A Brief History of Aquinnah

Gay Head Cliffs, Beach, Aquinnah, Alison Shaw
Photo by Alison Shaw

Aquinnah in a nutshell

Unlike the rest of the Island, most of Aquinnah is not rubble carried south by the glaciers and piled up here. Instead, the colorful clays of the famous Gay Head Cliffs were pushed up from the ancient local muds by the weight of the advancing ice, the way a carpet might fold and buckle upwards when pushed forward.  As a result, there are strange and wonderful fossils in the cliffs from millions or even hundreds of millions of years ago: prehistoric camel teeth and such. For thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the Island in the seventeenth century, the local Wampanoag people fished and farmed here, and today the town is still home to the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. The Wampanoag didn’t limit their angling efforts to the plentiful bass, bluefish, cod, and other fish: they went out in small canoes and hunted whales with harpoons. Not surprisingly, when the Europeans took up whaling in larger vessels in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Wampanoag went with them. In Moby Dick, the character Tashtego is a Gay Head Indian, and in real life the only known harpooner to kill a white whale was a Vineyard Wampanoag named Amos Smalley. In the age of sail, the passage between Cape Cod and the Islands was second only to the English channel in terms of ship traffic.  But the entry to Vineyard Sound was treacherous, and the first lighthouse on the Island was built atop the cliffs in 1800 to help guide ships into and out of Vineyard Sound. The waters below the cliffs are notoriously dangerous, with ripping tidal currents and a shoal called the Devil’s Bridge that stretches out toward Cuttyhunk and has caught many unfortunate vessels. Most famously, the steamer City of Columbus wrecked on an icy night in 1884 with a loss of more than one hundred lives. The present lighthouse, made of bricks fabricated out of the red clay from the cliffs, was constructed in 1856 and was moved back a few years ago to prevent it falling over the eroding edge of the Island. Since the birth of the tourism business on the Island in the nineteenth century, the Gay Head Cliffs have been a major attraction, with steamboats bringing tourists up from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown to “Pilots’ Landing.” From there they hiked up to the lighthouse, and to the western style tipis from which the Wampanoag sold crafts and snacks. Today the tipis are gone, but the Wampum artists and chowder sellers are alive and well. The town, which separated from Chilmark in 1870, changed its name from Gay Head to the Wampanoag word Aquinnah in 1997. The vote was close: 79 to 76.

The Statistics

“Settled”: 10,000 BC

Incorporated: 1870

Land Area: 5.4 square miles (13.9km2)

Water Area: 35.4 sq miles (92 km2)

Population: 311