Logo   History of Nantucket Island, Mass.
In 1659 the first colonists came ashore to settle Nantucket, already inhabited by four Native American tribes.

Sankaty Lighthouse, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts
Sankaty Light...



Explorer Bartholomew Gosnold marked Nantucket on his chart in 1602, but it was 1659 before a town was legally established here.

Early Days

In 1686 the Jethro Coffin House, the first fine farmhouse to be built, went up on Sunset Hill. The old farmhouse is now known as Nantucket's Oldest House, and has been preserved and opened to visitors by the Nantucket Historical Association.

Whaling Begins

A few years later in 1690, Nantucket colonists began to hunt the right whales they saw swimming along the island's shores just as the native inhabitants had before them.

By the turn of the century (1700), they were going to sea in ships to hunt the leviathans and bring them home.

In 1746 the first lighthouse was set up on Brant Point to mark the harbor entrance for whalers returning to the "Grey Lady," as Nantucket was known because of its frequent blankets of fog.

Revolutionary War

By the time of the American Revolution, Nantucket was already wealthy from the whale-oil trade and contributed greatly to the Revolutionary cause, losing over 100 whaling ships and 2,000 Nantucketers in the war.

The Revolutionary War was a setback to the island's prosperity, and before the island could recover fully, the War of 1812 again interfered with its prosperity.

Whaling's Golden Age

But soon Nantucket whale oil again fired the lamps of all New England, whalebone provided the stays for the corsets then in style, and ambergris was the base for perfume, a luxury item.

The last four decades of the 1700s and the first four decades of the 1800s were, in all, the golden age of whaling, when Nantucket was rightly considered the whaling capital of the world, with more than 150 ships dedicated to the hunt.

End of an Era

By mid-century, natural gas and "coal oil" (kerosene) were growing in popularity as lighting fuels, destroying the demand for whale oil.

A great fire in Nantucket Town in 1846, and the lure of the California gold rush in 1849, nearly destroyed the island's economy. Its population dropped from around 10,000 to less than 4000.

The last whaling ship set out from Nantucket in 1869, and never returned to the island.

Tourism Begins

By the 1880s, the age of the sail-rigged whaling ship was coming to an end, but the same invention that put an end to that era—the steamship—brought the beginning of a new era for Nantucket as a vacation destination.

In 1881, Nantucket even had a steam railroad!

Tourists began to arrive in the last two decades of the 1800s, automobiles arrived in 1918, and Nantucket's tourism industry was well established by the mid-1900s.

With the arrival of the first jet airplane at Nantucket Memorial Airport in 1962, tourism intensified. The late 1900s saw scheduled jet flights from New York City. The island develop from a destination for eastern Massachusetts residents to a regional, then to an international destination.

With its increased popularity, Nantucket has become an upscale destination with refined hotels and restaurants, shops and boutiques. Prices for most items and services are relatively high, but so is quality.

The best of Nantucket—its natural beauty, wildlife, beaches, bike paths and scenery—are priced best of all: they're free as air.

—by Tom Brosnahan

Day-Trip to Nantucket

Getting to Nantucket

Finding Your Way on Nantucket

Nantucket Hotels

Island Transportation

What to See & Do in Nantucket

About Nantucket

Martha's Vineyard

Cape Cod



Jethro Coffin House (1686), Nantucket Island, Massaschusetts

Above, the Jethro Coffin House,
Nantucket's Oldest House (1686).


Nantucket Island, Massachusetts

Nantucket from the water...


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