- Historic Sites
The World & Nantucket
The natives never could live quite happily with “off-island” civilization—but neither could they live without it
June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
One summer’s day recently, a pair of vacationers were relaxing on the beach at Siasconset, which is on the eastern end of Xaiitucket Island. The ocean surf was gentle and the sky was clear, and the nearest land to seaward was Portugal, sonic ^,ooo miles away. “I’ll tell you ihc only trouble with this place,” said one of the pair. “And that is, you’re completely cut off from the world.”
“Oh?” replied the other. “And what’s the world got?”
Both remarks sum up the trouble—such as it is—with Nantucket, because Nantucket’s life depends on what the world has got, yet its isolation inspires a sense of individuality that makes the word “insular” quiver with inadequacy. For over a hundred years, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nantucket led the world with its whaling industry, and the names of its captains were known from the Arctic to the Solomons. But in the more than three hundred years since the island was colonized, it has most often been the world that has had the upper hand, and it has not treated Nantucket too well. Nantucketers feel, with some justice, that most of their troubles have come from the outside, and to have to depend on the outside for a living is faintly irritating. They would like to be self-sufficient, but this is no longer possible. Their irritation reaches its peak around mid-August, when the tourists are the thickest and most ill-mannered, and it tapers oil slowly during the winter. By spring they’re glad to see the off-islanders again, because a winter on the island can make almost anything look good.
The world, to Nantucketers, is divided between islanders and off-islanders, and in the strict sense ol the word, islanders are those who were born and continue to live on Nantucket. (A student in a local school once defined Napoleon as “a famous off-islander,” and located Alaska in “the northwest corner of off-island.”) A person born on the island who goes away for loo long is in danger of losing his status, like the young Macy boy, of the whaling family, who didn’l care for the sea so went oft to America and set up a dry-goods store, down in Xew York. Roland H. Macy was his name. They say he made out all right, but that still doesn’t change the fact that he became an off-islander.
The island in question is shaped like a lopsided horseshoe, fourteen miles long and an average of three and a half miles wide, and lies thirty miles to the south of Cape Cod. It once, for some inscruiable reason, belonged lo New York, but in 1692 the colonial proprietors requested that it be transferred to Massachusetts, and this was accomplished by an act of Parliament. Folk history says that Nantucket’s ponds were not specifically included (possibly because nobody in Parliament knew there were any ponds), so they still belong to the State of New York, while the island surrounding them acknowledges allegiance to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Xew York has very wisely not tried to make an issue of it, and one may fish the ponds of Nantucket without a license from either state. The catch is moslly pickerel and perch.
Physically, Nantucket is a combination of sand dunes, moors, and pine forests, with scrub oak and scrub pine growing in windswept clusters on the moors, and occasional cranberry bogs in the flatter areas. It is smaller and less arboreal than Martha’s Vineyard, its neighbor island to the west, but Nantucketers look with scorn on Vineyarders, whose island seems so close to the mainland that they might as well be living in South Boslon. The Vineyarders have a reciprocal opinion of Nantucketers, whom they consider castaways on a sand spit, and nobody worries a great deal about either group’s opinion of the other.
But it was Nantucket’s isolation, its separation from the mainland by thirty miles of water, that was at once its strength and its nearly fatal weakness in the early years. Occasionally a whale came close enough to the island to be caught and killed, thus giving impetus to an industry that eventually saw 150 ships from Nantucket working around the world; on the other hand, the island was extremely vulnerable to wartime blockade, lloth the Revolution and the War of iHiy almost knocked Nantucket out of the picture, and the Nantucketers passionate attempts to remain neutral were, in the circumstances, understandable, although (hey did nothing to create good will with the belligerents.
The early settlers were predominantly Quakers, many of them seeking escape from religious persecution in the May Colony. The island had been deeded to one Thomas Mayhew in 1641, and in 1659 he sold it to ten others for the sum of thirty pounds sterling and two beaver hats. There were about 700 Indians in residence at the time, chiefly of the Natick tribe, and their number was said to have dropped by one half since the island had first been sighted by a white man, in 1602. They were generally amiable, although tending to be somewhat on the sickly side, and their numbers continued to dwindle until 1855, when the last one died. Everything considered, they caused very little trouble, and most of them sold (heir various bits of land with compliance bordering on apathy; but every now and then one would get drunk, and murder somebody, and have to be hanged.