Nantucket Harbor is on an island with the same name about 48 kilometers (30 miles) south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Nantucket Harbor is also some 22 nautical miles south-southeast of Hyannis Harbor. Separated from the mainland by Nantucket Sound, Nantucket Harbor is about 24 nautical miles (36 kilometers or 22 miles) east-southeast of Edgartown Harbor on Martha's Vineyard.
Formed by glaciers, Nantucket Island is about 24 kilometers (15 miles) miles long and 8 to 16 kilometers wide (5 to 10 miles). Nantucket Harbor and the town of Nantucket are a popular destination for summer tourists, drawn to its historic sea captain's homes, colonial era buildings, art galleries, bike trails, and facilities for yachts. Containing Massachusetts' greatest concentration of structures built before the US Civil War, all of Nantucket Island is on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2010, more than 10 thousand people made Nantucket Harbor their home.
Before Europeans came to the future Nantucket Harbor in 1641, the Wampanoag people inhabited the island. These Native Americans are known for bringing corn and turkey to the Pilgrims and establishing the American Thanksgiving.
Yellow fever had already decimated the indigenous population when it arrived in Massachusetts with the new settlers in the early 17th Century. Europeans gave alcohol to the Wampanoag and, having gotten them drunk, "bought" their land. The British also sold many of the native people into slavery and would not permit them to use their language or their tribal names.
It is possible that the first Europeans who arrived at Nantucket Harbor in the 11th Century were Norsemen. In 1641, England granted a deed to Nantucket Harbor and the rest of the island to merchants Thomas Mayhew and his son. At the time, Nantucket Harbor was part of the New York Colony. When the Province of Massachusetts Bay was formed in 1691, Nantucket Harbor became part of it.
The English began to settle Martha's Vineyard before they ventured to Nantucket Harbor. As Cape Cod was invaded by the English, Nantucket Harbor became a refuge for indigenous peoples from the mainland who relied on fish for their livelihood.
Settlement of Nantucket Harbor by Europeans began in 1659 when Thomas Mayhew sold his deed to a group led by Tristam Coffin. Nantucket Harbor attracted tradesmen and seamen, a tradition that is reflected in the fact that Ahab and Starbuck from Herman Melville's Moby Dick are both Nantucket Harbor citizens.
Legend tells that sometime before 1672, when a whale entered Nantucket Harbor and was killed by the settlers, the whaling industry was born on the island. By the middle 19th Century, the Nantucket Harbor whaling industry was in decline. A terrible 1846 fire, with whale oil and lumber for fuel, destroyed most of the town. In addition, silting in Nantucket Harbor made it impossible for whaling ships to use the port. Railroads also made ports on the mainland more desirable than Nantucket Harbor for transshipment of cargoes.
The resulting depopulation of the island left Nantucket Harbor isolated and under-developed. That isolation lasted until the middle 1900s, in effect preserving many of the colonial structures in Nantucket Harbor. In the 1950s, industrious developers bought big sections of Nantucket Harbor and restored them in hopes of attracting the wealthy.
In 1977, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Harbor tried to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when a proposed modification of the State's constitution would have reduced the islands' representation in Massachusetts' General Court.