Indian legend has it that the giant Maushop created Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard from the sand in his moccasins. The scientific version, though less romantic, is consistent with what we know about the formation of Cape Cod. Prehistoric glaciers deposited sand, rock, and rubble in the area. As the glaciers melted, the water level rose. About 6,000 years ago, Nantucket Sound was flooded, separating the Cape from the islands. By roughly 2,000 years ago, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard had taken the general form they have today.
In the mid-1500s, the island was home to about 1,500 native inhabitants. European explorers first laid foot on Nantucket sand around that time but did not explore it. Credit for the island's "discovery" generally goes to Bartholomew Gosnold, a sailor who in 1602 noted the island in the log of his ship, the Concord, even though he did not land. In October 1641, William, Earl of Sterling, a representative of Charles I of England, executed the deed of sale of Nantucket granting Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, a merchant who had never visited the island, and his son, Thomas Mayhew, Jr., the right to "plant and inhabit upon Nantucket and two other small islands adjacent," meaning Muskeget and Tuckernuck. William also granted Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands to the Mayhews in a second transaction. The two Mayhews shortly thereafter settled on Martha's Vineyard, limiting their Nantucket activities to Christianizing the Wampanoag.
In the fall of 1659, Thomas Macy, Tristram Coffin, and Edward Starbuck arrived on Martha's Vineyard from England to escape religious bigotry and persecution. Learning that the Mayhews were willing to dispose of most of Nantucket, these men formed a partnership with the Mayhews and settled the island of Nantucket. Like the Mayhews on Martha's Vineyard, they too raised sheep on Nantucket, taking advantage of the island's lack of predators and the fact that livestock here could not just disappear into the wilderness. As the population on the island grew, sheep raising, spinning, and weaving became the main occupations, and the settlers prospered. In 1671 the town of Nantucket was incorporated, and it became a very important town, very much in the mainstream of Colonial America's economy. (Nantucket's physical isolation was not then such a barrier; most mainland communities were isolated too--for lack of roads. Also, rivers and oceans were widely used then as highways for travel and commerce.)
More settlers would arrive over the next quarter century By 1700, the island population consisted of approximately 800 Native Americans and 300 European settlers, who lived together in relative harmony. During this time, Tristram Coffin was considered the patriarch of the island. Benjamin Franklin's grandfather, Peter Foulger, lived on Nantucket, and like his grandson was a versatile person, respected as a preacher, poet, artisan, Native American interpreter, and Clerk of the Works. Three ships involved in the Boston Tea Party were out of Nantucket.
In addition to raising sheep--at one time, there were 10,000 sheep on the island--and farming, Nantucketers also began whaling, first from offshore and then from whaling boats, and this activity in time became the mainstay of the island's economy. By 1774, 150 Nantucket vessels were plying the Atlantic, producing two-thirds of the whale oil in New England. The island's original town, called Sherborn, was renamed in 1795 and moved to the "Great Harbor," a change reflecting the island's transformation from a farming economy to the center of America's whaling industry. Though the Quaker influences kept the island neutral during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the wars with England were devastating to Nantucket. With enemy blockades and control of the seas, Nantucket, was for the first time, truly isolated from the mainland. Eighty percent of the whaling fleet was destroyed and many seamen died aboard prison ships.
After the War of 1812 Nantucket regained its prosperity and once again thrived as a whaling port. New technologies allowed ships to store blubber and remain at sea longer. The economy flourished. Nearly four decades of growth and prosperity produced fine homes and a cosmopolitan atmosphere unique to such a small island. By 1840, the population increased 600 percent to 9,712 year-round residents and Nantucket became an important source of capital for a growing nation. However, the whaling era was soon to end--this time for good.
Although each year more oil was produced than before the Revolution, 1830 was the last year Nantucket would lead the American whaling industry. In 1846 a fire destroyed Nantucket Village center and, despite a quick rebuilding, the decline in whaling activity had begun. In addition, a sandbar across the mouth of the harbor made it increasingly difficult for large whale ships to enter. The railroad connected New Bedford's flourishing whaling industry to a growing American market and the demand for oil in Europe declined as more people began to use less expensive gaslight. Nine years after the fire, Nantucket's whaling activity was cut in half. The last whaling ship, the Oak, left in 1869, and with its departure the whaling industry closed on Nantucket.
By 1875, two-thirds of the population had left Nantucket; only 3,200 remained. With railroads connecting the mainland cities, Nantucket was increasingly isolated. It was decidedly not a practical location for the Industrial Revolution with its factories and jobs. The failing island economy did, however, protect Nantucket's buildings from the dramatic change that were sweeping the country.
As steam and electric power began making life easier, "vacation mania" sent people in search of places to enjoy their new freedom. Nantucket, with an overabundance of houses and a pleasant summer climate, became a favorite place for increasing numbers of visitors.
Once again, economic growth and prosperity returned to Nantucket. At first, a mere trickle of wealthy summer people came to Nantucket to enjoy boating and saltwater bathing. But with the introduction of steamboat service from New Bedford, and the construction of its first airport in 1920, vacation travel to Nantucket boomed. Today, 40,000 to 50,000 people visit Nantucket on a busy weekend.
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