But Once You Have Slept on the Faraway Island

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Did you know the name Nantucket, which means “Faraway Island,” originated with the native Wampanoag tribe? They flourished on the island before the first Englishman arrived, growing essential foods such as corn, beans and squash, fishing and hunting game. Many attribute the art of basket making to the tribe.

Tashtego, a fictional Wampanoag harpooner whose hunting prowess stemmed from his tribal heritage, was immortalized in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, or the Whale. An unknown illness in 1763 caused the deaths of large numbers of the Nantucket Wampanoag and the last member of the local tribe is believed to have died on Nantucket in 1855. Descendants are still found today on Martha’s Vineyard and the Cape.

The island’s English influence began when it was deeded in 1641 to Thomas Mayhew and his son who brought sheep to the island. Eighteen years later, it was purchased by Thomas Macy and eight others wishing to escape the repression of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Small whales were common among the waters off Nantucket and islanders soon learned how to extract the valuable oil from these animals. By 1715 when deep-sea whaling began to seek larger whales, islanders were highly skilled in both extracting and storing the oil. This led to Nantucket becoming the whaling capital of the world and so it remained until kerosene, a cheaper alternative product, reached the market and replaced whale oil.

Local island entrepreneurs responded to this change in the island’s fortunes by positioning Nantucket as a summer resort. Guest houses promoted the island’s fresh air, guaranteed a good night’s sleep and a fine fish dinner. This became the new island narrative. It continues today and each July and August the strength of those early claims is confirmed by the fashionable crowds that throng the “faraway island.” Guesthouses, inns, homes and restaurants are filled, Main Street is busy and the many beautiful beaches are crowded as visitors enjoy these selfsame joys.

In the words of author and poet, Rachel Lyman Field:

“But you’ll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep.
Oh! you won’t know why and you can’t say how
Such a change upon you came,
But once you have slept on an island,
You’ll never be quite the same.”

To read more about the history of the island, see Nantucket in a Nutshell by Elizabeth Oldham in the Nantucket Historical Association magazine.