A Brief But Comprehensive History of Martha’s Vineyard

The grand old Metropolitan Hotel, once located in on the corner of Kennebec and Park Avenues, Oak Bluffs.

There’s a lot of history packed into this little Island, going all the way back to before it was even an island. Martha’s Vineyard (and its sister island, Nantucket, which is really mostly a sandbar) were formed from glacial moraine – i.e., the rubble left behind by a melting glacier. Or so say geologists. The Wampanoag Indians, who were here much earlier, say that it was formed by the creator god Moshup walking across what became Vineyard Sound — water filled the depression of his moccasins, rendering an island, called Noepe, which is translatable to “the island amidst the streams.”

Things were relatively quiet for a couple thousand years, and then, during the most momentous field trip since the Roman Empire, Europeans discovered America. In 1602, a fellow named Bartholomew Gosnold (possibly a friend of William Shakespeare’s) landed on the Island. Legend says he found wild grapes growing here, and back in England he had a baby daughter and/or a mother named Martha. Hence the name. He claimed the Island for England and went home again.

Before the middle of the 17th century, white settlers had followed his path and were here to stay. Chief (possibly first) among these was Thomas Mayhew, from Tisbury, England. Some time around 1642, he got himself appointed “Governor for Life of Tisbury Manor” by the governor of Massachusetts. He named the Vineyard and some small surrounding islands “the County of Dukes County” to get in good with the Duke of York (and the Redundancy Department of Redundancy).

Mayhew’s son Thomas converted many of the Wampanoags to Christianity largely (but not entirely) by doing “good works.” Thomas Jr. died young, his ship lost at sea, but his grandson and great-grandsons continued the ministry of converting the Indians. Perhaps (in part) as a result of this, Martha’s Vineyard has the distinction of being the only place in Colonial America that suffered no violence between indigenous and settler populations. Even King Philip’s War set off no sparks here.

But back to the earlier days: while there were a few other shenanigans (particularly involving the spirited Athearn family), things proceeded calmly enough all the way to the American Revolution. The Vineyard tried to stay neutral when Independence was first declared, but growing tired of being plundered mercilessly by the British warships, decided within the year that they supported the cause of liberty. Three young girls famously blew up a local flag pole that the British were planning to use as a sailing mast; their deed is commemorated in a huge white “Liberty Pole” on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, in front of the Sail M.V. building (which is also the original home of the Nathan Mayhew Seminars).

Otherwise, however, the Vineyard continued pretty much unscathed, and the white people continued their inexorable westward march, pushing the Wampanoag (who despite being Christian and nonviolent were still not white) farther and farther west, toward the part of the Island called Aquinnah. Most racially-European Islanders were either farmers or fishermen, but the whaling industry was coming into its prime, and soon Great Harbor (renamed Edgartown) was bursting with wealth and attitude. The stately white Federalist-style whaling captains’ houses were built starting in the early 1800s. Among the Vineyard’s famous whalers was Tashtego, a character in Melville’s classic, “Moby Dick.” Most of our other famous whalers are nonfictional.

The 19th century was notable for many things, of which four will get a nod here:
First, Edgartown, with its deep, safe harbor, was in its great whaling boom. Ships from all over the world harbored here; it was considered one of the most important harbors in the eastern U.S. and also served as a point for clearance papers and customs dues (something I have known most of my life without actually quite understanding what it means). The rest of the Island thrived as well. West Tisbury and Chilmark developed prosperous agricultural scenes and the fishing village of Menemsha, in Chilmark, grew and flourished, for whaling was the hot ticket for decades. This added an interesting cultural dimension to Island life, as many of the crew that the whaling boats picked up came from the Azores, and so gradually, the “white” stock of the settlers developed a little pigment, with Azorean (read: Portuguese) ancestry entering into the collective bloodstream, along with still-common Island names like Silva and Medeiros. The Azoreans being less preoccupied than the whites with racial purity, they also freely intermarried with the native Wampanoags.

Speaking of the Wampanoags, Event #2 was the setbacks (term?) of the 1850s (check). There was disgruntlement between the growing population of settlers and the increasingly crowded population of indigenous people; this was settled by an agreement by which all the native Americans moved to the western side of the Island, Aquinnah. As long as they stayed there, they were allowed to retain certain sovereign rights that most of their mainland brethren were steadily being deprived of. This segregation, although less culturally ingrained than it was elsewhere, still accounts for the demographic distribution of Wampanoags on the Vineyard: most of them live in Aquinnah, which hosts the Wampanoag Cultural Center. Do not, however, entertain overly romanticized images of “the natives” – the most common Wampanoag surnames are Madison and Vanderhoop, so clearly it wasn’t just the Azorean whalers the locals were getting frisky with over the years.

Inclusion of another kind, involving Event #3, was to be found in the Islanders’ response to a high rate of hereditary deafness among the English settler stock, starting in the late 1600s (and continuing into the early 1900s). The deaf community was fully integrated into the hearing community because everyone knew sign language, whether or not there were deaf members in their households. This would come in handy when tourists started coming to the Island in the last part of the 19th century; Islanders — hearing or not — would revert to Vineyard sign in order to gossip about visitors in their midst.

The third great event of the Victorian Era was the Methodist Revival. While there are precious few Methodists left on the Vineyard, relatively speaking, their summer revival meetings, starting in the 1830s, created the most colorful (literally and figuratively) town on the Island: Cottage City, now Oak Bluffs. They would come in the summer from off Island by steamer and stay in tents, which were erected seasonally on permanent platforms. Over time, the Methodists were well-off enough to indulge in building little cottages on these platforms, of a color and style one hardly associates with the word “Methodists.” With such a reliable summer population, it was just a matter of time before Oak Bluffs developed a bustling street of shops. Interestingly, shortly after developing a reputation as the seat of Methodist believers, Oak Bluffs also developed a reputation, which it holds to this day, as the town in which it is easiest to obtain liquor. The few “dive bars” Martha’s Vineyard can boast of having are all in Oak Bluffs. It’s the closest thing the Vineyard has to a nightlife.

With the decline of whaling and Revival meetings, and the pushing-aside of the native population, the Vineyard continued to farm and fish peacefully until somebody — and we’re not pointing fingers — invented the concept of summer vacations, and then somebody else noticed what a great place the Vineyard would be for just that kind of excursion. Actually, we have to blame the Methodists for this one; they’re the ones photographed frolicking in the waves near the beaches that later became known as Pay Beach and The Inkwell. The Inkwell is known for being the preferred summer retreat of affluent African-American families going back a century or more.

For much of the 20th century, the Vineyard was content to fish, farm, and poke fun at the summer people behind their backs. Then a couple of big things changed the vibe. First, Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge. We’re really tired of talking about that, though, so let’s just move on to the next big event: JAWS. We never get tired of talking about JAWS.

JAWS gave Vineyarders a sense of our place on the map. Literally. That may be why, in 1977, when Massachusetts announced a “re-districting plan” that would change the political map to the detriment of Island interests, there was born a lively movement to secede from (a) the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and/or (b) the United States. A flag was created, an anthem composed, and proposed passport designs were available in shops. Walter Cronkite (a beloved summer resident) even mentioned it on the evening news. It was very exciting. Then we got distracted by JAWS 2 and sort of forgot about seceding.

Within a decade of JAWS coming out, the rest of the world wanted a piece of Martha’s Vineyard, and suddenly, the price of real estate skyrocketed. Wealthy people began to buy summer houses all over the Island; investors began to build hotels and businesses. Painters and writers had taken a fancy to the Vineyard’s scenic quiet decades earlier and it was already a well-established mecca for creative types, so it was unsurprising when Hollywood’s elite discovered it. Clinton deciding to vacation here definitely did not hurt the real estate market, and Obama’s continuing that practice kept us in the news.

Different towns were affected in different ways by the real estate boom. Chilmark, for example, already had three-acre zoning, so the possibility of overdevelopment was pretty much nonexistent. On the other hand, in West Tisbury — a town inhabited by white people for 300 years — 50 percent of all dwellings as of the year 2000 had been built since 1980.

Here’s a fun fact that will surprise you and win you points at cocktail parties: Dukes County (i.e., Martha’s Vineyard) was the poorest county in Massachusetts in 1980, and today remains among the poorer counties. The summer folk with their sumptuous homes brought a lot of money to the Island while their homes were being built, and the vibrant tourist industry keeps money coming in for a good four or five months of the year, but the rest of the time, this is a largely blue-collar community. What makes it special and endearing is that so many of the “regular Joes and Jills” who struggle to make ends meet through the winter are here by choice, because they are drawn to the same things that the celebrities are drawn to, that the writers and painters of the past hundred years have been drawn to. They are willing to do whatever they need to remain here, taking whatever work they can, including writing up summary histories of their beloved homeland for a local newspaper’s website.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]