Introduction to Part I: The Early History of Vineyard Houses: Their Evolution and Formative Influences


The well-known coastal island of Martha’s Vineyard has a history of English settlement which goes back to the 1640s. Though no structure, so far as I have been able to discover, can be dated back quite this early, a surprising number of somewhat later 17th century houses survive here; five have probable dates in the 1670s, five in the 1680s, and three more from the 1690s. By the Revolutionary period, the number of surviving houses on this Island swells to approximately seventy-five. This sizable and significant group of Colonial houses is the focus of this study.

Islanders, I have found, do not generally consider their early houses as museum pieces, and have in the past freely altered them to suit current living styles. This has meant that most of the historic homes here have been considerably changed over time, and in the process much early work has been destroyed or, occasionally, covered over. This, for an historian, is unfortunate. The advantage, however, has been that the houses themselves have been preserved, in surprising numbers, and are almost always still valued as very comfortable dwellings. Vineyarders seem to have a natural conservatism expressed as a reluctance to tear down or remove a structure that might just as well be repaired or rebuilt. Even when a house, barn or meeting house succumbs to age, fire, or is otherwise destroyed, usable beams were often salvaged and re-used in a later structure, leaving some evidence of an earlier generation of buildings. The result has been that a remarkable continuity of architectural types has been preserved on this Island which goes back in some cases to the pioneer settlers of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Surprisingly, there has been no complete study of the Vineyard architectural heritage. Of course the early houses, or what was known of them, were mentioned in local histories; but no larger architectural study has included examples from this Island.

This is particularly unfortunate when writers like Hugh Morrison in his well-known Early American Architecture is unable to find more than one good and representative 17th century house from the area of southeastern Massachusetts[1]. The house type that developed here (what 19th century traveler Dwight has termed the “Cape Cod house”)[2] can be traced on the Island back to very early beginnings. The Colonial domestic architecture of southeastern Massachusetts (Plymouth Colony, the Cape, and the Islands), so distinct from that of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and, until Richard Candee’s recent research,[3] so little understood, has still many missing links in terms of the development of the so-called “Cape Cod house.” The early homes on this Island have furnished some clues as to what those links might be. For example, several late 17th century houses here, though much changed, show evidence of early one-room and thatched roof stages. From this, the process by which the house type evolved in the late 17th century into the distinctively proportioned, two-room deep, low-pitched roof style can be plausibly reconstructed. And what happened here may well have been the late echoes of an evolutionary process that took place earlier on the Cape and in Plymouth Colony with far-reaching effects. Out-of-the-way places sometimes preserve much that is lost elsewhere.

As my research progressed, it became apparent that the most was to be learned from the earlier “first period” houses and these increasingly became my focus. Richard Candee defines the first period houses in Plymouth Colony as comprising those before 1700;[4] Cummings extends that category in Massachusetts to 1725.[5] On the Vineyard, the first period houses can best be seen as those before 1730. By this time the significant changes in plan, roof construction, chimneys, windows, interior paneling, etc. that brought into being the typical Vineyard house had already taken place. After this date, details were refined, but no significant changes in basic plan took place until the early 19th century. Because these are the most important, a full documentation of all the Island houses I have been able to discover that go back to 1730 and before has been included in Part III. These are listed town by town in chronological order.

This documentation takes on particular significance in light of the paucity of reliable information on the earliest houses in this southeastern part of Massachusetts. It is unfortunate, for example, that the first period houses in the oldest towns on the Cape—Sandwich and Barnstable (from which may of the earliest Vineyard settlers came) - have proved impossible to date because the old deeds and town records, by which their history could be traced, were destroyed by fire. Here on the Vineyard, only the documents of the town of Chilmark were so destroyed in the 19th century, and those not in their entirety. The old records of Tisbury and Edgartown (Great Harbor) still survive intact. But more important for this study are the handwritten deeds that were scrupulously kept of all land transactions on this Island going back to almost the first years of settlement. These, along with certain town records pertaining to property transfers and subdivision plans, are carefully bound and maintained in the Dukes County Registry of Deeds in Edgartown. Accompanying these are the records of the Dukes County Probate Court, also going back to the time of the first Island settlers. These include transfers of properties and estates by wills, certain gifts, inventories of estates, and other court-related actions such as the custody of minor children. By means of these records, the history of a house can be traced back through its succession of owners to its first owner/builder, and thus a probable date can be ascribed to it.

Along with these documents, several early maps preserved in the Dukes County Historical Society (now the Martha’s Vineyard Museum) have been helpful for this research. The first recorded map of the English settlements was made in 1694 by Simon Athearn, a resident of Tisbury and a prominent and controversial member of the early Island community; but by no means a professional map-maker. No roads, rivers, ponds, or other landmarks are indicated by him, but he did note the houses then in existence, by number and relative position. Thus, his map informs us that there were thirty-six houses in Edgartown by 1694 and twenty-two in Tisbury. In Chilmark, the line of the seven original homesteads along the South Road is clearly marked, but only one appears in the Quansoo-Quenames area, so we are fairly certain that of the two surviving very early homes in this area, only one can date before 1694. Sections of this map are illustrated in Part III.

The most impressive early maps of this area come from the Atlantic Neptune series drawn for the British Admiralty just before the Revolution by Joseph DeBarres. These charts are as complete as Athearn’s map was sketchy. The coastline, the ponds, the houses, and even the stone fence lines are indicated with great accuracy giving us a remarkably clear picture of the Island at the time of the Revolution.

The Walling map of 1850 not only shows the Island and its houses as it was then, but also lists each house according to its then owner. This has proven to be a valuable checkpoint when tracing the succession of owners back through the 19th century. An enlargement of the Chilmark portion of this map also lists earlier (or original) occupants in red ink.

A very interesting settlement map of (West) Tisbury shows the first divisions of the land into proprietors’ lots and lists the early owners. As well as locating and dating the early houses, this map also gives a clear picture of how an early Vineyard town was laid out, each long narrow lot having frontage on the river. It is believed that this map was made by the historian Charles Banks, drawing on descriptions in deeds and probate records. My research tends to corroborate the accuracy of his work. Pertinent portions of all these maps are illustrated in sections I and III.

The earliest Island authors include the missionary Mayhews—Thomas Jr., founder of the first settlement at Great Harbor, and his grandson Experience. Both were most interested in matters relating to the mission work to the Indians here, and thus, though there is some account of how the Indians lived (see Part I, chapter 2), nowhere is there mention of the English settlement, or any description of their houses. Reverend Homes of Chilmark kept a journal of daily events in this town in the early 18th century. Occasionally he notes something that is pertinent to our study, as when he describes the burning of Zephaniah Mayhew’s house in 1718.[6] This explains why a mature man with half-grown children, Zephaniah had need of a new house in 1720 (the Mayhew-Copley house, Chilmark). Several visitors to the Island have left us interesting accounts of where they stayed, what they saw, and whom they met. These writings include Judge Sewell’s diary of the early eighteenth century, and Crevecoeur’s chapter on Martha’s Vineyard, written just after the Revolution and included in his book Letters from an American Farmer. Both are quoted in the text.

Though there was no history of the Vineyard written in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, Island families have had a very strong sense of their past. Stories, events, and tales of famous characters have been passed on from generation to generation as an oral tradition. In this century several writers have recorded these tales and stories. C.G. Hines and Franklin Norton were the first at the turn of the 20th century; more recently, Cyril Norton, Gale Huntington, Eleanor Mayhew, and Joseph Chase Allen have written about Island history and lore. What has been previously recorded about the Vineyard’s early houses is a compendium of these Island legends and stories, many of them scrambled and misleading, but often with an underlying element of truth. For example, Cyril Norton’s story that the James Allen house was built by a sea captain, Clement Norton, and that the curved posts were ship’s knees is totally erroneous. The house was already 150 years old when Clement Norton purchased it in 1833, and the curved or splayed posts were a common feature of every early Colonial house, here and elsewhere. Furthermore, Chilmark, with no good natural harbors, was first settled by farmers, like James Allen, not sea captains. However, when Cyril Norton goes on to say that the house was moved from somewhere across the road, he proved to be correct, and this helped to explain why such an old house was sitting on a 19th century foundation, and was oriented west instead of south.[7]

In a different vein, the three volume History of Martha’s Vineyard, written after twenty years of exhaustive research by Dr. Charles E. Banks, is solid, reliable, and invaluable for any student of Island history. Without his basic spadework and his genealogies of Vineyard families, the present work would have been difficult or impossible to complete.

As readers will come to this work looking for different things, I have divided the material into three parts, each with its own emphasis. Part I gives a basic background history of the early settlements and describes the evolution and influences on Colonial Vineyard houses. Part II, for those interested in the structure, describes individual features of the early houses and shows how they evolved and changed. Chapters in this part describe the character and development of the plan, foundation, frame, chimney, windows, paneling, etc. Part III, as mentioned, documents the individual early houses, telling about their early owners, how I date them, and their stages of growth and change.

Notes - Introduction to Part I

[1] Hugh Morrison, Early American Architecture (New York, 1952), p. 67.

[2] Timothy Dwight, Travels in New England and New York (New Haven, 1821), Vol. III, p. 97.

[3] Richard M. Candee, “A Documentary History of Plymouth County Architecture, 1620-1700,” Old-Time New England, January-March, 1969, pp. 59-71; July-September, 1969, pp. 105-11; October-December, 1969, pp. 37-53.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Abbot Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1979); also see Abbot Lowell Cummings, Massachusetts and its First Period Houses (Boston, 1979).

[6] Charles Edward Banks, The History of Martha’s Vineyard (Edgartown, 1966), Vol. II, “Annals of Chilmark,” p. 44.

[7] Cyril Norton, “Up-Island Houses Along the North, Middle, and South Roads,” Vineyard Gazette, June 26, 1959, p. 7. For a full discussion of this, see Part III on the Allen-Stanley house (ca. 1688).