Nantucket County Massachusetts, 1890

Nantucket County embraces the islands of Nantucket, Tuckanuck, Muskegat, and the Gravelly Islands, lying in the Atlantic Ocean, thirty miles south of the outer shore of Cape Cod, and about fifteen miles (from landing to landing) in a southeasterly direction from Martha's Vineyard Island.

Nantucket, the principal island, is about 15 miles in length from east to west, with an average breadth of 4½ miles; being wide at the eastern end, and narrowing to a point at the western extremity, where lie the other islands mentioned. It has a level surface in the southern part, with some hilliness northward; the land nowhere rising more than 100 feet above the sea. The harbor in the northeastern part is extensive. There are several villages; and a railroad extends across the midst of the island from north to south, thence to the eastern extremity. Outside connections are by steamboats to Martha's Vineyard, thence to Woods Holl, New Bedford and Boston. The land surface of this island is about 60 square miles, or 38,000 acres in extent. Of this, little more than 1,500 acres are cultivated; and there are some 160 acres of woodland. Instead of forests, there are extensive peat bogs, which supply abundance of fuel.

The population in 1875 was 3,201; in 1880 it was 3,727; and in 1885 it had fallen off again to 3,142, when there were 812 legal voters. The families numbered 1,026; the dwelling-houses, 1,201, about 20 to a square mile. There were 129 persons engaged in agriculture; and the value of the products in the last census year was $83,501. The number of persons engaged in manufactures was 72; and the value of the product, $126,619. There were also 225 persons employed in the fisheries (shore), of whom 35 were foreigners; the value of the product being $35,389. The valuation in 1888 was $2,960,538. There are six public school-houses, valued at some $13,000; and a private incorporated school with buildings and other property worth about $11,000; There are seven public libraries including four Sunday-School libraries) containing 13,414 books. There are two weekly newspapers.

Nantucket is also the name of the only town this county contains, and is also the name of the village in which the courts are held and the county jail located. Nantucket County is in the First Congressional District; in the Cape section of the First Council District; and in conjunction with Barnstable and Dukes counties, has one State senator; and by itself, one representative in the General Court. The record of probate proceedings dates from 1706. The first register of probate was Peter Folger. He was succeeded in 1707 by Eleazer Folger, who remained in office until 1754; to be succeeded by another Folger (Frederic), who served 36 years. The first judge of probate was James Coffin; the last (from 1873), Thaddeus C. Defriez. The judge longest in office was Jeremiah Gardner, who served from 1744 to 1767; his immediate successor, Grafton Gardner, serving from the latter date to 1789. The county was, in its earlier occupation by the English, a part of Dukes County, and belonged to the State of New York. It was annexed to Massachusetts in 1692; and on June 20th, 1695, it was taken from Dukes and incorporated as a distinct county.

The origin of its name is obscure, but appears to be of Indian derivation, whose name for the island is said to have been Nautican. The native population, at the period of settlement by the English, had been depleted by a war between the eastern and the western tribes about the year 1630; but four sachems with a few followers still held possession of the territory now included in the county; their respective domains being distinctly defined.


This island was described by Gosnold, who discovered it in 1602. It was deeded by Lord Sterling to the Mayhews in 1641; who, in 1659, sold it for thirty English pounds and two beaver hats to the ten original purchasers and settlers, the Mayhews retaining one tenth of the island, together with Maisquatuck or Quaise, a peninsula of red land midway of the harbor on the south side. Later, piece by piece, the same land was bought of the Indians, by the settlers; Thomas Macy and his family, with Edward Starbuck, appear to have been the original settlers, in 1659; bringing in a colony of ten families a year later. All of these appear to have been Friends or Quakers in sentiment, if not of the communion, who sought and found here a refuge from persecution. In 1663 there were about 1600 Indians on the island. In 1761, the white population was 3,220; and the Indian, 358.

The island early became largely devoted to sheep-raising; but from the year 1673 whaling increased to be a vast business; and this, too, came to an end about 1870.

It is stated that during the Revolutionary war and on account of it 1,600 Nantucketers lost their lives : while the island's fleet of whalers was reduced from 150 to a lonely pair. At the last of the contest, and to save themselves from utter destruction in their solitary and undefended position, they were forced to proclaim themselves neutral. In the war of 1812 they were again obliged to take the same step; yet as it was they lost twenty out of the forty whalers they then had afloat.

For further details, consult the article on the town. [below]

Nason's Massachusetts Gazetteer, pp. 79-82


Nantucket Massachusetts, 1890

Nantucket, the town, embraces the entire island of the same name, and the smaller islands of Tuckernuck, Muskegat, with the three Gravelly Islands; and the town constitutes the entire county of Nantucket. Nantucket is also the name of the principal village; containing the court-house and jail. It is situated midway of the north side of the island, on a harbor of its own name. This place is 110 miles southeast of Boston, with which it has communication by the Old Colony Railroad and steamers.

At the northern extremity of the Nauma peninsula is Great Point Light; southeast of this, on the eastern extremity of the island, is Sankaty Head Light; and on the north shore of the western section is Bug Light, with Nantucket Light eastward on Brant Point, marking the entrance to Nantucket harbor. From the wharves of the village the harbor extends northeastward above 6 miles, forming two basins, each about one and a half miles in extreme width; and on the south side of the first is Polpis Harbor.

In the water approach, after passing Brant Point, the old town of Nantucket comes fully into view, extending along the harbor for more than a mile, and rising from the water's edge in irregular terraces to the height of the land. Along near the summit are seen the towers and spires of churches, with hotels, a school-house or two, and other large buildings, and the standpipe of the water-works at the northwest. On the principal streets and square near the steam-boat wharf are the custom-house, with the U. S. Signal Service apparatus on its top, the excellent building of the Pacific Bank, and the post-office. About the square there are many fine old mansions, such being also found at various other points in the village. In the midst of it stands the substantial brick building of the Coffin School, an academy founded in 1826 by Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin of the British navy, a native of Boston, but of Nantucket family. Not far from this is the Nantucket Atheneum, a fine structure containing a good hall, a valuable collection of curiosities, and a library of about 8,000 volumes, all accessible to the public for a small fee. The academy also has a library of some 1,200 volumes. In the older parts of the village many buildings are unpainted, many have lookouts on their roofs, and some have vanes, simulating usually the form of a fish. The oldest house shown here was built in 1686. For the best edifices the Grecian temple style of architecture is the favorite. Many fine trees along the streets add their attractions to those of lawns, shrubbery, flowers, and the frequent grape-vines. Through streets and lanes often resounds the bell, the horn and the voice of the town-crier; and in the high tower of the Unitarian church a watchman stands ready, day and night, to sound the bell at sight of a blaze. The place has suffered three fires of great destructiveness, in 1836, 1838 and 1846. The last destroyed about $1,000,000 worth of property, making room for much change in the appearance of the village. The old windmill, on a hill near the village, still remains a conspicuous object, having been in continuous use since 1746. The court-house and the wooden jail are not impressive in appearance. In the outskirts, on the road to "Sconset," is a large asylum, with an extensive farm.

In 1841 the population of this town was 9,012; and it had about 100 ships engaged in the whale fishery. But other whaling ports were growing; and a great fall in prices of whale products, beginning in 1842, the great fire of 1846, the rush of young men to California in 1849 and years following, all wrought to dwindle this business; and the year 1870 saw the sailing of the last whaler. The pursuit of bass, bluefish and cod still engages a small number of the inhabitants. Large quantities of lobsters, clams, quahaugs and scallops are also sent to market from these islands. A considerable number of the common manufactures have slowly come in, instead of the old ropewalks and candle factories, affording larger opportunities for home industry. The national bank in this place has a capital stock of $100,000; and the savings institution, at the close of last year, held deposits to the amount of $359,621.

The post-offices are Nantucket and Siasconset, at the southeast extremity of the town. The place is a small village of one-storied houses, shingled from top to bottom. Other villages, or prominent localities, are Coatue, Madaket, Polpis Village, Quaise, Quidnet, Wauwinet, "Tuckernuck" and Surfside. The last is on an elevated and fertile plain on the south shore; and is connected with " Sconset" and Nantucket by a narrow-gauge railway. Scattered over the island, solitary or in clumps and groves, are pine-trees, some of large size, whose green shoots escaped the nibbling of the formerly superabundant sheep. The religious societies having church edifices in the town are the Baptist and colored Baptist, Congregationalist, Unitarian, Methodist, Protestant Episcopal, Roman Catholic, and Friends who have two. Nantucket furnished about 300 men for our army and navy during the late war, and from 60 to 70 of them were lost. In Monument Square, in Nantucket village, stands a handsome monument to their memory.

The climate of this place is delightful, being very equable, salubrious, and from ten to twenty degrees milder in winter and cooler in summer than in Central Massachusetts. The inhabitants are noted for longevity, many attaining to the age of 80 and 90 years. There were formerly many Indians on this island; but the last full-blooded Nautican died in 1822, and in 1854 the last individual in whose veins ran a strain of Indian blood.

This town was incorporated June 27, 1687, as "Sherburn;" but the name was changed to the present one, June 8, 1795.*

Among the eminent persons not previously mentioned were Peleg Folger (1733-1789), a noted poet; Gen. Joseph Gardner Swift, LL.D. (1783-1865), an able officer; Timothy Gardner Coffin (1788-1854), an eminent lawyer; Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793), a talented preacher of the Society of Friends; Charles F. Winslow (1811), an able author, and appointed U.S. consul at Payta, Peru, in 1862; Miss Maria Mitchell (1818-1 889), distinguished for her knowledge of astronomy; the Rev. Phebe A. Hanaford (1829), a popular preacher and author. Others are Walter Folger, Barker Burnell, M.C., Hon. Charles J. Folger, Hon. Alfred Macy and Rev. Ferdinand C. Ewer, D.D.

For a further account of this town, see article on Nantucket County. [top of this page]

pp. 480-482 in Nason and Varney's Massachusetts Gazetteer, 1890


*[Perhaps there was public confusion with the town of Sherburne, now Sherborn, in Middlesex County!]