Martha’s Vineyard’s history was formed by native Wampanoag, immigrants from England
and the Cape Verde islands, people of color, farmers and fishermen, blacksmiths
and merchants. Learn their stories and you will come to know the Island.
The earth here tells the story erased elsewhere in New England. The famous Aquinnah
Cliffs lay bare to geologists the history of the past hundred million years. Traveling
the South Road to Aquinnah, one goes over low hills and valleys cut by streams that
ran off melting glaciers at the end of the Ice Age.
The first humans probably came here before the Vineyard was an island. It is
thought that they arrived after the ice was gone, but before the melting glaciers
in the north raised the sea level enough to separate Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket
from the mainland. Native American camps that carbon-date to2270 B.C. have been
uncovered on the Island.
The Wampanoag people have lived for thousands of years on the island of Martha’s
Vineyard. “Wampanoag” means “People of the First Light.” Before Europeans renamed
the island Martha’s Vineyard, it was called Noepe by theWampanoag which means “land
amid the waters.” Many Aquinnah Wampanoag still live on aboriginal lands on the
southwestern end of the Island, a 3,400- acre peninsula called Aquinnah.
At present, there are over 900 members listed on the Tribal rolls. Of these,
approximately300 reside on the island of Martha’s Vineyard; approximately 150 live
in the town of Aquinnah.
Legend surrounds the much later arrival of the first white men. Some believe
Norsemen were here about 1000 A.D. In 1524, Verrazzano sailed past and named the
island Louisa. Other explorers gave different names, but the one that stuck was
given in 1602 by Bartholomew Gosnold, who named it for the wild grapes and for his
Within 40 years of Gosnold’s visit, all of New England was being claimed and
divided up by Europeans. Thomas Mayhew, a Bay Colony businessman, bought Martha’s
Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands for 40 pounds. In 1642 the first
white settlement on the Vineyard was established at Great Harbour, now Edgartown,
under the leadership of Thomas Mayhew, Jr.
The ordained pastor of his flock, this young man, by example and precept, instituted
a policy of respect and fair dealing with the natives that was unequaled anywhere.
One of the first Mayhew rulings was that no land be taken from the Wampanoags without
consent and fair payment.
From this time on, the colonial settlers and the Wampanoags lived without the
terror and bloodshed that marked other areas in American history. Within a few years
a congregation of “Praying Indians” was established at what is still known as Christiantown.
The Island also acted as a safe haven for people of African descent. One
of the earliest mentions of African home ownership on-Island was in the 1763 will
of a Wampanoag man named Elisha Amos. The will, 1/272 Dukes County Probate, provides
that his “beloved wife Rebecca” receive livestock and his house for as long as she
lived. Rebecca Amos was an enslaved woman originally from Guinea, West Africa, who
survived the cruel journey of the Middle Atlantic Passage. The described house was
located about five miles from the farm of her enslaver, Colonel Cornelius Bassett,
in Chilmark, where she co-resided until she regained freedom upon his death in 1779.
The abolition of slavery in 1783 and the egalitarian nature of the whaling industry
have made Martha’s Vineyard a nurturing place where all people have owned land and
successfully built strong, supportive, and closely-knit communities.
This colonial period was marked by prosperity as well as peace. The sea provided
fish for both export and Island use, and the Wampanoags taught the
settlers to capture whales and tow them ashore to boil out the oil. Farms were productive
as well; in 1720 butter and cheese were being exported by the shipload.
The American Revolution, however, brought hardships to the Vineyard. Despite
the Island’s declared neutrality, the people rallied to the Patriot cause and formed
companies to defend their homeland. With their long heritage of following the sea, Vineyarders served effectively in various maritime operations.
Vineyarders, of course, knew that they could do little to resist a British invasion
of the Island, and their worst fears were confirmed on September 10, 1778,when a
British fleet of 40 ships sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor. Within a few days the
British raiders had burned many Island vessels and removed more than 10,000 sheep
and 300 cattle from the Vineyard. The raid was an economic blow that affected Island
life for more than a generation.
The whaling industry did not make a real recovery until the early 1820s, when
many of the mariners built their beautiful homes in Edgartown. The Civil War brought
the end to the Golden Age of Whaling. Ships on the high seas were captured by the
Confederate navy, while others were bottled up in the harbors. Either way, it meant
financial ruin for the ship owners and the Island.
A new industry was “God-sent” in a very literal way. In 1835 the Edgartown Methodists
had held a camp meeting in an oak grove high on the bluffs at the northern end of
the town. The worshippers and their preachers lived in nine improvised tents and
the speaker’s platform was made of driftwood. The camp meeting became a yearly affair
and one of rapidly growing popularity. Many found the sea bathing and the lovely
surroundings as uplifting as the call to repent. The Methodist Campground meetings
were the catalysts that transformed the Island from a simple farming community into
an internationally known seaside resort.
Many who came for a week or two eventually rented houses and later became property
owners – a pattern that still occurs today. Summer visitors become seasonal or,
as in the case of many writers and artists, year-round residents. These people,
along with the many who retire to the Vineyard bring the world to the Island much
as the far-traveled captains did in the great days of whaling.