, the injured whale took off with the boat in tow in what came to be known as a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” The “ride” continued until the harpooned whale became exhausted. The men continued attacking it with lances and harpoons and then towed the dead whale back to the shore. The blubber was stripped and wheeled to the try-houses in carts, where the oil was boiled out, cooked down, and poured into wooden casks. Oil and bundles of whalebone were then hauled to warehouses where they were stored in preparation for shipment to markets. By 1715 the island boasted six whaling ships but there were four times that many by 1719.

The town which was incorporated as Sherburn in 1687 moved to the north side of the island at the turn of the century after storms caused the entrance to Capaum Harbor to be silted in. Most of the homeowners either moved their homes or tore them down and reassembled them in the new location. Timber was hard to come by and too costly to be abandoned.

Nantucket Quakers

As noted earlier, many of the settlers had come to Nantucket to escape religious persecution. Most were Christian, God-fearing men, and by the end of the 1600s, they had built Baptist, Presbyterian and Congregational meetinghouses. Shortly after the turn of the century, Quakerism began to take hold in Nantucket, due largely in part to Mary Coffin Starbuck, following her conversion to the faith in 1701. Mary, who eventually became a Quaker preacher, and her husband Nathaniel, led the Quaker movement and the first meetings were held in their home until a meetinghouse was built in 1711. The Nantucket Quakers became extremely influential in every area of life including social behaviors, lifestyles, business, and politics and many were involved in the lucrative whaling industry. But the best illustration of the Quaker influence and devotion to simplicity can be seen in the exteriors and interiors of Nantucket’s historic homes built in the 18th and early 19th centuries - particularly in the style which has come to be known as the "Typical Nantucket House."

Accidental Discovery of the Sperm Whale

About 1711 Nantucket whalers discovered that another species of whale, the spermaceti or sperm whale, could be found in the waters just out of sight. Christopher Hussey was cruising around the shore looking for Right whales when he was blown off course by a strong northerly wind and found himself in the middle of a school of Sperm whales. The discovery revolutionized the whaling industry. Sperm whales were smaller and faster and more difficult to catch. They did not have any whalebone, but they had large quantities of quality oil stored in their heads. The oil was a much higher grade and brought much higher prices than common whale oil. The higher profits drew the whaling crews farther and farther out. They started sending larger boats with crews of 12 or 13 on regular short voyages in pursuit. Whalers began installing try-pots right on the ship’s deck, which enabled them to spend much more time at sea. It wasn’t long before Nantucket sailors were pursuing sperm whales along the gulf stream edges between Bermuda and the Carolinas and as far north as the Artic Circle.

Forced to travel greater distances to find whales, voyages could last years at a time. It was a difficult life that required courage and endurance and sailors and ships often met with tragedy. But it was also very challenging for the wives left behind who spent many lonely years at home, fully responsible for raising their families on their own. Many women became successful merchants and owned and operated shops in town, including Quaker preacher, Mary Starbuck, who ran a trading post. Eventually the area became known as Petticoat Row.


Many of the early settlers made their livelihood fishing near the shores. Cod was plentiful, and eventually many men were drawn to the best fishing spots on the remote eastern end of the island. By the 1670’s Siasconset was one of four fishing “stands,” or stations, where fisherman lived during the spring and fall cod-fishing seasons. The fishermen built small cottages to accommodate the five men fishing crews. But these were not the charming cottages you see today. Rather, these were little more than one-room wooden shacks with shingled roofs and dirt floors. Cooking was done in the open air or on open porches.

Eventually a settlement at Sacacha was abandoned and many of its shanties were moved to Siasconset or ‘Sconset as it is most commonly known. 'Sconset began to take on the appearance of a small village. Many of the seasonal fisherman decided to make ‘Sconset their permanent home and began expanding their tiny dwellings to provide year-round shelter for their families. Rather than tear down the shacks and start from scratch, additions were made using odds and ends including old doors and windows, and sometimes even parts of wrecked ships. Many of the fishing shanties turned cozy cottages still stand today. Most visitors would never guess that these charming rose-covered cottages started out as fishing shacks. By the early 1800s, 'Sconset had become a popular summer resort for islanders who lived in town.

Revolutionary War

Though Quaker influences kept many Nantucketers from taking part in the American Revolution, the devastating affects of the war on the people and the island’s economy resulted in great suffering. The location of the island exposed the residents to the ravages of any enemy without the means of making any defense. Surrounded by the sea, they were vulnerable to attack from any direction.

With enemy blockades and British control of the seas, Nantucket was, for the first time, truly isolated from the mainland. The inhabitants lived in almost constant fear. Although the town was not sacked or burnt, the townspeople were frequently threatened, and there were many instances of plundering. They also suffered a near stoppage of the whaling industry on which the entire island depended, and did not have the means to produce sufficient food for the near-starving inhabitants. Some of the islanders did join the service and a large number of young men were lost at sea or by suffering on board prison-ships. One early history says that 1600 Nantucketers lost their lives during the American Revolution. For a people who wanted little or no part of the war, they paid a very dear price.

Nantucket enthusiastically welcomed the peace that followed the end of the Revolution. Many people were desperately poor and the town looked more like a deserted village than a flourishing seaport. Those who still had the means esumed the whaling business with a small number of vessels. Whales were numerous and the oil sold immediately for a good price, which encouraged even more to enter the business.

Nantucket Town

In 1795 the name of the island was changed to Nantucket, which is believed to be Wampanoag for “faraway island.” “Nantucket” was now the name of the town, the county and the island.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 brought renewed suffering and hopelessness to the islanders. Many of those who had the means to do so moved off island, leaving a number of empty homes behind. Once again the inhabitants were driven from their work. Almost all owed their livelihood, in one way or another, to the profits of the whaling industry. Some turned to fishing and others to farming but it too little too late. Too make matters worse, British blockaders prevented provisions and fuel from arriving and many of the inhabitants were destitute.

Finally, a treaty was reached in February 1815, and the islanders were overjoyed. Immediate attention was given to a return to the business of whaling. It wasn’t long before the economy flourised and profits soared. Once again Nantucket thrived as a whaling port.

Nantucket's Growing Diversity

As whaling voyages took the men farther from home, they looked for extra hands, and ended up picking up large numbers of men on Cape Verde, one of the archipelago islands situated about 400 miles off Western Africa. Plagued by drought and famine common on Cape Verde, many men were unable to support their families, and a large number of Cape Verdeans signed on to Nantucket whale ships and played a significant role in Nantucket’s whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Between 1825 and 1875 an average of 100 whale ships sailed into Cape Verde each year for men, supplies and leisure. By the 1840s, approximately 8 percent of the Nantucket whale ship crews were Cape Verdean. Many of the Cape Verdean men made Nantucket their home, although they were not welcome in the white communities.

Nantucket and Abolitionism

With the success of the whaling industry, the island’s population continued to increase and so did the ethnic makeup of the island’s inhabitants. Early Nantucket wills made references to black slaves and the presence of African Americans can be traced back to the early 1700s.

A strong abolitionist movement developed within the Quaker community and, it is said that slavery ended on the island in 1770. Runaway slaves were welcomed and Nantucket was a haven for many escaped slaves in the 1800s. But in spite of the strong spirit of abolitionism, Nantucket remained a strictly segregated community for many years. Black islanders and Cape Verdean residents lived in a small community on the outskirts of town in an area known as New Guinea (now known as Five Corners). They built their own stores, churches and a graveyard. One of the churches, the African Baptist Church, still stands today. Located at the intersection of York and Pleasant streets, it is currently known as the African Meeting House and has served as a church, school and meeting house. It is one of the few surviving public structures central to the history of African Americans on Nantucket during the 18th and 19th centuries. Restored in 1999, the house is currently open to the public on a seasonal schedule.

For more information, The Black History Trail on Nantucket

Whaling Capital of the World

By the late 1820s, Nantucket was the busiest whaling port in the world. The entire island’s economy was tied to the whaling industry, and the wharves and bustling harbor were scenes of never-ending activity. Hundreds of people worked in ropewalks, candle factories, chandleries, boat building shops, sail lofts and warehouses. Others were employed in the food stores, grog shops, boarding houses, newspapers, banks and counting houses that supported the whaling business.

Decline of the Whaling Industry

But times were changing and after 40 years of growth and prosperity, the whaling business was about to fall into a downward spiral. Oil production was up, but kerosene began to replace whale oil in the late 1830s and prices and profits responded accordingly. And the hardships of the hunt increased when Sperm whales became harder to find and the long voyages became even longer. The golden era was soon to end – this time for good.

The Great Fire

In July 1846 a devastating stovepipe fire broke out on Main Street. Fed by casks of whale oil in its path, the fire raged towards the harbor, destroying stores, factories and warehouses along with some 300 houses, leaving hundreds homeless and impoverished. The loss was estimated at nearly one million dollars. Nantucketers were quick to rebuild, but the whaling industry was already in decline. Their markets begin to dry up as more and more people started using gaslight which was far less expensive than whale oil. By 1855, the Nantucket whaling industry had been reduced by half.

Setting Sail in Pursuit of Gold

The California Gold Rush struck another devastating blow to the island’s economy. The quest for gold was too tempting for islanders who could see the handwriting on the wall. In 1849, 14 ships commanded by Nantucket sailors headed for the Golden Gate.

Some islanders were still pursuing whales, but the profits steadily declined. There were few ships and fewer men. The last whaling ship, the bark Oak, sailed out of Nantucket Harbor in search of sperm whales in 1869, never to return.

Civil War

War broke out again in April of 1861. This time the islanders reacted with enthusiasm. The Quaker faith had lost nearly all of its influence and many young men were eager to join the fight. A home guard was organized the following month. George N. Macy received his appointment as 1st Lieutenant of Col. I, 20th regiment (known as the Harvard regiment) and recruited men from friends and family on Nantucket. On a weekend visit to his birthplace, Macy left the island with 21 men in his regiment. A couple of months later, another 27 enlisted men left for camp. At least 60 men served with Macy’s company. Nantucket filled its quota on every call of the President. Between four and five hundred men served in the army or navy during the Civil War. In 1864, the 73 soldiers and sailors who lost their lives were honored with a moment on Monument Square.

In the meantime, the economy had grown steadily worse. Times were hard and there were few jobs. Large numbers left the island hoping to find work on the mainland. In the years between 1830 and 1870, the island’s population plunged from 10,000 to 4,000. By 1875, only about 3200 residents remained. From today’s perspective, the only silver lining is that their economic woes prevented the islanders from updating their homes to the changing styles so popular on the mainland, and explains why Nantucket looks much the same today as it did 150 years ago.

Nantucket's Golden Era of Tourism

Fortunately, the hard times would prove to be short-lived. The growth and popularity of the railroads revolutionized travel and provided cheaper, faster transportation for people and goods. No longer having to depend on wagons or horses and buggies, mainland Americans began searching for summer vacations spots in places they would never had considered before the advent of the trains. With its mild climate and amazing ocean views, Nantucket citizens determined to attract the wealthy vacationers to their island. Cottages, summer houses and elegant hotels were built and ads were placed in the Boston and New York newspapers. Vacationers responded, but getting to the island was still a bit of a challenge.

Committed to drawing even more visitors, ferry service was expanded between the Cape and Nantucket and an airport was constructed in 1920. Actors and artists were some of the first to respond. Siasconset’s remoteness, her quaint cottages, her breathtaking views and comfortable weather attracted a number of artists’ and actors, and the cozy little village on the bluff hosted many of the top stars of the American theater. But it wasn’t long before historic Nantucket was drawing travelers from all over the world. Tourism became the principal mainstay of the economy, just as the whaling industry had done so many years before.

Suggested Reading:

The History of Nantucket, by Obed Macy
Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and its People 1602-1890, by Nathaniel Philbrick
Nantucket Genealogies, by Edward Starbuck
Nantucket: A history, by R.A. Douglas-Lithgow
Nantucket Lands and Landowners, by Henry Barnard Worth

Most of these are out-of-print, but some have been reprinted and may be available through For some of the hard-to-find books, you can read and search electronic copies on Google Books (and even download them in some cases). 

Nantucket History Books

Best-selling Nantucket history!

For all of you whaling history fans, we highly recommend In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

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Love Nantucket history? You might find these pages of interest:

Nantucket Historic Homes
Nantucket Architectural Treasures
Nantucket Historic Sites
Nantucket Historic Churches
Nantucket Lighthouses

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Oldest House Sign, NantucketOldest House Sign

Jethro Coffin House c. 1686
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Monument Square

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Want more Nantucket History?

Visit the NHA Library & Archives website. The Nantucket Historical Research Library is a repositiory of primary resources focusing on Nantucket history. Their voluminous collections include ships logs, manuscripts, family papers, scrapbooks, and more than 50,000 photographs. You can seach the collections online, get help with genealogical research, and find informative articles on every historical subject you can imagine. For serious history buffs, you will want to be sure and visit the library when you're in Nantucket. The library is open to the public.

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