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Discover the historical past of Nantucket, MA.
The name Nantucket derives from an Indian word that means "far away land" or "land far out to sea". The name applies to the island, the county that encompasses the island, and the island's main town—the only place in America that can claim such a distinction. The frequent fogs and common gray exterior of most homes has earned the Island the affectionate nickname of "little Gray Lady of the Sea".
First charted in 1602, and originally inhabited by the Wampanoag Indian tribe, the official history of the Island's European settlement begins in 1659, when a group of nine men invested "the sum of thirty pounds...and also two beaver hats, one for myself and one for my wife", to the present "owner", Thomas Mayhew, for the purchase of the island with the initial intent to raise sheep. The investors then offered half shares of property to entice skilled craftsmen to develop the island.
In 1672, the Islanders found whaling an ideal way to increase revenue. Experienced whalers were recruited to teach residents how to tap the abundant whale population in nearby waters. However, the whale population in nearby waters diminished over time, and whalers had to venture further out to sea to find more of the profitable mammal. On one of these voyages, in 1712, a boat blown off course discovered a pod of sperm whales, whose oil and by-products were considered preferable to those of local whales. The Island subsequently became the center for exploitation of sperm whales.
Nantucket flourished as the Whaling Capital of the World, and as the home base for entrepreneurs and investors interested in the products and by-products of the whaling industry. Nantucket's prosperity lasted until the mid-19th Century, when it was brought to a halt by a series of events. A sandbar formed, denying larger and heavier whalers access to the harbor. The town was hit by the great fire of 1846. The 1849 gold rush drew whalers to California, depleting the work force, and mainland whaling centers, like New Bedford, Massachusetts, gained the advantage of rail links to the rest of the country. The final blow came as cheaper petroleum products destroyed the market for whale oil The Island went into an economic decline that lasted until tourism came to the rescue.
In 1894, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) was founded to preserve the Island's history. The numerous museums, homes and historic properties scattered throughout the town depict how the original inhabitants lived and worked as Nantucket grew from a small 17th-century farming community into a whaling Mecca, and further evolved into an immensely popular summer resort in the 20th Century. Many of the homes of whalers and sea captains still stand today as private homes (available for occasional tours as part of fundraisers) guesthouses, antique shops and restaurants. Most of these homes retain the colorful names given them when they were built.
Numerous steps are taken to preserve the architecture of the Island; even the sizes of signs and exterior color changes of homes need to be approved by the NHA. Residents are very protective of the unique architecture and remoteness of the Island—there are no high-rise buildings or hotel chains; notice when arriving via ferry that church steeples are what you see as the skyline.
Some 800 homes built before the Civil War still stand, including the Oldest House, built in 1686, which belonged to Jethro Coffin, grandson of one of the original purchasers. This house now belongs to the NHA and, although the island has more buildings listed in the National Register Of Historic Places than any other place in Massachusetts, including Boston, Plymouth and Salem, it is Nantucket's only National Historical Landmark.
The Island still has three operating lighthouses that offer a direct physical link to the whaling era: Great Point Lighthouse, at the northern tip; Sankaty Head Lighthouse, along the eastern shoreline; and Brant Point Light, the second oldest lighthouse in the United States. A rare collection of whaling artifacts is on display at the Whaling Museum in the center of town. The cobblestones you see on Lower Main Street are the ballast that weighed down empty ships returning from delivering whale oil to England. The cobblestones enabled carts transporting heavy oil to move up from the wharves without sinking in the mud, but they are not easy on the feet. So, when visiting, be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.
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