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The World & Nantucket

July 2024
15min read

The natives never could live quite happily with “off-island” civilization—but neither could they live without it

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.

For a while, the settlers tended their sheep and grew their gardens, and one way or another they got along. There were codfish to be had offshore, and in 1672 the first whale was taught, and then the Nantucketers began to take to the sea. Afore people came to the island as the industry flourished, and by 171;; there were six sloops in the whaling fleet, which took in eleven hundred pounds sterling that year. Nantucket was on its way, but it was also headed into international trouble. In 1754 the French and Indian War broke out between France and England, and as far as the French were concerned the Nantucketers were English. In one year they captured six Nantucket whaling sloops and took them to France, where their crews were imprisoned and eventually vanished. Another six were lost to the weather, but that was to be expected; what made the Nantucketers bitter was that they should have to stiller for someone else’s war. They even accepted the occasional trouble with pirates as an occupational hazard (a Nantucket captain named Nathan Skilf had his boat pillaged by pirates and then was whipped and, as a final indignity, had his cars cut oil), and their chief bugaboo remained international wars in which they were caught in the middle. Edouard A. Stackpolc, in The Sea-Hunters , sums up the pre-Revolutionary Nantucketers by saying: “Theirs was a pride in accomplishment seldom equalled. Frugal to the point of habitual self-denial, confident through ilie experience of a generation of whalemen, governed by the sober tenets of their Quaker religion, the Nantucketer was the whaling symbol of his time. … Here was a prosperous Quaker kingdom in the sea before the Revolutionary War suddenly burst upon it.”

And burst it did, with Nantucket frantically trying to stay neutral, and each side accusing it of dealing with the other. As Quakers, Nantucketers were against any war; as Americans, they had had no great problems with the Dritish; as whalers, they needed freedom of movement for their ships: and as islanders, they needed produce from the mainland to survive. (The population had long since outstripped the island’s ability to sustain it.) A number of Tories had fled from Hoston and Salem to what they considered a safe Quaker refuge in the Atlantic; this made the rebel authorities suspect Nantucket of Tory sympathies, and the suspicion led to curtailment of supplies. The British blockaded the island and impressed Nantucket seamen whenever they caught them; they also raided the island, making off with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of property. All in all the war was, for Nantucket, a complete shambles. The lucky ones were the twenty or more islanders who are supposed to have served with John Paul Jones on the Ranger and the Bonhomme Richard ; they at least had navy food, which although no bargain was better than no food at all. (There is increasing reason to doubt that any Nantucketers served with Jones, bin the legend nevertheless persists. There is even a plaque to one Thomas Turner, allegedly killed in the engagement with the Serapis .) Be that as it may, those who stayed behind were close to starvation. The story goes thai a man named Meader, in the winter of 1780, asked his neighbor for a hammer “to knock my teeth out with; I got no further use for ‘cm.” Wartime humor being what it is, the remark is passable as a sample. From all accounts, the winter of 1780 on Nantucket made Valley Forge look like a pleasant outing.

The best illustration of what the war did is the fact that in 1771 the island population was 4,545,, and 150 ships were in service; by the end ol’ hostilities. 1,600 Nantucketers had lost their lives, and 134 ships had been (apttired. That kind ol war makes it hard to say who won, especially for a group who didn’t want it in the first place.

The only thing they could do was start to rebuild their whaling fleet, and this they did. Hut other ports had taken tip whaling too, with a resultant drop in prices, and in 1785 Xantticket petitioned the Court of Boston lor independence. This might have allowed them to set their own prices as well as to avoid foreign entanglements; but the (Jouit refused, so Nantucket resigned itself to the inevitable and concentrated on whaling. And made a success of it, too; prosperity re- turned, the population increased, there was a modest building boom, and everything was going splendidly when along came 1812, and another war willi the British. Nantucket joined the rest ol New Kngland in protesting to Congress, and tried as a last resort 10 be declared officially neutral, but once again the off-islanders had their way, and the war was on. A petition to President Madison lor protection against the British wem unanswered.

This time the British blockade was so successful that almost no food at all arrived during the winter of 1813–14. The following July. Nantuckei turned in desperation Io the British, and asked for passports to get supplies from the mainland. The British agreed, provided Nantucket became a neutral and paid no more taxes to the United States. Nantucket wrote to Congress and asked for tax exemption, explaining the reason, and when after a month there was no reply, the agreement was signed. Six ships were allowed to go for provisions, and fifteen for wood. It wasn’t much but it was better than nothing, and Vice President Elbridge Gerry later approved the action as having been the only thing possible. (This was, incidentally, Nantucket’s last gesture toward independence; the newspaper reports of a “secessionist” movement in the mid-1930’s were without foundation.)

In February, 1815, a month when the thermometer had hit an all-time low of eleven degrees below zero, Nantucket got word of the peace, and held what with sublime understatement was referred to as a “general jollification.” Bells were rung, windows were illuminated, lights were burned from the church towers, and cheering crowds swarmed through the snowy streets. One man made a sleigh by lashing a chair to a peat sled and then, with a small American flag flying, drove out to the neighboring settlements to spread the news. In this, a comparatively short war, Nantucket lost only half its ships.

The decline and eventual end of Nantucket whaling was due to a number of factors, most of them of off-island origin. The only local reason—aside from a catastrophic fire—was a sand bar, which built up across the harbor entrance and, as ships got bigger, necessitated an elaborate flotation device known as a “camel” to get them over it. It was easier for ships to work out of New Bedford, which eventually surpassed Nantucket as the leading port for whalers. Then, about 1850, came the development of “earth oil”—petroleum—which was better than whale oil, and finally, as the last straw, there was the Civil War. The Confederate raiders took Union ships wherever they found them, the Shenandoah singlehandedly destroying Nantucket’s entire Arctic fleet. The last whaler to leave Nantucket went out late in 1869.

Over the years, many people tried to start businesses of one sort or another on the island, and most of them failed. By “businesses” is meant anything that might provide an export, or give the island an industry by which it could sustain itself. In 1836 a silk factory was set up under the impressive name of the Atlantic Silk Company, and thousands of mulberry trees were imported for the cultivation of silkworms. The project lasted eight years. In 1859 a boot and shoe factory opened, but it was destroyed by fire in 1873. In 1864 a man started making linen coats, or dusters, and by 1880 was turning out 50,000 a year, but then linen dusters went out of style, and with them went the business. (On the subject of individual enterprise, mention must be made of one William Rawson, who in 1829 grew a Nan tucket turnip that measured three feet two inches in circumference, and weighed eleven and three quarters pounds. It is not recorded what he did with it.) More recently, the Nantucket Historical Trust, which has spent some $500,000 restoring a historic old inn, set up a weaving establishment that is turning out Nantucket fabrics and handmade crewel-work at an increasing pace. One problem, of course, with any island product is that the shipping charge makes it hard to compete with similar mainland products, so the exports—aside from woven goods-must be limited to scallops and cranberries, which cannot be found everywhere. Nantucket scallops and cranberries have a steady market, but an island of 3,500 people (the present approximate population) cannot subsist on the income from these alone.

And, as it turns out, they can’t even make their own money; last summer, when the national shortage of change was acutely felt on the island, an enterprising storekeeper named Harry Howard made aluminum “whale money,” in two-bit and four-bit pieces, redeemable at any of the three gift shops he owns. The first batch of one thousand dollars’ worth was immediately snapped up by coin collectors, and the whale money might still be in circulation if Mr. Howard had not had the prudence to write to the Treasury Department in Boston, explaining what he was doing and asking if it was all right with them. The answer was a quick and emphatic “No,” larded with mutterings of “cease and desist”; Mr. Howard had to recall his tokens and go back to using the practically nonexistent United States currency.

So it is on the off-islanders—the 100,000 summer visitors and tourists—that Nantucket must depend, and to islanders whose roots go back to pre-Revolutionary days this is faintly galling. For those whose roots don’t go back that far, and who must earn enough in an average eight-week season to last them the rest of the year, the off-islanders represent a source of income that must be tended and nurtured as carefully as a fragile flower. A few years ago, in an attempt to stretch out the summer season to include June and September, a public-relations firm was retained and commercials extolling the beauties of Nantucket were plugged on mainland radio stations. They got the message across, but the result was that more people than ever came in August, when Main Street tends to look like a riot at a racetrack anyway, and hardly any came in June and September. A few new people stayed over into early fall and were frightened off by a hurricane. If only they’d known it, a hurricane is nothing to what some of the winter gales are like, and the months of September and October are generally the most satisfying of the year. The moors turn red, the skies are crisp and clear, the water stays warm enough for swimming until around Columbus Day, and there are bluefish and striped bass for those who have mastered the knack of surfcasting. This is also the time when the town of Nantucket is its most beautiful; the old whaling captains’ houses, which are of a purity of design seldom seen, look their best surrounded by the reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn foliage. The sense of relaxation, which is Nantucket’s primary commodity, is never so evident as it is in the fall, just when the visitors have dwindled to almost nothing.

The off-islanders who come in search of this relaxation are divided into several different groups. There are those who own their own houses, and these are as a rule the most welcome, because the money they put into maintenance and general living expenses has the widest distribution around the island. Then there are those who rent houses either for a week, a month, or for the season, and they, too, are highly welcome, because it is a known fact that people on vacation tend to buy things they would never look at twice at home. Then come the “trippers,” the people who come over on the round-trip excursion boats from Hyannis; their status is necessarily reduced because they stay only three hours and are of value primarily to the sight-seeing bus lines and the lunchrooms, which work in conjunction with the boats. However, all Nantucketers realize that if one tripper per boatload can be induced to return, either for a weekend, a week, or longer, then his initial trip has been worth the while. Then there is the sleeping-bag set, who bring their own bicycles and sleeping bags and lurk around and block traffic. Of them it has been said that they “come over with a two-dollar bill and a shirt, and don’t change either.” Their retort is that the islanders would prefer to have them stay on the mainland and send their money over by mail. Finally there are the deer hunters, who come over for a week in December, shoot at everything that walks excepting, unfortunately, each other, and behave in a generally disorganized fashion. There are exceptions in all these categories, but a startling and not atypical deer-hunter incident occurred recently when a resident was awakened by gunfire in the night, and looked out to see a car full of hunters blazing away at a deer on his lawn, shooting toward the house. He grabbed a revolver and chased them off, but was unable to hit them. Or if he did, their wounds went unreported.

Of all the off-island visitors, only two groups have been officially requested not to return. One was a clutch of deviates who had the bad judgment to send their rolls of film to a local store to be developed; they were rounded up in a midnight police raid that had every one of them off the island before noon the next day. The other was a family from New York whose stupidity was so towering as to require pity rather than censure; on a day in July, when the island was so dry that fires were forbidden even on the beach, they went into a pine forest and made a picnic fire among the dry needles. Of the island’s 30,000 acres, more than 1,000 were burned before the fire was brought under control, and only a change of wind saved Siasconset from destruction. These people were fined the maximum of one hundred dollars apiece, and asked to stay away. Fire is, understandably, a constant terror in a community where most of the houses are of wood and are huddled closely together and where a brisk wind could spread a blaze across the island in a short time. In 1846 one third of the town of Nantucket was destroyed in a fire that dealt a severe blow to the already declining economy, and there have been fires periodically ever since, but it took an off-islander to start what was almost the biggest one of all.

With the transient population the islanders must be extremely careful about credit, and unless a visitor is known, he has no choice but to pay cash. But even being known isn’t always a help. Many years ago, Lawrence Tibbett came in on a yacht, and went to the bank to get a little walking-around money. He presented a check for one hundred dollars to the teller, who examined it and said, “You got an account here?”

“No,” Tibbett replied, with a smile. “I don’t.”

“Sorry,” said the teller, pushing the check back. “We can’t cash it for you.”

“If it’s identification you want,” Tibbett replied, reaching for his wallet, “maybe this will help.” He produced a shiny leather folder with his name engraved in gold, and this also received the teller’s scrutiny.

“What do you do for a living?” he asked.

“I sing,” said Tibbett, testily. “I make twenty-five hundred dollars a week, and it seems to me that should cover a check for one hundred dollars.”

“That don’t make no odds,” said the teller. “You might make twenty-five hundred dollars, and you might spend twenty-six hundred dollars. I don’t know what you got in the bank, so I can’t cash it for you. Now, if you don’t mind, there’s people waiting behind you.”

The woman standing next in line took Tibbett to the A&P, and countersigned the check for him there.

But the bank (named the Pacific National Bank in honor of the whalers who went to the Pacific) hasn’t always kept such a close eye on its funds. In 1884 a cashier named Chadwick managed to make off with a substantial sum without anybody’s knowledge, and it wasn’t until the following year, when he built a large and ugly house for himself, that people began to wonder where he got the money. They found out, and he went to jail; but the jail was then a makeshift affair, unsuitable for more than quick lockups, and an arrangement was finally worked out whereby Mr. Chadwick was allowed to sleep in his house at night and return to the jail in the daytime. For obvious reasons, the house became known as Chadwick’s Folly. It fell into disuse after his death, and was attended only by a caretaker who shot at people with a rifle if they came too close, and then finally, in 1956, it was torn down. There was a rumor that Chadwick’s ghost haunted the cupola, but nobody was ever able or willing to make sure.

Crime on the island is comparatively scarce, for the simple reason that it’s so hard to get away, and the local police department has over the years adopted a fraternal attitude toward its fellow citizens. The state police, however, are off-islanders sent down from Boston, and they are afflicted by no such community feeling. This combination of the benign and the strict in law enforcement serves to keep any would-be criminals off balance, if nothing else. During Prohibition there was another problem, because the bootleggers found Nantucket’s unattended beaches ideal for landing cargoes from their offshore boats. In this case the Coast Guard and federal agents entered the picture. It was impossible for them to police the entire shore line, and there are some Nantucketers today who can afford to go to Florida in the winter because of the accessibility of the Nantucket beaches forty years ago. One area in particular, known variously as Smuggler’s Cove or Gin Gulch, took a great deal of traffic, the only drawback being that it was on the property of a woman who lived in a shack nearby, who was slightly eccentric and also an excellent shot with a rifle. One night she looked out and saw a group of men landing cases from a boat, and she took her rifle from the wall and rushed out at them. “Get offa my property!” she shouted. “Get your dirty smuggling hands offa my property, and don’t you ever come back or I’ll shoot!” To emphasize her point, she sent a bullet zipping into the sand.

“O.K., lady, O.K.,” came a voice from the darkness. “Take it easy. We’re going.”

She returned to her shack, and next morning found a case of liquor beside the door. She found cases of liquor at periodic intervals thereafter,’ but for some reason she never seemed to see the smugglers again. It was one of the unexpected blessings that off-islanders had brought to the island. Whether they like it or not, and no matter whether for good or for ill, the islanders are inextricably mixed up with the doings of the outside world.

But when the winter closes in, and the summer off-islanders are gone, the Nantucketers who remain settle back and look at one another. They are not always happy with what they see, and factions develop and fights start that in some cases leave lasting scars. The questing tentacles of the John Birch Society touched the edges of a recent school controversy, and accusations and counteraccusations flew back and forth like grapeshot. The local newspaper, which took a determined stand in the affair, was owned and edited by off-islanders, so some people backed the other side as a matter of principle, and this did nothing to lessen the heat of the debate. Nor did it do anything to clarify the issues.

In the long run, however, the Nantucketers accept their dependence on the outside world with reasonable grace and, in some cases, good humor. One woman, now in her mid-eighties, was asked by an off-islander just what it was she did in the winter, and she smiled and replied, “Mostly, we talk about you people. And what we don’t know, we make up.”

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