Photo Courtesy of Alison Shaw
When Vineyarders began preparations to defend themselves at the outbreak of the American Revolution, they could look back with pride at a community that they and their ancestors had been building for more than 130 years. Now, with more than an additional 200 years behind us, we continue to appreciate the historic panorama that is visible where ever one looks on Martha’s Vineyard.
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 to about 2270 B.C. have been uncovered on the Island.
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. The natives called it Noepe. Other explorers gave different names, but the name that stuck was given in 1602 by Bartholomew Gosnold, who named it for the wild grapes and for one of his little daughters.
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. He made his only son co-patentee. In 1642 the first white settlement on the Vineyard was established at Great Harbor, now Edgartown, under the leadership of Thomas Mayhew, Jr.
The ordained pastor of his flock, this young man led by example, 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 native Island people, the Wampanoags, without consent and fair payment.
From this time on the colonial settlers and the Wampanoags lived without the terror and bloodshed that had marked American history elsewhere. Within a few years a congregation of “Praying Indians” was established at what is still know as Christiantown.
This colonial period was marked by plenty 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 vulnerable position, 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.
In fact, it is probable that the first naval engagement of the was occurred in April 1775, when Nathan Smith of Tisbury mounted three small cannons on a whaleboat and sailed with a small crew across Vineyard Sound, attacking and capturing the armed British schooner Volante. 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.
Withing a few days the British raiders had burned many island vessels and had removed more than 10,000 sheep and 300 head of cattle from the Vineyard. The raid was an economic blow that affected Island life for more than a generation.
Before the Revolution, Vineyarders had been building large vessels and sailing the North Atlantic from the Grand Banks to the Western Islands in search of whales and the valuable oil they yielded. After the start of the war, all this came to a stop. The whaling industry did not make a real recovery until the early 1820′s, 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. 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. This was just one of the hundreds of revivals that were being held in outdoor settings at the time. The worshippers and their preachers lived in nine improvised tents and the speakers’ 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, and the Island entered into its new life as summer 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 became seasonal or, as in the case of many writers and interesting careers in academic, government, and other professional fields, bring the world to the island much as the far-traveled captains did in the great days of whaling.
Courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce