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Nantucket, Massachusetts facts for kids

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Flag of Nantucket
Official seal of Nantucket
Location of Nantucket County in Massachusetts
Location of Nantucket County in Massachusetts
Country United States
State Massachusetts
Settled 1641
Incorporated 1671
 • Type Open town meeting
 • Total 105.3 sq mi (272.6 km2)
 • Land 47.8 sq mi (123.8 km2)
 • Water 57.5 sq mi (148.8 km2)
30 ft (9 m)
 • Total 10,172
 • Density 212.8/sq mi (82.2/km2)
Time zone UTC-5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST) UTC-4 (Eastern)
ZIP codes
02554, 02564, 02584
Area code(s) 508 Exchanges: 228, 271, 325, 825, 332, 400
FIPS code 25-43790
GNIS feature ID 0619376

Nantucket /ˌnænˈtʌkt/ is an island about 30 miles (50 km) by ferry south from Cape Cod, in the American state of Massachusetts. Together with the small islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, it constitutes the Town of Nantucket, and the conterminous Nantucket County, which are consolidated. As of the 2010 census, the population was 10,172. Part of the town is designated the Nantucket CDP, or census-designated place. The region of Surfside on Nantucket is the southernmost settlement in Massachusetts.

The name "Nantucket" is adapted from similar Algonquian names for the island, perhaps meaning "faraway land or island".

Nantucket is a tourist destination and summer colony. Due to tourists and seasonal residents, the population of the island increases to at least 50,000 during the summer months. In 2008, Forbes magazine cited Nantucket as having home values among the highest in the US. Home prices per square foot are considered much higher than those in the Hamptons on Long Island.

The National Park Service cites Nantucket, designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1966, as being the "finest surviving architectural and environmental example of a late 18th- and early 19th-century New England seaport town".


See also: Timeline of Nantucket
Clinton Folgers "Horsemobile"
Clinton Folger, mail carrier for Nantucket, towed his car to the state highway for driving to Siasconset, in observance of an early 20th-century ban on automobiles on town roads.
Hsl-Nantucket01-horses and people in street-closeup
1870s street scene on Nantucket.


Nantucket probably takes its name from a Wampanoag word, transliterated variously as natocke, nantaticu, nantican, nautica or natockete, which is part of Wampanoag lore about the creation of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The meaning of the term is uncertain, although it may have meant "in the midst of waters," or "far away island." Wampanoag is an Eastern Algonquian language of southern New England. The Nehantucket (known to Europeans as the Niantic) were an Algonquin-speaking culture of the area.

Nantucket's nickname, "The Little Grey Lady of the Sea", refers to the island as it appears from the ocean when it is fog-bound.


The earliest French settlement in the region began on the neighboring island of Martha's Vineyard. Nantucket Island's original Native American inhabitants, the Wampanoag people, lived undisturbed until 1641 when the island was deeded by the English (the authorities in control of all land from the coast of Maine to New York) to Thomas Mayhew and his son, merchants from Watertown, Massachusetts, and Martha's Vineyard. Nantucket was part of Dukes County, New York, until 1691, when it was transferred to the newly formed Province of Massachusetts Bay and split off to form Nantucket County. As Europeans began to settle Cape Cod, the island became a place of refuge for Native Americans in the region, as Nantucket was not yet settled by Europeans. The growing population welcomed seasonal groups of other Native Americans who traveled to the island to fish and later harvest whales that washed up on shore.

Nantucket Founders

In October 1641, William, Earl of Sterling, deeded the island to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts Bay. In 1659 Mayhew sold an interest in the island to nine other purchasers, reserving 1/10th of an interest for himself, “for the sum of thirty pounds…and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife.”

Each of the ten original owners was allowed to invite one partner. There is some confusion about the identity of the first twenty owners, partly because William Pile didn’t choose a partner, and sold his interest to Richard Swain, which was eventually divided between John Bishop and the children of George Bunker.

Anxious to add to their number and to induce tradesmen to come to the island, the total number of shares were increased to twenty-seven. The original purchasers needed the assistance of tradesmen who were skilled in the arts of weaving, milling, building and other pursuits and selected men who were given half a share provided that they lived on Nantucket and carried on their trade for at least three years.

By 1667, twenty-seven shares had been divided between 31 owners. The ten original purchasers were:

  • Thomas Mayhew
  • Tristram Coffin Sr.
  • Thomas Macy
  • Richard Swain
  • Thomas Barnard
  • Peter Coffin
  • Stephen Greenleaf
  • John Swain
  • William Pile
  • Christopher Hussey

The ten partners were:

  • John Smith
  • Nathaniel Starbuck
  • Edward Starbuck
  • Thomas Look
  • Robert Barnard
  • James Coffin
  • Tristram Coffin Jr.
  • Thomas Coleman
  • (sold his interest to Richard Swain)
  • Robert Pike

The half share men were:

  • John Bishop
  • Nathaniel Wier
  • Joseph coleman
  • Eleazer Folger
  • Peter Folger
  • John Gardner
  • Joseph Gardner
  • Richard Gardner
  • Nathaniel Holland
  • Thomas Macy
  • Samuel Streeter
  • William Worth

English settlement

Nantucket's settlement by the English did not begin in earnest until 1659, when Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to a group of investors, led by Tristram Coffin, "for the sum of thirty Pounds... and also two beaver hats, one for myself, and one for my wife". The "nine original purchasers" were Tristram Coffin, Peter Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swain, Thomas Barnard, Stephen Greenleaf, John Swain and William Pike. These men are considered the founding fathers of Nantucket, and many islanders are related to these families. Seamen and tradesmen began to populate Nantucket, such as Richard Gardner (arrived 1667) and Capt. John Gardner (arrived 1672), sons of Thomas Gardner.

In his 1835 history of Nantucket Island, Obed Macy wrote that in the early pre-1672 colony, a whale of the kind called "scragg" entered the harbor and was pursued and killed by the settlers. This event started the Nantucket whaling industry. A. B. Van Deinse points out that the "scrag whale", described by P. Dudley in 1725 as one of the species hunted by early New England whalers, was almost certainly the gray whale, which has flourished on the west coast of North America in modern times with protection from whaling. Nantucket's dependence on whaling as an industry also had a significant impact on their decision to remain neutral in 1775 at the start of the American Revolutionary War.

Herman Melville commented on Nantucket's whaling dominance in Moby-Dick, Chapter 14: "Two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires". The Moby-Dick characters Ahab and Starbuck are both from Nantucket.

By 1850, whaling was in decline, as Nantucket's whaling industry had been surpassed by that of New Bedford. The island suffered great economic hardships, worsened by the "Great Fire" of July 13, 1846, that, fueled by whale oil and lumber, devastated the main town, burning some 40 acres (16 hectares). The fire left hundreds homeless and poverty-stricken, and many people left the island. Another contributor to the decline was the silting up of the harbor, which prevented large whaling ships from entering and leaving the port. In addition, the development of railroads made mainland whaling ports, such as New Bedford, more attractive because of the ease of transshipment of whale oil onto trains, an advantage unavailable to an island. The American Civil War dealt the death blow to the island's whaling industry, as virtually all of the remaining whaling vessels were destroyed by Confederate commerce raiders.

Later history

As a result of this depopulation, the island was left under-developed and isolated until the mid-20th century. The isolation kept many of the pre-Civil War buildings intact and, by the 1950s, enterprising developers began buying up large sections of the island and restoring them to create an upmarket destination for wealthy people in the Northeastern United States. This highly controlled development can be compared to less-regulated development in neighboring Martha's Vineyard, the development of which served as a model for what the Nantucket developers wanted to avoid.

In the 1960s, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard considered seceding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1977, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard actually attempted, unsuccessfully, to secede. The secession vote was sparked by a proposed change to the Massachusetts Constitution that reduced the islands' representation in the Massachusetts General Court.

Geology and geography

The cobblestone Main Street in historic downtown Nantucket

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 304 square miles (790 km2), of which 45 square miles (120 km2) is land and 259 square miles (670 km2) (85%) is water. It is the smallest county in Massachusetts by land area and second-smallest by total area. The area of Nantucket Island proper is 47.8 square miles (124 km2). The triangular region of ocean between Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Cape Cod is Nantucket Sound. The highest point on the island is Sankaty Head, which stands 111 feet (34 m) above sea level.

Nantucket NASA 2002
NASA satellite Image of Nantucket Island

Nantucket was formed by the outermost reach of the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the recent Wisconsin Glaciation, shaped by the subsequent rise in sea level. The low ridge across the northern section of the island was deposited as glacial moraine during a period of glacial standstill, a period during which till continued to arrive and was deposited as the glacier melted at a stationary front. The southern part of the island is an outwash plain, sloping away from the arc of the moraine and shaped at its margins by the sorting actions and transport of longshore drift. Nantucket became an island when rising sea levels re-flooded Buzzards Bay about 5,000–6,000 years ago.

The entire island, as well as the adjoining islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, comprise both the Town of Nantucket and the County of Nantucket. The main settlement, also called Nantucket, is located at the western end of Nantucket Harbor, where it opens into Nantucket Sound. Key localities on the island include Madaket, Surfside, Polpis, Wauwinet, Miacomet, and Siasconset (pronounced "Sconset").


According to the Köppen climate classification system, Nantucket features a climate that borders between a humid continental climate (Dfb) and an oceanic climate (Cfb), the latter a climate type rarely found on the east coast of North America. Nantucket's climate is heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, which helps moderate temperatures in the town throughout the course of the year. Average temperatures during the town's coldest month (January) are just below 32 °F (0 °C), while average high temperatures during the town's warmest months (July and August) hover around 68 °F (20 °C). Nantucket receives on average 41 inches (1,000 mm) of precipitation annually, spread relatively evenly throughout the year. Similar to many other cities with an oceanic climate, Nantucket features a large number of cloudy or overcast days, particularly outside the summer months. The highest daily maximum temperature was 100 °F (38 °C) on August 2, 1975, and the highest daily minimum temperature was 76 °F (24 °C) on the same day. The lowest daily maximum temperature was 12 °F (−11 °C) on January 8, 1968, and the lowest daily minimum temperature was −3 °F (−19 °C) on December 31, 1962 and January 16, 2004.

Climate data for Nantucket, Massachusetts (Nantucket Memorial Airport)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 63
Average high °F (°C) 38.1
Daily mean °F (°C) 31.6
Average low °F (°C) 25.1
Record low °F (°C) -3
Precipitation inches (mm) 3.61
Snowfall inches (cm) 7.4
Avg. precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 12 10 11 11 10 8 7 9 8 9 12 13 118
Source #1: NOAA (1981−2010 normals)
Source #2: Western Regional Climate Center (precipitation days and snow 1948−present)


See also: List of Massachusetts locations by per capita income
Historical population
Census Pop.
1790 4,555
1800 5,617 23.3%
1810 6,807 21.2%
1820 7,266 6.7%
1830 7,202 −0.9%
1840 9,012 25.1%
1850 8,452 −6.2%
1860 6,094 −27.9%
1870 4,123 −32.3%
1880 3,727 −9.6%
1890 3,268 −12.3%
1900 3,006 −8.0%
1910 2,962 −1.5%
1920 2,797 −5.6%
1930 3,678 31.5%
1940 3,401 −7.5%
1950 3,484 2.4%
1960 3,559 2.2%
1970 3,774 6.0%
1980 5,087 34.8%
1990 6,012 18.2%
2000 9,520 58.3%
2010 10,172 6.8%
Est. 2015 10,925 7.4%
U.S. Decennial Census
1790-1960 1900-1990
1990-2000 2010-2014

2000 census

As of the 2000 census, there were 9,520 people residing in Nantucket (3,699 total households, 2,104 families). The population density was 199.1 people per square mile (76.9/km2). There were 9,210 housing units at an average density of 192.6 per square mile (74.4/km2). The racial makeup of the town was 87.85% White, 8.29% Black, 0.64% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 0.01% Native American, 1.60% from other races, and 1.58% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 2.23% of the population. 19.9% were of Irish, 17.1% English, 7.2% Italian, 6.1% Portuguese, 6.0% German and 5.1% French ancestry according to Census 2000. 92.6% spoke English, 4.1% Spanish and 1.6% French as their first language.

There were 3,699 households, out of which 26.9% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 45.7% were married couples living together, 8.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 43.1% were non-families. 29.8% of all households were made up of individuals, and 8.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.37, and the average family size was 2.90.

The median age was 37 years, with 19.2% under the age of 18, 7.4% from 18 to 24, 40.4% from 25 to 44, 22.5% from 45 to 64, and 10.5% at 65 years of age or older. For every 100 females there were 105.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 105.0 males.

The median household income for year-round residents in the town was $55,522, and the median income for a family was $66,786. Males had a median income of $41,116, versus $31,608 for females. The per capita income for the town was $31,314. About 3.0% of families and 7.5% of the population were below the poverty line, including 2.3% of those under age 18 and 7.1% of those age 65 or over.

There is also a census-designated place on Nantucket (Nantucket CDP), which comprises the more densely settled areas within the Town of Nantucket; the CDP had a year 2000 population of 3,830.

2010 census

As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 10,172 people, 4,229 households, and 2,429 families residing in the county. The population density was 226.2 inhabitants per square mile (87.3/km2). There were 11,618 housing units at an average density of 258.4 per square mile (99.8/km2). The racial makeup of the county was 87.6% white, 6.8% black or African American, 1.2% Asian, 0.1% American Indian, 2.6% from other races, and 1.8% from two or more races. Those of Hispanic or Latino origin made up 9.4% of the population. In terms of ancestry, 20.9% were English, 18.8% were Irish, 11.5% were American, 10.9% were German, and 6.4% were Italian.

Of the 4,229 households, 28.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 44.8% were married couples living together, 8.3% had a female householder with no husband present, 42.6% were non-families, and 29.7% of all households were made up of individuals. The average household size was 2.39 and the average family size was 2.93. The median age was 39.4 years.

The median income for a household in the county was $83,347 and the median income for a family was $89,728. Males had a median income of $62,959 versus $46,577 for females. The per capita income for the county was $53,410. About 3.6% of families and 7.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 6.9% of those under age 18 and 8.2% of those age 65 or over.

Arts and culture

Robinson Nantucket
Theodore Robinson's painting Nantucket, 1882

Nantucket has several noted museums and galleries, including the Maria Mitchell Association, including the Maria Mitchell Aquarium, and the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Nantucket is home to both visual and performing arts.The island has been an art colony since the 1920s, whose artists have come to capture the natural beauty of the island's landscapes and seascapes, including its flora and the fauna. Noted artists who have lived on or painted in Nantucket include Frank Swift Chase and Theodore Robinson. Artist Rodney Charman was commissioned to create a series of paintings depicting the marine history of Nantucket, which were collected in the book Portrait of Nantucket, 1659-1890: The Paintings of Rodney Charman in 1989. Noted authors, including Herman Melville and Nathaniel Philbrick, have visited or lived there. Internationally famous pop star Meghan Trainor hails from Nantucket.

Popular culture

Several literary and dramatic works involve people from, or living on, Nantucket. These include:

  • Nathaniel Philbrick's "Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890".
  • Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex
  • Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.
  • The science-fiction-based Nantucket series by S. M. Stirling has the island being sent back in time from March 17, 1998 to circa 1250 BC in the Bronze Age.
  • Most of the Joan Aiken novel Nightbirds on Nantucket is set on the island.
  • The 1986 comedy One Crazy Summer was set in Nantucket and filmed on Cape Cod.
  • Nantucket is the location used in Josephine Angelini's books.
  • The 1990s sitcom Wings (a series about a fictional airline serving the airport) depicted life on Nantucket at the fictional "Tom Nevers Field" and other locations, with some of the outdoor scenes filmed at various sites on the island.
  • The island's name is used as a rhyming device in a noted limerick, beginning "There once was a man from Nantucket...".
  • Elin Hilderbrand's novels are set on Nantucket.
  • Herman Melville's classic "Moby Dick" has "Ishmael" starting his voyage at Nantucket


From 1900 to 1918, Nantucket was one of few jurisdictions in the United States that banned automobiles.

Nantucket can be reached by sea from the mainland by The Steamship Authority, Hy-Line Cruises, or Freedom Cruise Line, or by private boat. A task force was formed in 2002 to consider limiting the number of vehicles on the island, in an effort to combat heavy traffic during the summer months.

Nantucket is served by Nantucket Memorial Airport (IATA airport code ACK), a three-runway airport on the south side of the island. The airport is one of the busiest in Massachusetts and often logs more take-offs and landings on a summer day than Boston's Logan Airport. This is due in part to the large number of private planes used by wealthy summer inhabitants, and in part to the 10-seat Cessna 402s used by several commercial air carriers to serve the island community.

Nantucket Regional Transit Authority (NRTA) operates seasonal island-wide shuttle buses to many destinations including Surfside Beach, Siasconset, and the airport.

Until 1917, Nantucket was served by the narrow-gauge Nantucket Railroad.

Transportation disasters

Line5125 - Flickr - NOAA Photo Library
The Argo Merchant ran aground on December 15, 1976. A silvery oil slick can be seen coming from the center holds in the foreground.

Nantucket waters were the site of several noted transportation disasters:

  • On July 25, 1956, the Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria collided with the MS Stockholm in heavy fog 45 miles (72 km) south of Nantucket, resulting in the deaths of 51 people (46 on the Andrea Doria, 5 on the Stockholm).
  • On December 15, 1976, the oil tanker Argo Merchant ran aground 29 miles (47 km) southeast of Nantucket. Six days later, on December 21, the wrecked ship broke apart, causing one of the largest oil spills in history.
  • On October 31, 1999, EgyptAir Flight 990, traveling from New York City to Cairo, crashed approximately 60 miles (97 km) south of Nantucket, killing all 217 people on board.

National Register of Historic Places

The following Nantucket places are listed on the National Register of Historic Places:

  • Nantucket Historic District, a National Historic Landmark District (added December 13, 1966); Expanded to encompass the entire island in 1975.
  • Brant Point Light Station — Brant Point (added October 28, 1987)
  • Jethro Coffin House — a National Historic Landmark, Sunset Hill Road (added December 24, 1968)
  • Sankaty Head Light (added November 15, 1987)pl:Nantucket (miasto)


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