In the first mega-subdivision in Island history, Thomas Mayhew gave permission (in 1668) to Miles Standish’s son and some buddies to go up Island from Great Harbor (Edgartown) and purchase whatever land they could from the Wampanoag owners of the area known then as Takemmy. The acres they eventually purchased became the town of Tisbury over the next few years. Tisbury originally included all of the land that is now the town of Vineyard Haven and some parts of what is now Chilmark. By 1694 Chilmark had officially split off, but it took two hundred years more for the population of the original town center at West Tisbury to become tired of playing second fiddle to the larger upstart port town that grew up near the harbor and demand that Vineyard Haven go its own way.
Because the original purchasers were more interested in farmland than another harbor, the original town had been based near the flat and fertile lands around Tisbury Great Pond. Thoreau memorably pointed out that on Cape Cod and the Islands trickles that were hardly noticed on the mainland were utilized and given dignified names. There were grist and wool processing mills on the “rivers” that run down from the moraine to the Tisbury Great Pond. Today West Tisbury remains the most agricultural town on the Island.
Which is not to say it is anywhere near as agricultural as it once was, as the miles of stone walls running through mature second and third growth forest attest. By the time of the American Revolution, the Island was not the wooded place it is today, but was almost entirely devoid of trees and overrun with sheep. In 1778, the British fleet showed up in Vineyard Haven (which was still a part of West Tisbury) and demanded that 10,000 sheep be delivered to the docks or the guns would blaze. Are we like sheep? Apparently…the guns didn’t blaze and most of the sheep went to Newport.
Not much has happened in the town since then except there’s a new town hall, a new library, a new police station, a new fire station, and everyone wonders how the property taxes got so much higher than they are in Chilmark.
Land Area: 25.0 sq mi (64.8 km2)
Water Area: 16.7 sq mi (43.3 km2)