Just off Cape Cod, Massachusetts is a small island, Nantucket. The picturesque town has only 45 square miles of land and a population of less than 20,000 people, but it’s known around the world as a highly sought after summer vacation destination. Nantucket is also noted as being an upper class area with expensive homes, high end boutiques, and a ton of historic buildings and sites. The entire island itself was added to the National Historic Register of Historic Places in 1975.
If you look around the area, Nantucket’s heritage of being a seaport is apparent. In 1641 it was deeded to a group of Englishmen. When the English started actually moving into the area in 1659, Nantucket joined the whaling industry not long after.
Fast forward a few centuries, and Nantucket’s population plummeted once the whaling industry declined in the mid 19th century. People left the island, and Nantucket remained virtually untouched and isolated until the 1950s. Developers bought up segments of the town at that time, restored the homes, and marketed Nantucket as a destination for the wealthy — this is the reputation Nantucket has to this day.
For such a small town, Nantucket has a very long and interesting history. Here are 20 things you probably didn’t know about Nantucket.
1. At the time that Nantucket was bought by Englishmen in 1641, it was inhabited by native Wampanoag people. It was also a site where other Native American groups sought refuge as nearby Cape Cod began to be settled by Europeans. The last known indigenous woman to live in Nantucket was Dorcas Honorable, who died in 1855.
The last indigenous man to live on the island was Abram Quary, who died in 1854. Both Dorcas and Abram were born around the time of the American Revolution, about ten years after a disease killed 222 of the area’s 358 Wampanoag people. The illness was caused by an influx of European settlers. When the Wampanoag people’s population went on the decline, their native language was also lost. Jessie Little Doe Baird, a linguist and former MacArthur Fellow, began a project to reclaim the Wampanoag’s native language.
2. Nantucket didn’t always belong to Massachusetts and was once officially part of Dukes County, New York. Geographically, the island belonging to New York didn’t make as much sense as it being apart of Massachusetts. After the English Parliament — which still owned the American colonies at the time — made a decree, Nantucket was joined to Massachusetts in 1691, as was Dukes County itself.
3. Nantucket is located close to the Gulf Stream, a warm and powerful Atlantic ocean current that affects the weather of the land around it. As a result of this, Nantucket’s weather differs from that of the mainland. In winter, the island is 10 degrees F warmer than the mainland, and in summer it is 10 degrees F cooler — this is part of what makes Nantucket such a popular summer vacation spot.
4. The island is so popular in the summer months that in July and August Nantucket’s Memorial Airport is the second busiest airport in all of New England. On average, the traffic that goes through it in summer is second only to Boston’s Logan Airport. On the days when the island sees its most airport traffic, it’s busier than Logan Airport.
5. Back in the 11th century Norse explorers spotted Nantucket, but they chose not to settle it. Instead, the Vikings went on to settle the Faroe Islands, Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Normandy, Anatolia, Russia, Ukraine, England, Scotland, and Germany.
6. Famous coffee brand Folgers was started by the Folger family, which was one of the first families to settle Nantucket in its earliest days. A few members of the Folger clan eventually moved on to San Francisco during the California Gold Rush and launched the iconic coffee company in 1850. Today, Folgers is still one of the top American coffee brands in the world and sells over one billion dollars worth of product each year.
7. Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have long been considered to have their own unique vibe separate from that of mainland Massachusetts. Talk about seceding from the state started brewing in the 1960s, and once Massachusetts approved a redistricting plan that would reduce the representation of citizens on both islands, the people of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard decided secession may be best.
The islands held a vote in 1977 on whether the two would leave the union and possibly become an independent nation, protectorate of the U.S., or the 51st state. Ultimately, both areas remained with Massachusetts. However, the situation did spark the trend of Nantucket islanders saying they’re “going to America” whenever they leave for the mainland.
8. At one point, Nantucket was America’s wealthiest town, thanks to an influx of oil and manufacturing tycoons. The town also used to have the largest number of millionaires living on one street in the entire country. Nantucket is still known for having rich residents, and as being a summer home for the well monied.
In 2012, the estate of one of Nantucket’s wealthiest residents listed his home for sale at $59 million, which was then the most expensive house for sale in the entire New England area. Called the Swain’s Neck compound, the property was bought by the late Russell Dale Phelon, who purchased it for $7.15 million in 1997. It occupies 69 acres and contains a main house, office building, guardhouse, and guest cottage.
9. Rowland Hussey Macy, founder of the Macy’s stores, was originally from Nantucket. He first worked as a sailor on a whaling ship, and during one dangerous outing at sea his captain told him to steer the boat towards the red star in the sky, which he could always do to guide him home. That particular trip out to sea frightened Macy, but he got a tattoo of a red star on his wrist to commemorate the experience — we all know this red star today as being part of the Macy’s Logo.
Macy left sailing behind and went into business opening dry goods stores under the name R. H. Macy & Co. His first four attempts at opening a retail business — including the very first Macy’s in Haverhill, Massachusetts — failed. He then found success when he opened a Macy’s location on New York City’s Sixth Avenue in 1858.
10. The 90s television series Wings was based on the town. On the show, two brothers named Joe and Brian Hackett run a small plane commuter service in Nantucket. Wings ran from 1990 until 1997 and starred Steven Weber, Tim Daly, and Chrystal Bernard. In Wings the brothers operate their business from a fictional airport called Tom Nevers Field, however there is an actual Tom Nevers Naval Facility that used to operate on Nantucket.
11. Benjamin Franklin would have been born in Nantucket, had his mother not left the island for Boston ten days prior to his birth. However, his mother, Abiah Folger Franklin, was born on Nantucket in 1667. She became the second wife of Franklin’s father, Josiah, in November 1689. Abiah’s mother, Mary Folger (nee Morrill) was one of the first settlers of Nantucket.
12. There are many things that you’ll find on Nantucket, including fabulous beaches, great seafood restaurants, lighthouses, and homes with beautiful architecture. What you won’t find is a traffic light. It’s not that no one ever thought to install one. For that matter, Nantucket could probably use a few traffic lights due to how congested its roads get in the summer. However, the people of the island don’t want to change its look or character — keeping Nantucket’s aesthetic distinguished from that of mainland America has been their goal for a very long time.
13. Among the historic buildings in Nantucket are 800 homes that were built before the Civil War. The town also hosts the second oldest Masonic Lodge in the United States and Brand Point Lighthouse. The latter is the second oldest lighthouse in the United States and was first built in 1746. To remain standing, the lighthouse has been rebuilt several times in the last 270 years. In 1965 it became automated, and Brand Point Lighthouse still operates to this day.
Nantucket has another special building, The Old Mill. Built in 1746 by Nathan Wilbur, it’s still in the location where it was first erected, near Nantucket Hospital. The Old Mill has the distinction of being the country’s oldest functioning windmill and is well over 250 years old.
14. Of the three ships that played a role in the Boston Tea Party, two were from Nantucket: the Dartmouth and the Beaver. Many believe that the ships involved in the infamous protest — which John Adams referred to as the Destruction of the Tea in Boston — were from Britain, but each was made in America and owned by Americans. The two Nantucket ships were owned by the Rotch family, and the other ship, the Eleanor, was owned by Bostonian John Rowe.
However, the cargo of tea that was aboard the ships was owned by the British East Indian Company. This shipment was destroyed by the protesters who opposed the Tea Act of May 10, 1773, which is what set off the iconic event. The situation escalated into the the American Revolution, and the rest is literally history.
15. Nantucket has no traffic lights, but at one time it also banned cars from being on the island. The very first car on the island arrived in May 1900. The Stanley Steamer was owned by Arthur Folger and his son, Dr. George Folger, and not long after more Nantucket residents began to bring cars to the town. At a time when many people still got around by horse and carriage this was a big safety issue — the cars would scare the horses, who would then end up hurting themselves or their passengers. Nantucket officials issued an order in 1904 setting a speed limit of four miles an hour in town and eight miles an hour outside of town.
The constitutionality of the imposed limits was contested by the Massachusetts Automobile Association, and after some back and forth between the two groups Nantucket lawmakers issued a ban on May 23, 1905 that stated no automobiles or motorcycles were allowed on Nantucket’s highways. Many people got arrested for defying the ban and several cases went to court in an attempt to defeat the law. Finally, in January 1918 Nantucket repealed its car ban. Today, some Nantucket residents want to legally limit the number of cars allowed on the island to help it retain its idyllic scenery and cut down on traffic congestion.
16. Nantucket was a key player in America’s whaling industry, even during its waning years. From 1815 to 1860, more than one million barrels of oil came to Nantucket by way of its whalers. The island has been mentioned in a number of fictional works about the whaling industry, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the 2015 film In the Heart of the Sea, which is based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book of the same name that was published in 2000.
The movie recounts how the Essex, a whale ship, was lost at sea in a tragic incident while it was going after a huge albino sperm whale. The true story of what happened to the crew of the Essex when it sunk in 1820 is what inspired the climactic point of Moby Dick.
17. The former Tom Nevers Naval Facility, which is now home to the Nantucket Hunting Association, was a US Navy storage area that was active from 1955 to 1976. What’s interesting about it is that the location covers up a bomb shelter that was built under it in 1961 For President John F. Kennedy. No one ever used it, but it’s still the only bomb shelter located on Nantucket.
18. Throughout its history, many Nantucket residents have set sail for the South Pacific to explore the islands there. Today, over 20 of the islands in the South Pacific are named after noted Nantucket families and residents. Examples include Swains Island, Starbuck Island, and Coffin Island. The latter is named for the Coffin family, former whalers whose history on Nantucket dates back to the 17th century.
19. The Starbucks chain of coffee fame is named after the first mate of a character in Moby Dick. However, there is an actual Starbuck family from Nantucket. Herman Melville knew about the famous whaling family when he wrote his book, and he used the name for the first mate of Captain Ahab’s ship. The ship itself Melville named the Pequod.
Initially, one of the founders of Starbucks — whose favorite book is Moby Dick — proposed that the coffee company be named Pequod. The other two founders disagreed and searched for a name related to the Seattle area. They thought of naming the business Starbo, after a former mining camp near Mt. Rainier. Once the similarity between Starbo and Starbuck was realized, the trio agreed to name their new venture Starbucks.
Had Melville not inserted actual pieces of Nantucket history and the names of residents into his book, the coffee chain that so many people know and love today would almost certainly be named something else.
20. Nantucket is an island, a town, and a county, but the town didn’t get its name until 1755. Before then it was called Sherburne, which was the hometown of some of the English settlers who arrived on the island in the 17th century. Nantucket, which means faraway land, is what the area’s indigenous people had always called the area and it was the island’s name. For continuity, the name Sherburne was dropped and the town was officially named Nantucket in 1755.