A Brief History of Nantucket, Massachusetts

January 21, 2011

One of Bart A. Grenier’s favorite spots, Nantucket, Massachusetts, boasts a rich and varied history. Situated south of Cape Cod, Nantucket Island earned inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places on December 13, 1966. Nicknamed “The Grey Lady” due to the persistent fog that often clings to the island, Nantucket takes its official name from an Eastern Algonquian word of unclear meaning, though the word may possibly mean “in the midst of waters” or “faraway island.” The Wampanoag Native Americans referred to the island as “Canopache,” which means “place of peace.”

The documented Western history of Nantucket Island goes back to a potential sighting of the land mass by Norsemen in the 11th century. While tradition holds with this first European encounter, historians never definitively proved the sighting. In 1602, Nantucket Island laid eyes on another European vessel in the form of the Concord, a ship captained by Bartholomew Gosnold of Suffolk, England. Though English vessels held knowledge of the island after this sighting, the original inhabitants of Nantucket Island, the Wampanoag Indians, continued to live on the island in relative peace and solitude until 1641, when the English government deeded Nantucket to Thomas Mayhew and his son, who served as merchants in nearby Watertown and Martha’s Vineyard. Gradually, Nantucket Island grew to become the whaling capital of the world and enjoyed a booming economy from the industry until the decline of whaling circa 1850.

[Public Domain] Photograph of Nantucket street, circa 1870s, taken by C. H. Shute.

Today, Nantucket Island serves as a popular tourist destination, with its numbers regularly swelling from 10,000 to 50,000 during the summer months. Drawn to the island’s natural beauty, people from around the world travel to Nantucket to sail, fish, relax on the beach, and walk the high bluffs overlooking the Atlantic.

[By Bobak at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], from Wikimedia Commons] Nantucket harbor scene, August 2004. Photograph taken by Bobak Ha’Eri.

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