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Nantucket, Massachusetts
Town and County of Nantucket
Flag of Nantucket, Massachusetts
Official seal of Nantucket, Massachusetts
Location of Nantucket within Massachusetts
Location of Nantucket within Massachusetts
Nantucket is located in Massachusetts
Location within the United States
Nantucket is located in the United States
Nantucket (the United States)
Coordinates: 41°16′58″N 70°5′58″W / 41.28278°N 70.09944°W / 41.28278; -70.09944Coordinates: 41°16′58″N 70°5′58″W / 41.28278°N 70.09944°W / 41.28278; -70.09944
CountryUnited States
 • TypeOpen town meeting and consolidated town and county
 • Total105.3 sq mi (272.6 km2)
 • Land47.8 sq mi (123.8 km2)
 • Water57.5 sq mi (148.8 km2)
Elevation30 ft (9 m)
 • Total14,255
 • Density308.6/sq mi (115.1/km2)
Time zoneUTC−5 (Eastern)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−4 (Eastern)
ZIP Codes
02554, 02564, 02584
Area code508
FIPS code25-43790
GNIS feature ID0619376

Nantucket /ˌnænˈtʌkɪt/ is an island about 30 miles (50 km) south from Cape Cod. Together with the small islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, it constitutes the Town and County of Nantucket, a combined county/town government that is part of the U.S. state of Massachusetts. It is the only such consolidated town-county in Massachusetts. As of the 2020 census, the population was 14,255, making it the least populated county in Massachusetts. 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, but is very similar to the endonym of the native Nehantucket tribe that occupied the region at the time of European settlement.

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. The average sale price for a single-family home was $2.3 million in the first quarter of 2018.

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."

Nantucket is accessible by boat, ferry, or airplane.


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.
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 according to the Encyclopædia Britannica it may have meant "far away island" or "sandy, sterile soil tempting no one". Wampanoag is an Eastern Algonquian language of southern New England. The Nehantucket (known to Europeans as the Niantic) were an Algonquin-speaking people 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.

European colonization

The earliest European settlement in the region was established on the neighboring island of Martha's Vineyard by the English-born merchant Thomas Mayhew. In 1641, Thomas secured Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, the Elizabeth Islands, and other islands in the region as a proprietary colony from Sir Ferdinando Gorges and the Earl of Sterling. Thomas led several families to settle the region, establishing several treaties with the indigenous inhabitants of Nantucket, the Wampanoag people. These treaties helped prevent the region from becoming embroiled in King Philip's War. The growing population of settlers welcomed seasonal groups of other Native American tribes who traveled to the island to fish and later harvest whales that washed up on shore. Nantucket was officially part of Dukes County, New York, until 17 October 1691 when the charter for the newly formed Province of Massachusetts Bay was signed. Following the arrival of the new Royal Governor on 14 May 1692 to effectuate the new government, Nantucket County was partitioned from Dukes County, Massachusetts in 1695.

Nantucket settlers

In October 1641, William Alexander, the Earl of Stirling, deeded the island to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts. 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 did not choose a partner and sold his interest to Richard Swain, which was subsequently 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 among 31 owners.

European settlement of Nantucket did not begin in earnest until 1659, when Thomas Mayhew sold his interest to a group of investors, led by Tristram Coffin. The "nine original purchasers" were Tristram Coffin, Peter Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swain, Thomas Barnard, Stephen Greenleaf, John Swain and William Pile. 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. The first settlers focused on farming and raising sheep, but overgrazing and the growing number of farms made these activities untenable, and the islanders soon began turning to the sea for a living.

The town on Nantucket Island, when it was still called Sherburne, in 1775

Before 1795, the town on the island was called Sherburne. The original settlement was near Capaum Pond. At that time, the pond was a small harbor whose entrance silted up, forcing the settlers to dismantle their houses and move them northeast by two miles to the present location. On June 8, 1795, the bill proposed by Micajah Coffin to change the town's name to the "Town of Nantucket" was endorsed and signed by Governor Samuel Adams to officially change the town name.

The whaling industry

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.

In the beginning of the 17th century, whaling on Nantucket was usually done from small boats launched from the island's shores, which would tow killed whales to be processed on the beach. These boats were only about seven meters long, with mostly Wampanoag manpower, sourced from a system of debt servitude established by English Nantucketers—a typical boat's crew had five Wampanoag oarsmen and a single white Nantucketer at the steering oar. Author Nathaniel Philbrick notes that "without the native population, which outnumbered the white population well into the 1720s, the island would never have become a successful whaling port."

Nantucket's dependence on trade with Britain, derived from its whaling and supporting industries, influenced its leading citizens to remain neutral during the American Revolutionary War, favoring neither the British nor the Patriots.

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. The tragedy that inspired Melville to write his novel Moby-Dick was the final voyage of the Nantucket whaler Essex.

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. By 1850, whaling was in decline, as Nantucket's whaling industry had been surpassed by that of New Bedford. Another contributor to the decline was the silting up of the harbor, which prevented large whaling ships from entering and leaving the port, unlike New Bedford, which still owned a deep water 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.

Nantucket and towns on Martha's Vineyard contemplated seceding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which they considered at various town meetings in 1977, unsuccessfully. The votes were sparked by a proposed change to the Massachusetts Constitution that would have reduced the size of the state's House of Representatives from 240 to 160 members and would therefore reduce 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. Altar Rock at 100 feet (30 m), Saul's Hill at 102 feet (31 m), and Sankaty Head at 92 feet (28 m) are some of the highest points on the island.

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 covered the connection with the mainland, about 5,000–6,000 years ago.

The island and adjoining islands of Tuckernuck and Muskeget comprise the Town and County of Nantucket, which is operated as a consolidated town and county government. 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 (generally shortened to "'Sconset").


According to the Köppen climate classification system, Nantucket features a climate that borders between a Dfb (humid continental climate) and a Cfb (oceanic climate – east half of the island based on the location of the weather station), the latter a climate type rarely found on the east coast of North America and closest to the same by the original classification. Nantucket's climate is heavily influenced by the Atlantic Ocean, which helps moderate temperatures in the town throughout the course of the year. Average high temperatures during the town's coldest month (January) are around 40 °F (4 °C), while average high temperatures during the town's warmest months (July and August) hover around 75 °F (24 °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) 1991–2020 normals, extremes 1948–present
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 63
Mean maximum °F (°C) 54
Average high °F (°C) 39.5
Daily mean °F (°C) 33.1
Average low °F (°C) 26.6
Mean minimum °F (°C) 10
Record low °F (°C) −3
Average precipitation inches (mm) 3.18
Average snowfall inches (cm) 7.4
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 11.6 10.2 10.5 11.9 11.7 11.6 11.9 13.1 12.5 13.1 10.9 12.4 141.4
Source 1: NOAA
Source 2: Western Regional Climate Center (snow 1948–present)


Historical population
Census Pop.
U.S. Decennial Census
1790–1960 1900–1990
1990–2000 2010–2020

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, 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 $129,728. Males had a median income of $82,959 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.

As of the fourth quarter of 2021, the median value of homes in Nantucket County was $1,370,522, an increase of 22.3% from the prior year, and ranked the highest in the US by median home value.



Town and county governments are combined in Nantucket (see List of counties in Massachusetts). Nantucket's elected executive body is its Select Board (name changed in 2018 from Board of Selectmen), which is responsible for the town government's goals and policies. Legislative functions are carried out by an open Town Meeting of the Town's registered voters. It is administered by a town manager, who is responsible for all departments, except for the school, airport and water departments.


Nantucket is represented in the Massachusetts House of Representatives by Dylan Fernandes, Democrat, of Woods Hole, who represents Precincts 1, 2, 5 and 6, of Falmouth, in Barnstable County; Chilmark, Edgartown, Aquinnah, Gosnold, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury, all in Dukes County; and Nantucket. Rep. Fernandes has served since January 4, 2017. Nantucket is represented in the Massachusetts Senate by Julian Cyr, Democrat, of Truro, who has also served since January 4, 2017.


Nantucket is in Massachusetts's 9th congressional district, which has existed since 2013. As of 2013, it was represented in the United States House of Representatives by Bill Keating, a Democrat of Bourne. Massachusetts is currently represented in the United States Senate by senior senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat) and junior senator Ed Markey (Democrat).


Party affiliations

In 2019, 55% of Nantucket residents were unaligned with a major political party, 30% were registered Democrats, and 12% were registered Republicans.

Voter registration and party enrollment on February 1, 2019
Party Number of voters Percentage
Unenrolled* 4,972 55.74%
Democratic 2,688 30.13%
Republican 1,141 12.79%
Other 67 0.75%
Libertarian 38 0.43%
Green-Rainbow Party 14 0.16%
Total 8,920 100%

*The Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows voters to enroll with a political party or to remain "unenrolled".

Voting patterns

Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th century, Nantucket was a Republican stronghold in presidential elections. From 1876 to 1984, only two Democrats carried Nantucket: Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson. Since 1988, however, it has trended Democratic.

Presidential elections results
Presidential elections results
Year Republican Democratic Third parties
2020 26.2% 1,914 71.7% 5,241 2.1% 151
2016 29.1% 1,892 63.7% 4,146 7.2% 470
2012 35.7% 2,187 62.6% 3,830 1.7% 103
2008 30.8% 1,863 67.3% 4,073 1.9% 116
2004 35.6% 2,040 63.0% 3,608 1.3% 76
2000 33.0% 1,624 58.3% 2,874 8.7% 428
1996 29.4% 1,222 59.0% 2,453 11.6% 484
1992 27.5% 1,158 48.3% 2,037 24.2% 1,021
1988 39.4% 1,469 59.2% 2,209 1.4% 53
1984 53.5% 1,697 45.9% 1,456 0.5% 17
1980 40.5% 1,149 36.7% 1,040 22.9% 649
1976 53.3% 1,399 42.5% 1,115 4.3% 112
1972 59.6% 1,418 40.0% 952 0.4% 10
1968 55.3% 991 41.5% 744 3.2% 57
1964 32.9% 587 67.0% 1,197 0.2% 3
1960 63.5% 1,219 36.4% 698 0.1% 2
1956 83.3% 1,582 16.7% 317 0.1% 1
1952 78.6% 1,490 21.4% 405 0.1% 2
1948 70.3% 1,013 28.4% 409 1.4% 20
1944 57.8% 779 42.2% 569 0.1% 1
1940 61.6% 1,015 37.9% 624 0.5% 8
1936 62.8% 969 35.5% 548 1.8% 27
1932 58.8% 812 40.7% 561 0.5% 7
1928 68.6% 865 31.3% 395 0.1% 1
1924 79.6% 708 18.8% 167 1.6% 14
1920 74.5% 608 25.1% 205 0.4% 3
1916 44.2% 249 54.4% 307 1.4% 8
1912 21.8% 123 43.8% 247 34.4% 194
1908 70.8% 359 26.8% 136 2.4% 12
1904 67.3% 378 30.3% 170 2.5% 14
1900 76.7% 375 20.9% 102 2.5% 12
1896 79.3% 485 10.1% 62 10.6% 65
1892 65.5% 440 32.7% 220 1.8% 12
1888 68.1% 487 30.1% 215 1.8% 13
1884 59.5% 328 37.0% 204 3.5% 19
1880 78.5% 395 21.5% 108 0.0% 0
1876 78.6% 379 21.4% 103 0.0% 0


Top employers

According to Nantucket's 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the top employers in the town are:

# Employer # of employees
1 Town of Nantucket 670
2 Nantucket Cottage Hospital 180
3 Nantucket Island Resorts 125
4 Marine Home Center 90
5 Stop & Shop 90
6 Rockland Trust 60
7 Myles Reis Trucking 30
8 The Woods Hole, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority 28
9 Don Allen 25
10 Bartlett Oceanview Farm 25


In 1827, Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin set up the Coffin School to educate descendants of Tristram Coffin. After initially faltering, the school was reconstituted in this building on Winter Street in 1854.

Nantucket's public school district is Nantucket Public Schools. The Nantucket school system had 1,583 students and 137 teachers in 2017.

Schools on the island include:

  • Nantucket Elementary School (public)
  • Nantucket Intermediate School (public)
  • Cyrus Peirce Middle School (public)
  • Nantucket High School (public)
  • Nantucket Community School (public, extracurricular)
  • Nantucket Lighthouse School (private)
  • Nantucket New School (private)

Nantucket Public Schools District information and meetings are broadcast on Nantucket Community Television (Channel 18) in Nantucket.

A major museum association, the Maria Mitchell Association, offers educational programs to the Nantucket Public Schools, as well as the Nantucket Historical Association, though the two are not affiliated.

The University of Massachusetts Boston operates a field station on Nantucket. The Massachusetts College of Art & Design is affiliated with the Nantucket Island School of Design & the Arts, which offers summer courses for teens, youth, postgraduate, and undergraduate programs.

Arts and culture

Theodore Robinson's painting Nantucket, 1882

Nantucket has several noted museums and galleries, including the Maria Mitchell Association 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. Herman Melville based his narrative in Moby Dick on the Nantucket whaling industry.

The island is the site of a number of festivals, including a book festival, wine and food festival, comedy festival, daffodil festival, and a cranberry festival.

Popular culture

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


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 SeaStreak, 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 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

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:

National Register of Historic Places

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

Notable people

While many notable people own property or regularly visit the island, the following have been residents of the island:

See also

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