Nantucket, a town and county of Massachusetts, coextensive with each other, comprising the island of Nantucket, the islets of Tuckernuck and Muskeget, and the Gravelly and Swyle islands adjacent to it on the west; aggregate area, 48 sq. m.; pop. in 1775, 4,500; in 1840, 9,012; in 1860,6,094; in 1870, 4,123. Nantucket island is situated in the Atlantic ocean, 18 m. S. of Cape Cod, 85 m. S. E. of Boston, and is separated from Martha's Vineyard on the west by a channel 8 m. wide. It is of an irregular triangular form, about 16 m. long from E. to W., and for the most part from 3 to 4 m. wide, with an area of about 45 sq. m. It has a level surface in the south, and is slightly hilly in the north. The soil is light, and with the exception of some low pines the island is treeless. There are several ponds containing fine fish. Farming and fishing are the chief occupations of the people, the surrounding waters abounding in fish of various kinds. The climate is mild in winter and cool in summer, and the island is becoming a favorite suinmer resort. It constitutes a customs district, but has little commerce.
There is a lighthouse on Sankaty head (lat. 41° 17' N., lon. 69 57' 35" W.), near the S. E. extremity of the island; another, known as Nantucket light, on Sandy or Great point (lat. 41° 23' 22", lon. 70° 2' 25"), at the N. E. extremity; and several W. of the entrance to Nantucket harbor. Wrecks are not infrequent. Nantucket shoals, about 50 m. long and 45 m. wide, are S. E. of the island, and are dangerous to navigation. There are two post villas, Nantucket on the N. side of the island, and Siasconset on the S. E. Nantucket harbor is deep and secure, though the entrance is obstructed by a bar with only 7½ ft. of water at low tide. Steamers run daily to Wood's Hole on Cape Cod, connecting with railroad for Boston. The town contains a national bank, with a capital of $200,000; a savings bank; five public halls, including the town hall; several public schools; a semi-weekly and a weekly newspaper; and nine churches, viz.: Baptistj(2), Congregational, Episcopal, Friends' (2), Methodist, Roman Catholic, and Unitarian. The Coffin school is an incorporated endowed institution, including a grammar and a high school department.
The Athenoeura has a library of 4,000 volumes, and there is a circulating library. - Nantucket was first settled in 1659 by Thomas Macy, who emigrated from Salisbury, Mass. It was then partially wooded with oaks and other deciduous trees and conifers; but the destruction of the trees ultimately made the island almost a desert. It was included in the grant to the Plymouth company in 1620, in 1664 annexed to New York, and in 1693 ceded to Massachusetts. The town was incorporated as Sherburne in 1673, and in 1795 the name was changed to Nantucket. When it was first settled there were about 1,500 Indians on the island. They decreased to 358 in 1763, in which year a pestilence carried off 222 of them. The last one of full blood died in 1821, and the last half-breed in 1854. Nantucket has been chiefly noted as a seat of the whale fishery, having been at one time the chief whaling port in the world. The fishery from the shore commenced about 1670, and was continued till 1760. The first sperm whale was captured in 1712, and immediately after small vessels were fitted out for short cruises.
The size of the vessels and the length of the cruises were gradually increased, until in 1775 150 vessels were engaged in the business, extending their voyages as far as Davis strait and the coast of Brazil. The war of the revolution destroyed this business, but after its close it was revived. The first ship was despatched to the Pacific in 1791. The town increased in size and prosperity till 1846, when it was visited by a severe conflagration, destroying property to the value of nearly $1,-000,000. After' this the whale fishery and with it the prosperity of the town rapidly declined. The fishery began to revive before the breaking out of the civil war, but afterward became extinct. (See Whale Fishery).