Nantucket History: Stories of The Grey Lady

Nantucket is a town of tradition, culture, and rich history. The island was settled in 1641 and has seen the influx of wealth, power, and money. Although it only stretches 14 miles wide, it boasts some of the world’s most amazing stories. From its whaling past to the cobblestone streets, take a glimpse into Nantucket History through a few of our favorite tales.

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3 Stories You Need to Know About Nantucket’s History

  • The Story of The Essex

Perhaps one of the most well known Nantucket tales is the tragic story of the whaling ship, The Essex. The story became known as the true-life inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and it goes a little something like this.

In the fall of 1820, the Nantucket whaling industry was booming, and sperm whales were of top priority. Although more aggressive and larger than the typical North American Right Whale, sperm whales were desired for their higher-quality oil. On the chilly morning of November 20th, The Essex set sail out of Nantucket Harbor. Once the ship reached the open ocean, its captain, George Pollard, boarded a smaller vessel and began whaling a few yards from the ship. Suddenly, first mate Owen Chase spotted an 85-foot sperm whale lingering in the distance with its head facing The Essex. After staring down the giant whale for what seemed like an eternity, the whale started at full speed towards the boat. It smashed head-on into the ship and then dived underneath, only to circle and give the vessel one more giant thrust. 

Captain Pollard raced back to the ship, but it was too late. The crew drifted at sea for three months in lifeboats, with only 8 out of the 21 crew members returning home to Nantucket. 

  • The Story of Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell is one of Nantucket’s most famous female Quakers. Born in 1818, she was raised to explore the sky and expand her education. She was an astronomer, librarian, naturalist, and educator. By the age of 14, adult sailors trusted Mitchell’s knowledge of the stars enough to create maps and navigational calculations for extended whaling trips. 

On October 1st, 1847, Mitchell was sweeping the roof of Main Street’s Pacific National Bank when she saw a star seemingly flash across the sky. With her expert knowledge of star patterns, she knew this was out of the ordinary. This knowledge brought light to astronomy’s discovery of comets. Mitchell was awarded the gold medal prize by King Christian VIII of Denmark for her discovery. Visit the Loines Observatory on the island to learn more!

  • The Great Fire of Nantucket

On July 13, 1846, William Geary closed his hat shop on Main Street and walked home for the night. Little did he realize that there was a clogged stovepipe that would soon spark a flame, setting the city ablaze. The fire quickly spread, bursting the barrels of whale oil into the air. 250 buildings were destroyed, and over 800 people were left homeless. Some credit the Great Fire of Nantucket to the ultimate demise of the prosperous whaling industry. 

Alice Knowles - Straight on ViewStay in Authentic Nantucket at the Anchor Inn

Experience true Nantucket when you stay at our cozy Anchor Inn. Our 13-room bed and breakfast offers the convenience of downtown living paired with the hospitality of a local inn. We are located next to the historic Old North Church on Centre Street overlooking the stunning Nantucket Harbor. 

Book your stay in the Alice Knowles Room and enjoy a plush queen-size bed, flat-screen TV, city views, 100% cotton linens, Malin + Goetz bath products, and a complimentary continental breakfast each morning of your stay. Live like a local when you stay at the Anchor Inn. We can’t wait to welcome you to Nantucket!