The Island

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 wherever 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 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 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 has marked American history elsewhere. Within a few years a congregation of "Praying Indians" was established at what is still known 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 war 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.

Within 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 were 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 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. 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 fully as uplifting as the call to repent, and the Island entered into its new life as a 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 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 after 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.


One of New England's most elegant communities, Edgartown was the Island's first colonial settlement and it has been the county seat since 1642. The stately white Greek Revival houses built by the whaling captains have been carefully maintained. They make the town a museum-piece community, a seaport village preserved from the early 19th century.

Main Street is a picture book setting with its harbor and waterfront. The tall square-rigged ships that sailed all the world's oceans have passed from the Edgartown scene, but the heritage of those vessels and their captains has continued. For the past hundred years, Edgartown has been one of the world's great yachting centers.

To view and appreciate this town fully, you must walk its streets. North Water Street has a row of captains' houses not equaled anywhere. Study the fanlights and widow's walks by day and stroll down the streets after the lamps are lit.

South Water Street is dominated by a huge pagoda tree brought from China as a seedling by Captain Thomas Milton in the early days of the last century. The house beyond it was that of Captain Valentine Pease, on whose ship Herman Melville made his only whaling voyage.

Many houses in Edgartown predate the whaling era. Most are private residences, but three notable ones are serving other needs. The Vincent House (built in 1672, the oldest known house on the Island) and the Thomas Cooke House are museums. At 34 South Summer Street, you'll find the home built by Benjamin Smith in 1760. It is now the office of the Vineyard Gazette.

Across from the Gazette is the Federated Church, built in 1828. It still has the old box pews, which are entered through little doors and have narrow seats around three sides.

The famous Old Whaling Church with its six massive columns commands Main Street. Built in 1843 at the height of the whaling industry, the Church was given to the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust in 1980. It has been transformed into a performing arts center. Next door is the Dr. Daniel Fisher House, built three years before the Old Whaling Church.

There are excellent public beaches in the township of Edgartown. Norton's Point, known as South Beach or Katama, is a barrier beach providing surf bathing and the opportunity to explore Katama Bay on the other side of the dunes. Wasque and Cape Poge on Chappaquiddick are both unspoiled areas owned and maintained by The Trustees of Reservations. They are favorite spots for bluefish and bass fishermen. Lighthouse Beach, located off North Water Street near the town center, offers calm water and views of harbor activities. Bend-in-the-Road Beach, part of Joseph Sylvia Beach, has ample parking and is accessible by bicycle trail.

Felix Neck is about three miles outside the center of town on Vineyard Haven Road. The 200 acres, owned by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, provide marked trails and a program of wildlife management and conservation education throughout the year.

President Grant visits Martha’s Vineyard Aug 31, 1874

Hard Knocks: Horses at Herring Creek Farm can Kick like Mules…

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