Nantucket History PageThe earliest inhabitants of Nantucket were Native Americans. In 1659, a group of nine Massachusetts Englishmen purchased the island for 30 pounds and two beaver hats. Their purpose was to raise sheep as well as to find refuge from the religiously intolerant Puritans. Among the early settlers were Thomas Macy and Tristram Coffin whose names reappear throughout the history of the island.
In 1672, looking for an additional source of revenue, the islanders recruited whaling men to settle on the island and teach islanders how to capture whales and obtain the oil. Whales were abundant at the time and could be captured close to shore. Eventually, though, aggressive hunting of the whales dimished their coastal population and whalers had to venture futher out to sea to find them.
In 1712, a captain blown off course took the first sperm whale. Since it was larger and its oil far more valuable, the hunting of sperm whales was very profitable. Thus began the era of Nantucket whaling and economic boom for the island.
Although the great fleet of whaling vessels was almost destroyed during the Revolutionary War and again during the War of 1812, Nantucket rebounded from adversity. From 1800-1840 Nantucket was the "Whaling Capital of the World" and was the third largest city in Massachusetts. During this period the Atheneum Library and Museum opened along with two public schools and the private Coffin School. Maria Mitchell, first female astronomer in America, was named as the first librarian and many famous speakers, including Thoreau, Emerson, Audobon and Frederick Douglas lectured in the Athenium's Great Hall.
As profitable as it was, whaling was a dangerous and often lonely pursuit. Prior to the building of the Nantucket South Shoal lightship in 1853, the treacherous shoals southeast of the island claimed many returning ships. When not confronting these and other dangers, the idle hours between whale sightings were spent in the practice of nautical crafts such as scrimshaw.
By the time of the Civil War, the whaling industry was in serious decline. Not only had the whales been overhunted, but petroleum and other fuels replaced whale oil. After 1850, as the economy declined, the population decreased rapidly and Nantucket was once again isolated.
But in true Nantucket fashion, the islanders turned this adversity to their advantage. This very isolation preserved the charm and beauty of Nantucket and tourists eventually discovered "The Far Away Island." Nantucket has more buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places than any other place in Massachusetts and more than 800 houses still standing that were built before the Civil War.
The cobblestones that pave many Nantucket streets were originally used as ballast on the empty returning ships that delivered whale oil to England and the Pacific. The pineapple, a symbol of welcome and hospitality, also dates back to whaling days when sea captains brought this tropical fruit home to Nantucket and displayed it to announce that they had returned and guests were welcome.
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