Peculiar Nantucket

Reading “off island” or “continent” newspaper articles about Nantucket from 1875 to 1896, gives an interesting viewpoint of how the island appeared to “visitors” at the time. After the demise of whaling in Nantucket, 800 families moved off island leaving the population of the island to about 3000. This 3000 was made up of retired whalers, their families and other longstanding Nantucketers. When asked by a reporter in 1884 why their ancestors didn’t leave, the answer was that it was their home and they came into being by the intermarriages of the Starbucks, Macys, Coffins, Folgers, Swains and Gardners with little interaction with the mainland. “Cousinship so extended from each individual in every direction that fifty years back, a scion of one of the original settlers was related to nearly everybody else on the island.”

While many of the articles in this period express the beauty of the island, they also have a negative tone toward the people of Nantucket using the terms, “lazy”, “secluded”, “odd”, “insular” This was the beginning of a new era of Nantucket as a summer resort but the remaining Nantucketers and their peculiar ways set the island apart from other resorts on the east coast. While Nantucketers were happy to take money from visitors, that is where their interest ended. 

According to The Dayton Herald, August 15, 1896, “Nantucketers divide the human race into two kinds of people, Nantucketers and others.” Another article from 1889 states, “A Nantucket man is rich in his pride of ancestry even if he subsists on quahogs, clams, herring and pollack. From the pedestal of his high lineage, he pities us “off islanders” but he tolerates our visits because of our shekels which he graciously accepts seemingly more as a favor to us than to himself.” These early “visitors” to the island seemed put off by the self regard of the seemingly now lowly Nantucketers expecting as in other resorts to be catered to. One paper even stated, “There is something pathetic in the decay of the old families of Nantucket.” They didn’t anticipate the shared, ingrained, generational simplicity and frugality to dominate the culture of this “new” resort.

Other articles mention that Nantucket was like no other resort town because they had a curfew at 9 p.m. that was strictly adhered to by locals. The watchman in the belltower would ring the bell at 9 p.m. then again at 7 a.m. and at noon. Nantucket also had a town crier which some visitors found to be more annoying than quaint. They also disliked the fact that shops closed at noon and didn’t reopen till 2 p.m. because many Nantucketers liked to take a nap after lunch. 

It’s hard to imagine today that some of the first “visitors” impressions of the island upon arrival were that Nantucket had seen better days. “An atmosphere of decay enveloped the buildings about the pier. Cooper’s shops, long since disused, boat houses unoccupied, oil refineries dismantled, store houses dropping to pieces, grass springing up in travelled ways, all are melancholy evidence of departed prosperity.”

The Courier-Journal 1884, mentions the curiosity of Mrs. McCleaves’ private museum describing her as the greatest oddity. The museum hours were from 2pm to 5pm in her home and admission was 15 cents. Items on display consisted of items belonging to ancestors such as carved ivory, knives and various artifacts. According to the writer, if one did not inspect and admire the items to suit her, they would be reprimanded by Mrs. McCleaves. It was mentioned that Mrs. McCleaves had an odd use of the word “of” in referring to items belonging “of a person” rather than “to a person.” The Evening Star in 1889, attributed the odd way that Nantucketers spoke to the fact that they saw little of the outside world except when the world came to them. “To the stranger many of the expressions he hears in conversations are odd and sometimes they are unintelligible, unless the surroundings and context will help him to “fish out” the meaning.”

It is difficult to put into words what makes Nantucket special and unique even peculiar. There is the visual natural beauty of the land, beaches and water. There is the beauty of the cobblestoned, winding narrow streets, sidewalks and footpaths.The gray shingled homes that nearly sit on the streets reveal age, beauty and mystique. Perhaps, though it is the feeling or sense of an unconventional people who lived for generations the way they wanted to and mostly in seclusion. There is an energy and spirit that is felt upon arrival in Nantucket. It is a feeling that you are someplace special. For native Nantucketers and their descendants it is a feeling that they are someone special. Maybe it is pride in their ancestry or maybe it is just simply knowing who they are and who they come from that sets them apart from many of the “visitors of” Nantucket.

The Burlington Free Press, September 6, 1878, page 2,

The Boston Globe, July 27, 1875, page 3,

Boston Post, August 23, 1896, page 22,

The Topeka Daily Capital, September, 1884, page 6,

The Dayton Herald, August 15, 1896, page 1,

Detroit Free Press, September 15, 1878, page 12,

Evening Star, Washington D.C., October 7, 1889, page 18,

The Courier Journal, Louisville, Kentucky, September 21, 1884, page 13,

3 thoughts on “Peculiar Nantucket

  1. I am enjoying your blog immensely! In my research of my ancestry I have reason to believe I am descended from Edward Starbuck, one of the first English settlers or Nantucket! will be travelling there in September!


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