Aquinnah (Gay Head) Cliffs. In 1602, the English navigator Bartholomew Gosnold sailing south from Cape Cod, discovered these “lovely wooded islands” with “courteous natives” and “a healthful climate”. He gave them English names. This dramatic headland of Martha’s Vineyard he called “Dover Cliffs” after the white chalk cliffs of southeastern England. In the background are the Elizabeth Islands, named after his Queen. On the outermost Island of this chain (now called “Cuttyhunk”), Gosnold’s chroniclers described constructing possibly the first English house built in North America.
The Early Settlements
From the English point of view, Martha’s Vineyard’s early history must begin with the navigator Bartholomew Gosnold. He sailed into these waters in the late spring of 1602, his purpose being to gather sassafras, for which there was a ready market in England, to trade for furs, and also to explore the region for his patron, Sir Walter Raleigh. With him were two chroniclers—John Brereton and Gabriel Archer—gentlemen adventurers from Elizabeth’s court who kept a careful record of the voyage. It is from them that we have our first glimpse of the Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands, and Noman’s Land Island as they looked in their pristine beauty forty years before any permanent English settlement in the region. Their accounts tell of lovely wooded islands with streams and lakes of the purest water, a healthful climate such that “we felt our health and strength all the while we remained there…to renew and increase,” and natives who were “exceeding courteous, gentle, and well conditioned…for shape of bodie and lovely favour I think they excell all the people of America…” Everywhere they found wild grapes growing “where they run upon every tree, as upon the outward parts, that we could not goe for treading upon them.” It has been conjectured that these idyllic descriptions, which must have been told or read at Elizabeth’s court, may have inspired William Shakespeare who was soon to write The Tempest.
Fig. 1-1. Sketch map of the Cape and Islands showing the earliest settlements and probable route of Gosnold’s voyage.
Gosnold’s chroniclers tell us the voyage from Falmouth, England took six weeks. He first touched land probably on Cape Ann (near Boston), and then proceeded south rounding “a mightie headland” which he called “Cape Cod” after the numerous fish his crew was able to catch here—a name it has ever since borne. “At length,” says the chronicler, “we were come amongst many faire islands, which we had partly discerned at our first landing; all lying within a league or two of one another.” They landed first on a little island,
foure English miles in compasse, without house or inhabitant, saving a little old house made of boughes, covered with barke, an old piece of a weare of the Indians, to catch fish, and one or two places where they had made fires…
He then speaks of
a great standing lake of fresh water, neere the sea side, an English mile in compasse, which is mainteined with the springs running exceeding pleasantly thorow the woodie grounds, which are very rockie… (and everywhere) an incredible store of Vines…
Opposite this description in the margin of the text was written “The first Island called Marthaes Vineyard.” Thus appears the first mention of this name. Who Martha was, whether wife, daughter, or mother of Gosnold, or someone else entirely, still remains a subject of debate. However, the little island just described is in fact the present Noman’s Land, four miles south of the much larger Martha’s Vineyard. Gosnold was soon to sail to the larger island, and his chroniclers make this clear with a very accurate description of the South Beach, and the Great Ponds which run the length of the south shore. Soon, the name “Marthaes Vineyard” was transferred to the larger island; “Noman’s Land” may then have received its name from the fact that they found a house but no inhabitants there. The up-island region of Martha’s Vineyard has similar rocky woods, numerous fresh streams and ponds, and wild grapes growing everywhere.
From Noman’s Gosnold rounded a great headland which he called “Dover Cliffs” (Gay Head, now Aquinnah) and explored the long chain of islands that he named after his Queen—the Elizabeth Islands. It is generally believed that Gosnold chose the last and most outermost of these—a little island known today by its Indian name, Cuttyhunk—as the site for his outpost. His chronicler speaks of an island “sixteen English miles, at the least, in compasse” (Cuttyhunk is now a good deal smaller), and describes the construction of possibly the first English house built in North America:
On the northwest side of this island, neere to the seaside, is a standing Lake of fresh water, almost three English miles in compasse, in the middest whereof stands a plot of woodie ground, an acre in quantitie, or not above. Now the next day we determined to fortifie ourselves in the little plot of ground in the midst of the Lake above mentioned, where we built an house and covered it with sedge, which grew above this lake in great abundance; in building whereof, we spent three weeks and more.
This house, thatched with a covering of sedge reeds as was common practice in England at this time, must have looked very similar to the thatched roof cottages and barns of the first settlers on the Vineyard who came forty years later. It has been suggested that the oak frame and planking for the walls may have been brought over from England in the largely empty hold of the ship. Otherwise, “three weeks and more” may not have been time to put up a suitable outpost “to fortifie ourselves in;” moreover, the only gathered material mentioned by Brereton was the sedge grass covering for the roof.
Fig. 1-2. Martha’s Vineyard as known to the Indians. (From Banks’ History of Martha’s Vineyard, Vol. II.)
Notwithstanding the defensive nature of the outpost, the Indians proved to be peaceful and friendly. They set up camp nearby, traded furs and even helped Gosnold’s men dig sassafras roots and cut cedars with which they filled the hold of their ship. According to Brereton’s account, “Some of our company…had promised captaine Gosnold to stay,” evidently as the nucleus for a future settlement in the New World. However, as the ship was filled and the time approached for Gosnold to leave, this group lost heart and “having nothing but a saving voyage in their minds” decided to return to England with the rest of the crew, “leaving this island with as many true sorrowful eies as were before desirous to see it.” They had stayed a brief month and four days on these shores. When Gosnold arrived back in England with tales of these lovely islands, Elizabeth immediately laid claim to them as English territory and they remained so until the American Revolution. In 1903, on a little island in a pond on the outermost western tip of Cuttyhunk at a place where some stones were found that might once have been the foundation for Gosnold’s outpost, a stone monument was erected as a “beacon for mariners, and a memorial of the first settlement of Englishmen in New England.” In the discussion of the Norton-Harris house, we will take up the question of whether Gosnold’s house was the one said to have been discovered on Noman’s Land by early Vineyard settlers and subsequently moved to this Island.
Fig. 1-3. Map of Martha’s Vineyard showing surviving houses that pre-date 1730. Addendum since 1985. The Isaac Norton House, first built in Edgartown (Great Harbor), but moved twice, is now at the head of Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs. The Robert Luce House of the 1680’s is at the upper end of Lamberts Cove. Neither of these early houses is shown on this map.
Thus these islands saw the first attempt at settlement in New England. However, as it turned out they were one of the last coastal areas to be successfully colonized. This was probably due to an incident that took place in 1615, when a Captain Thomas Hunt surprised and captured twenty-nine “Indians” on Cape Cod and took them to be sold (unsuccessfully) as slaves in Spain. Two of these natives were from the Vineyard, and one by the name of Epinow turned up in London, where he was seen as a great curiosity. While there, he managed to learn English and with it an understanding of what motivated these men. Telling them tales of “a mine of gold about an Ile called Capewick” (the Indian name for Martha’s Vineyard), he lured them back to these shores. Once in Island waters, by Captain Smith’s account,
before them all, he leaped overboard. Many shot they made at him, thinking they had slain him; but so resolute were they to recover his body, the master of the ship was wounded and many of his company (by Vineyard Indians coming to Epinow’s aid). And thus, they lost him; and not knowing more what to do, returned again to England for nothing.
Later, it is said, Epinow turned up in Plymouth at about the time the Pilgrims landed, and starled them by greeting them in English.
After this, the once “courteous and gentle” Vineyard Indians mistrusted the English. In 1620, it was reported by Morton that a Captain Dermer
going ashore [on the Vineyard] among the Indians to trade as he used to do, was assaulted and betrayed by them, and all his men slain, but one that kept the boat; but himself got on board very sore wounded, and they had cut off his head upon the cuddy of the boat, had not his man rescued him with a sword; and so they got him away and made shift to get into Virginia where he died…
When word of this got out, though settlers filled up the area around Boston, Plymouth Colony, Rhode Island and Connecticut, for the next twenty years they avoided Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. No one apparently wanted to try the experiment of isolating themselves on an island populated with three or four thousand “savages,” and thus be out of reach of help in time of hostile attacks.
It was not until the 1640s that there came a man willing to organize the attempt at colonization on Martha’s Vineyard. This was Thomas Mayhew, a merchant from Watertown, Massachusetts. He had grown up in the parish of Tisbury in Wiltshire, England, and came over to the New World as a young man in 1631, employed to look after the interests of Matthew Craddock, a wealthy London merchant who was investing heavily in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at this time. Craddock had built himself “a great stone house” on his estate in Medford, and here Mayhew, with his wife and ten-year-old son, lived for their first six years in America. Mayhew proved to be enterprising and energetic, perhaps too much so, for apparently he got himself and his employer overextended, and in 1637 Craddock terminated their association. At this time, Mayhew moved to Watertown, near Boston, where he bought up interest in the water mill that he had constructed while under his former employer. Here he quickly rose to a position of prominence in the community. He was elected selectman of the town and also its Representative to the General Court in Boston successively for eight years. In addition, he was chosen as an “assistant” to the Judicial Court, and successfully arbitrated several Indian disputes. This experience in understanding the Indians and the causes of their grievances may have contributed to his successful and fair-minded treatment of them later on the Vineyard.
Unfortunately, his business ventures were not going equally well. The mill proved to be unprofitable and had to be sold. Another ambitious venture—the building of the first bridge over the Charles River—turned out badly for him, when the towns decided he could not charge tolls, and gave him in compensation a piece of worthless land some miles away.
In October 1641 seeking a new direction, Thomas Mayhew managed to acquire two overlapping British Royal Charters to the several islands to the south of Cape Cod: Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Elizabeth Islands. Most writers feel this was undertaken in response to Mayhew’s increasingly bleak economic situation in Watertown: a kind of desperate gamble to restore his fortunes and to give scope to “his considerable, if not always successful entrepreneurial and political skills.” Here, too, was the opportunity to become the William Penn and Lord Baltimore of a New England barony. Mayhew’s biographer, Lloyd Hare, says:
We are told by Mayhew’s grandson that nothing but the largeness of the grant induced the merchant to essay the settlement of these distant islands inhabited by unfriendly and murderous Indians, as current knowledge has it.
The overlapping claims were held by Lord Stirling of New York and Fernando Gorges of Maine, both of whom claimed that the islands south of Cape Cod were part of their Royal Charter. Stirling, especially, desired to see these islands colonized, and through his agent James Forrett, initiated the sale. However, to settle his proprietary rights, Mayhew ultimately had to satisfy both parties; forty pounds was paid to Lord Stirling and “a sum of money” cleared title with Sir Gorges. This was to cause some confusion as to which colony these islands belonged. Though Gorges’ claim was, in fact, the stronger of the two, as Mayhew himself admitted, Maine never exercised control over Island affairs. Later in the century the Vineyard came to be part of New York and was obliged to pay annually a quit-rent of six bushels of cod to the governor there.
Having settled these claims, it remained for Mayhew to deal with the Indians. We know that about the time the Stirling deeds were being settled, Mayhew, or someone on his behalf, made a hurried trip to Nantucket in an attempt to secure Indian rights, but was unsuccessful. It is probable that a similar trip was made to the Vineyard and a parcel of land was purchased at that time from the Sachem, Towantaquatick (also spelled in the deeds, “Towanticut”).
In the early summer of 1642, the first English settlement was made on Martha’s Vineyard. It was led by the young son of Thomas Mayhew—Thomas Mayhew, Jr.—who was then just twenty-one years old. A spot was chosen on the eastern end of the Island, the Indian Nunne-pog area, along the shore that faces Chappaquiddick. Here there was a fine, naturally sheltered harbor, and appropriately they called their settlement “Great Harbor.” The name was later changed in 1671 to “Edgartown” in honor of the young son of the Duke of York. The elder Mayhew did not arrive with his family until four years later, probably waiting until a suitable house had been constructed for him.
Young Mayhew’s small intrepid group of colonists cut the trees, cleared the land, laid out house lots, broke the soil, and built the first dwellings. The early days must have been difficult, but also challenging, and apparently the settlement was a success from the start, encountering none of the tragic hard times that had beset the earlier colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth. Of course, Watertown was closer than England as a base of operations and supplies.
Meanwhile, the Indians must have looked on with curiosity, but evidently they remained aloof. Before the arrival of the first group of settlers, a tract of land had been agreed upon and purchased from the Sachem of Nunne-pog, Towantaquatick. No specific record of this transaction has survived, but the Vineyarders referred to it as the “Old Purchase.” For a decade all divisions of land in severalty were confined to this section of territory, which proved sufficient for the little community. Joe Allen has suggested that the Vineyard Indians may have been receptive to a settlement of the English at this time because they recognized in them a potential ally in their struggle against the overlordship of the powerful Sachems on the Cape. Later, under the wise leadership of Thomas Mayhew and the missionary work of his son, friendly and cooperative relationships developed between the Indians and whites on the Island, and the peace was never broken.
In Watertown the previous spring, Thomas Mayhew had sold proprietary rights on Martha’s Vineyard to five of his neighbors. These rights entitled them to share equally with him and his son in the ownership of the land which they would purchase from the Indians, and it also entitled them to share with him in the governance of the town. In this, it must be understood that Mayhew followed his friend Governor Winthrop’s understanding of his role: that is, as Norton puts it, “this right meant that they could choose Thomas Mayhew as their leader, but not how, once chosen, he would lead.” The proprietors also could decide who would later be admitted to settle as joint-proprietors on the Island with them.
As new settlers came, the proprietary shares eventually increased to twenty-five, and at that figure remained, as this was the number of house lots originally laid out. Later, as the population increased beyond this, fractional shares of the original twenty-five were bought, sold, or inherited, but they were still referred to under the names of the first owners, as the lot “commonly known by the name of William Weeks, his lot,” or “the lot formerly belonging to Malachi Browning.” Each share included a ten- or twenty-acre house lot (though Thomas Mayhew and his son received forty-acre parcels). Later, non-contiguous common lands were divided up amongst the inhabitants. Thus, a shareholder might have a house lot by the harbor, part of a salt meadow for hay on Katama plains, grazing land on Chappaquiddick Island (across the harbor), a thatch lot in the marshes near one of the ponds, and a woodlot elsewhere.
The early settlement, then, was established with a town proprietorship as its governing body, as was common practice elsewhere in New England, comprised of a small group of young adventurers who managed to established a foothold on these shores, and to survive the first few winters. Four years later, Thomas Mayhew arrived to take over leadership of the community “much to the relief of his son, Thomas Jr. who had already become engaged in an innovative and successful Christian mission to the Island’s large Indian population, which began with the conversion of Hiacoomes in 1643.” The younger Mayhew became the spiritual leader of the community, and the first missionary to the Indians, learning their language, abiding with them in their “smokey wigwams,” and gradually making converts of many. His father became the “Governor,” the head of the temporal affairs of the English colonists and the author of a very enlightened policy towards the Indians. Joseph Allen puts it this way:
This Indian problem was a serious one: there was but a handful of whites and between two and three thousand Indians. Mayhew laid down the law to his followers in the beginning; he allowed no purchase of land from the Indians without certain public notice, the calling together of all interested parties, and the establishing of a fair and just price which had to be paid in cash or actual valuable goods. As a missionary, he began to convert the Indians to Christianity at once, and within a year had appointed certain of the more zealous tribesmen as deacons who carried on his teachings among their brethren. In time Indians held various offices as law-enforcement officers and even judges under Mayhew—operating entirely among their own people, but adding to the feeling of satisfaction that existed among the Indians under the white man’s rule…[the elder Mayhew was] criticized at times for his liberality in dealing with the Indians; his methods nevertheless brought the highest possible degree of success, and otherwise the colony must have failed.
The first settlement at Great Harbor has sometimes been pictured as being very much like Plymouth once was: houses and cottages clustered together facing a little street, the whole enclosed by a stockade and guarded by a fort. Lloyd Hare imagines this:
In accordance with the practice in New England the home lots of Great Harbor were grouped together in village style in order to facilitate military protection against possible Indian forays, and to afford the inhabitants the advantages of communal life derived from a compact settlement.
This was also the European way of doing things; farmers lived in towns and villages, and went out from there to their files in the neighboring countryside.
However, this has to be an erroneous picture of Great Harbor. Twenty-five, 10- to 20-acre lots could not so easily have been enclosed within a stockade or formed into a cluster-village. Nor was there ever any record of a fort or stockade. Good relationships with the Indians, which seem to have been established and maintained from the beginning of the settlement, meant that there was less to fear here than on the mainland from hostile attacks. So great was the mutual trust that during the French and Indian Wars, “to the intense alarm of other colonies,” the Island Indians were armed by order of Governor Mayhew, to perform guard duty and patrol the beaches to warn of any attack by hostile Indians from across the Sound. This they did faithfully. After he had come to the Island in the 1670s, Edward Cottle tells of having his house in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts Bay “burnt by the Indians [in 1668], and of coming to the Vineyard to “obtain a settled peace.”
A careful reading of the Edgartown deeds indicates that the plan of great Harbor was not defensive. The original ten- and twenty-acre lots were planned so that each settler would have enough land for the nucleus of a self-sufficient homestead, and each would have frontage on the water. To achieve this, the lots were laid out as log narrow strips. The houses, at the harbor end, were fairly close together, though not clustered, the desire being to combine a loose community structure with the new world idea of having a man’s house on his homestead lot. Distinctive is the fact that all the first houses fronted on the water which seemed to take the place of the traditional New England village green or common as the focal point of the town. Following the early example of Great Harbor, neither West Tisbury, Vineyard Haven (Holmes’ Hole) nor Chilmark has a town green as its focus. West Tisbury was laid out along the Old Mill River, Vineyard Haven faces the harbor and Chilmark center later was built in the 19th century at the crossing of two roads.
Unfortunately, none of the first homesteads at Great Harbor have survived. Evidence that leads us to conclusions about how they were built and may have looked will be discussed in succeeding chapters. Suffice it to say here that the earliest houses built by pioneers from Massachusetts Bay Colony must have been different from those built after 1670 (the second generation) when new innovations in house construction and design, and influences from Plymouth Colony and possibly the Dutch began to come in.
Of the earliest houses we know only the site of the Governor’s home, which was on the harbor side of South Water Street near where the slate gravestones of Governor Mayhew, his grandson Matthew, and other members of the family can still be seen. We also know something of its history. It was probably not much different from the other dwellings in the little settlement except that it may have had one especially large main room; for this house apparently served as a focal point for the community. Town meetings and religious gatherings were held here until a proper meeting house was constructed some years later. It is recorded that on February 6, 1653 at a meeting in the Pastor’s House, “it was ordered by the Town to begin to build a meeting house.” In those days, young Thomas Mayhew, now known as “Reverend” Thomas, conducted the religious services for his fellow settlers; evidently the then “Pastor’s house” would have been the Mayhew house. This first Mayhew homestead was destroyed in a fire of about 1670. Soon after this, the Governor built a new and larger home on the same site. This house survived until 1910 when it was torn down (not without protest) to clear the way for the summer mansion that presently occupies the site. Several drawings of this second Mayhew house have survived, giving us some idea of how it once looked: a sizable two and one-half story structure, possibly the first of the Island houses built from the start to include a back kitchen, and a two-room deep plan. As for the other houses of Great Harbor, we only know that the original settlement extended to Tower Hill, somewhat to the south of the present center of Edgartown. In succeeding generations, Edgartown was much built over. I have been able to discover only two very early houses here that go back to the end of the 17th century. The first is a much altered gambrel built near Tower Hill in 1685 by the minister, Jonathan Dunham, shortly after he arrived from Plymouth. The second was originally built by Joshua Daggett, probably at about the same time. Records of the house take it at least as far back as 1700, and very likely it was constructed about 1685 when Joshua married and started a family. This house was moved to Main Street in the 19th century, and in the process was raised to make it a more imposing two and one-half story structure. Today, it is known as the “Desire Coffin House,” because in the early 19th century it was given as a marriage gift to Desire Coffin Osborne.
The English population of the Island quickly grew after it became known that a successful town had been established at Great Harbor (Edgartown). Under the careful supervision of the Mayhews, other parts of the Island were soon opened up for settlement. Much favored were the lowlands around the Great Ponds which extend for miles in an almost unbroken chain along the South shore, separated from the Atlantic ocean by only a high narrow beach. Joseph Allen explains why this area was so attractive to Indians and whites alike:
Fed by numerous springs and flowing streams, these ponds rise until the height of water breaks through the sea beach and a great stream of fresh water flows to sea. In spring-time this flow attracts great schools of fish, which come into the ponds and their headwaters to spawn. Action of the sea at length closes the opening in the beach, and the fish are held captive in the ponds until another opening is formed or until weather conditions put an end to them.
The native Indians were well-informed as to this phenomenon and at certain seasons of the year they camped by the pond beaches and remained there for long periods, catching and eating the fish, eels, and shellfish which abounded. It was natural, therefore, that the white settlers should be attracted to the Great Ponds as well, not only for the fish, but for the marsh hay which grew on the lowlands and marsh meadows in great profusion. Valued highly as forage for their livestock, shares in these marsh meadows were prized above all real estate. The areas purchased from the Indians were divided and portioned out among all the settlers.
Two of the earliest surviving houses on the Island come from the Great Ponds area. One, the Mayhew-Hancock house at Quansoo, between Tisbury and Chilmark ponds, may have been built by Thomas Mayhew, Jr. as a mission outpost to the Indians. The other, the Vincent house, now fully restored and set up in the center of Edgartown, was once a farmhouse near the shores of Edgartown Great Pond. Both date from the 1670s, though parts of the Hancock-Mitchell house may go back as early as the mid-1650s, making it possibly the oldest surviving house on the Island.
The next settlement was called “Tisbury” in honor of the little Wiltshire parish where Thomas Mayhew was born and baptized. It was situated near the center of the Island in the Indian district of Takemmy. Today it is the town of West Tisbury. What especially drew settlers to this region was the presence of the Old Mill and the Tiasquam rivers, two of the largest streams on the Island, and also the abundance of flat fertile fields where once the Indians grew their corn and squash. Banks says, “the fertile meadows…may have made this the garden spot on the island.” When the first purchases were made in 1669-70, the references to the “Old Mill River” indicate that a mill was already there, probably erected by the Mayhews, and possibly as early as the 1650s. In the early 1660s the road leading from Edgartown to Takemmy was called the “Mill Path” as was also the road from Chilmark. Banks has shown that the etymology of the Indian word for this region, “Takemmy”, means “where anybody goes to grind corn” in allusion to the first mill (there were many succeeding ones) used by Indians and whites alike.
In 1668 as a result of previous negotiations, Thomas Mayhew gave authority to William Pabodie and Josiah Standish (son of Miles Standish) of Duxbury and James Allen of Sandwich to enter into agreement with the Sachem of Takemmy to buy what land they wished within his bounds. The settlement at Great Harbor had continued for twenty-five years as the only settlement on the Island, but by this time there was pressure to expand. The first purchasers sold land to others, and very quickly a new town was begun. The first houses were erected in the 1970s.
The Dukes County Historical Society map of the original settlement is given in Part III. In this new town long narrow homestead lots were drawn up, forty acres in size, and in shape not unlike those at Great Harbor. They were laid out on either side of the Old Mill River, each lot having a frontage on the stream; just as each lot at Great Harbor had frontage on the harbor. The present West Tisbury with its Grange Hall, town hall (previously the elementary school), Congregational church, and Alley’s General Store is essentially a 19th century town. The older settlement was to the north of here, centered around the Meeting House (on the map in Jeremiah Whitten’s homestead lot) located on land James Allen gave for this and the cemetery, and known today as “God’s Acre.” The first Meeting House was built here in 1700, and there were three more that followed on this site. In 1865 the church was moved to its present site on the corner of Music Street.
It is remarkable that three of the original houses of the settlement have survived, and though they have been altered by successive generations of use, much of the old work still can be seen in them. They are: the Simon Athearn house (ca. 1672), the Isaac Robinson house (ca. 1673), and the Josiah Standish or Nathaniel Skiff house (ca. before 1676). A fourth, larger than the others and in very good shape, is the Mill House on the Tiasquam River. This house is hard to date, but it may go back to the late seventeenth century. A fifth, the Henry Luce house, parts of which may also go back to the 1670s, survives today in a much altered state and without its central chimney.
In contrast to Great Harbor whose residents all came from Massachusetts Bay or directly from England, the settling of Tisbury saw an influx of Plymouth Colony men. William Pabodie (Peabody) and Josiah Standish were from Duxbury, just north of Plymouth, and Josiah was the son of Plymouth’s famous Miles Standish. They appear to have been land speculators and there is some question whether they ever settled in the Vineyard township they helped found. However, James Allen, the third proprietor, did settle here, and founded a long family line which still continues on the Island. James Allen was from Sandwich, Plymouth Colony’s first town on the Cape, founded in 1639. The Skiffs—James, who became the fourth proprietor, and his sons James Jr. and Nathaniel—were also from Sandwich, as was Jeremiah Whitten. Old Isaac Robinson was the son of the famous John Robinson, pastor of the Pilgrims during their twelve-year sojourn in Leyden, Holland, before coming to the New World. Isaac had lived most of his life in various towns of Plymouth Colony before he became one of the first residents of Tisbury on the Vineyard. With his Quaker sympathies, he was probably seeking a freer religious climate here.
These men and others who came at this time brought fresh blood and new ideas to the Island. In terms of house construction, Plymouth Colony architecture had developed along lines unique from that of Massachusetts Bay or Connecticut. As Richard Candee has recently shown, certain distinctive features of this regional style, such as the vertical planking of houses, probably derive from Dutch influence from the period when the Pilgrims were in Holland. The similarity of the Island houses to those on the Cape probably begins at this time. Vertical planking, for example, is common in houses of Tisbury and Chilmark, built after the influx of Plymouth County settlers, whereas the houses of Edgartown, populated by settlers from Massachusetts Bay, are almost all horizontally boarded with the stud-and-nogging (also called wattle and daub) technique common in the Bay Colony.
Dutch influence may also be seen at this time in the almost universal adoption of shingles for roofs and walls. Shingles, it is believed, are a Dutch innovation of the New World. This Dutch influence probably comes via Plymouth Colony, but there is also another possible source for it in the ties the Island had with New York (New Amsterdam) at this time.
In 1671, remembering the old royal charter made to Lord Stirling, Governor Lovelace of New York made an attempt to assert control over Martha’s Vineyard on behalf of his Lord, the Duke of York. The Duke, as the King’s brother, was a man not to be ignored. Thomas Mayhew was summoned to New York and he reluctantly made the trip with his grandson, Matthew. As it turned out, he and Governor Lovelace got along well. Town charters were given for “New Town,” renamed “Tisbury” after the town of Mayhew’s childhood in Wiltshire, England, and for “Great Harbor,” which was renamed “Edgartown” to honor the young son of the Duke of York. Lovelace granted Mayhew “Governorship for life” over the affairs of the Island. In return, Mayhew agreed to send a yearly quit rent of “six barrels of Merchantable Cod-Fish” to New York—a token payment acknowledging the overlordship of the Duke. New York was, of course, the former New Amsterdam, heart of Dutch America. Two years later, as Matthew Mayhew was on his way to New York with the quit rent of cod, he “met the news that York was re-taken by the Dutch” and so it proved. Mayhew retraced his journey.
At this time, many of the Island colonists, including most of the new settlers, were growing restive under Governor Mayhew’s feudal control of the government and the courts. Seizing this opportunity, they declared that since the Duke of York’s forces had just been thrown out of New York by the Dutch, and that with this expulsion his authority in the New World was terminated, that therefore Mayhew, as his appointee, was no longer Governor of the Island. They attempted to set up a more democratic government along the lines of that established in Massachusetts Bay. This was known as the “Dutch Rebellion.” Simon Athearn of West Tisbury was the leader, and the adherents of this cause included fully half of the population of the Island including most of Athearn’s fellow townsmen. Thus, though none of the Vineyard settlers were from New Amsterdam, or New York, there was a certain identification with the Dutch in their struggle to throw off the rule of an English lord, just as many of the Islanders were attempting to thwart Mayhew’s desire to make the Vineyard his personal fiefdom. New York (New Amsterdam) was soon retaken by the English, and the “Dutch Rebellion” on the Island was put down shortly thereafter by order of the new Governor of New York, Sir Edmund Andros. The Vineyarders who participated in the rebellion were either fined, required to make a public apology and submission to the Mayhew government, or, in a few cases, forced to leave the Island.
Twenty years later, in 1692, by Royal Decree, it was decided that Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands would become part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. With this, there came a more democratic system, though the Mayhews continued to hold many of the prominent leadership positions in Island affairs for the next hundred years.
The last of the three original townships to be settled was Chilmark, or the Indian “Nashowakemmuck.” The English Chilmark, remembered from Mayhew’s childhood, was the neighboring town to Tisbury in Wiltshire; so, on the Vineyard, it is the next town beyond, or up-Island of (West) Tisbury. Here, it was the farthest westerly of the three original English townships. Today, it extends from West Tisbury on the northeast to the Indian town of Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) in the southwest and includes the little island of Noman’s Land, three miles south of the Vineyard, as well as formerly all of the Elizabeth Islands across the Vineyard Sound. Originally, this township only extended up to the “River Arkspah”—now Pease’s Brook—in the west, and the middle line to the northwest which divided off, for a time, Indian lands along the North Shore area of the Island (excepting the Kephigan region). Later in the 18th century, the other areas were included in the town.
Crevecoeur, an 18th century visitor, said this of Chilmark:
[unlike Edgartown] The town of Chilmark has no good harbour, but the land is excellent and in no way inferior to any on the continent: it contains excellent pastures, convenient brooks for mills, stone for fencing…
Apparently Chilmark was attractive to new settlers for its combination of ponds, salt meadows, woodlands, streams, and, in places, fertile farmland. The early deeds of this town divide off long, narrow strips running from the crest of inland hills down to the ponds so that they would include a variety of useful land: salt meadows and marsh, upland meadows, and woodlands. Great stones and boulders left by the last glacier still lie about or are half buried in the uncleared fields and woodlands. Indian legends say that Moshup, their great god, sprinkled this land with a peppershaker of rocks. These stones must have tried the patience of many a Chilmark farmer, but they turned a vice into a virtue by creating over two hundred miles of stone fencing within this township alone.
Chilmark was the most rural of all the townships. Often, in the early days, families tended to settle together in the same general area though the houses might be as much as a half mile apart. In Quansoo-Quenames, the area between Tisbury and Chilmark Great Ponds, and along the adjoining part of the South Road, can be found the early Mayhew homesteads. Beyond Abel’s Hill, where the old Meeting House was, were the three Skiff brothers’ houses and Benjamin Skiff’s mill. In the Tea Lane-Roaring Brook region, the Hillmans settled, building another mill and a bog-iron works along Roaring Brook.
The first settler of Chilmark was John Mayhew, son of the famous missionary, Thomas Mayhew, Jr. His house in Quansoo may originally have been his father’s mission outpost to the Indians near their summer settlement along the ponds. After his father was lost at sea in 1657, the land and later the mission work fell to his son, who had been brought up with the Indians and spoke their tongue fluently. John’s house, which survives today, may have been the mission outpost rebuilt as a dwelling at about the time he was married in 1673. By this time, the Indian place of worship had been moved to Christiantown, in the center of the Island. John Mayhew served as the first pastor of Tisbury and later of Chilmark, as well. In addition to this, we are told that:
He was so beloved and respected among the Indians that they would not be content until he became a preacher to them as he was to the English. It is said of John that while a young man he was often resorted to by the chief Indians of the Island for advice, and that he knew their language well.
Banks adds this:
John Mayhew inherited the personal qualities of his father, in so far as his disregard of the temporal returns for his services. From 1682 to 1686 he was paid but ten pounds a year (by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for his work with the Indians)… And yet, says Prince, “he went on cheerfully, in hopes of a rich and joyful Harvest in Heaven.”
At a time when elsewhere in New England, towns were building the finest houses for their ministers, John Mayhew’s house at Quansoo comes down to us as a surprisingly humble and modest structure, as was, apparently, its first owner. In about 1696, his oldest son, Experience, built the neighboring house in Quenames, which also survives, in much better shape than the Quansoo house, though the exterior has been much altered. Experience carried on the missionary work of his father and grandfather. He was also the author of the well-known (in its day) “Indian Converts,” and translated the Psalms of David and numerous other Biblical pieces into the Indian (Algonquin) language. In 1698, Reverend Cotton Mather said of him, “That in the Evangelical Service among the Indians there is no Man that exceeds this Mr. [Experience] Mayhew, if there be any that equals him.” In 1723, Harvard College granted him the honorary degree of Master of Arts, though earlier when it was offered, he “was pleased to excuse himself from this Honour.”
One has to be amazed at the lives these men led—pioneers in a new settlement, builders of their own self-sufficient homesteads, raising large families, but also finding time to devote much of their lives to what they considered higher work; and for little material gain to themselves. If this can be considered an expression of the man, Experience’s home in Quenames is somewhat larger than his father’s, but still remains a simple, sturdy, unpretentious structure. Reading about his life, one feels he preferred it that way.
Outside of the Quansoo-Quenames area, the earliest dwellings were built along the Old Indian Trail, which is now the South Road. There were seven original houses and a mill built in this region from the late 1680s. From these original settlements, two houses have survived. The oldest is the James Allen house, at the foot of Abel’s Hill, with a probable dating of about 1688. Almost contemporary with this is Nathan Skiff’s house (now known as “Barnhouse”) overlooking Upper Chilmark Pond, and built in 1690. The remains of the old mill and the cellarhole of Benjamin Skiff’s house can still be seen in the overgrown woods along Fulling Mill Brook. Down the road towards West Tisbury are three fine early 18th century houses: Zaccheus Mayhew’s stately two and one half story house of 1713, his brother Zephaniah’s beautifully proportioned farmhouse built in 1720, and the large Eliashib Adams house of 1726.
Elsewhere in Chilmark, three rivers were the focus of early settlements. Along the present Middle Road ran the Old Mill or Tiasquam River. None of the seventeenth century houses remain in this area, but two neighboring early 18th century homes survive, built on a headwater stream of the Tiasquam, just off present day Tea Lane. The first was built in 1706 by Matthew Mayhew’s son, young Thomas Mayhew, shortly after he finished his apprenticeship in Plymouth as a physician. The second was built in 1710 by his teacher and brother-in-law, Thomas Little, a graduate of Harvard. This house has a distinctive gambrel roof probably patterned after the earlier Harlow house in Plymouth, where Dr. Little had spent most of his life. The Paint Mill Brook runs into the Vineyard Sound on the north shore of the Island in the Kephigan (anglicized as Cape Higgon) region. Here the trees grow larger than in most other areas of the Island, and appropriately the house carpenter, Samuel Tilton, chose this place to build his home in 1678. Tilton had lived in Tisbury previous to his settling in Kephigan. In the early days his nearest neighbor was Richard Ellingham, who came here from Barnstable on the Cape, and settled in the Middle Road area in 1683. Ellingham was also a carpenter and builder, and it is probable that the two of them worked together on many of the early Chilmark and West Tisbury houses. We also know that Ellingham was engaged to finish the Meeting House in Edgartown in 1685. Though neither of their houses survive, legend has it that the ancient “Hewing Field,” close to the place where the Tiasquam crosses the Middle Road, was in this area, and next to a house built in 1760 by Samuel Tilton, grandson of the original settler of that name. The Hewing Field was where the oak timbers for barns and dwellings were hewn out, cut to size, and notched in preparation for house and barn raisings.
Halfway down the North Shore towards Menemsha, the Roaring Brook empties into Vineyard Sound at the spot where the famous brickworks were built in the 19th century. The Hillmans were the first to settle here, building a mill on the river in the 1720s. John Hillman Jr.’s mill house of 1726 and two remarkable 18th century barns still survive form this era. In 1813, Captain Shubael Norton moved a thatched roof house from the little island of Noman’s Land, three miles south of the Vineyard, and reconstructed it on a site near the mouth of Roaring Brook, later overlooking the brickworks. The Noman’s Land house he moved can be traced back to about 1715, and is possibly of a much earlier date. One Vineyard legend attempts to equate this house, which was originally situated on an island in a pond at Noman’s Land, with the house Gosnold built in a similar location in 1602 and thatched with a covering of sedge grass. This legend will be taken up in a discussion of the Norton-Harris house in Part III. In any case, the frame of the earlier Noman’s Land house can still be seen in the structure of the present dwelling with purlins notched for the ropes that tied the thatch to the roof. This may be the only existing house in New England that has tangible evidence that it was once thatched.
Chilmark’s fishing village of Menemsha, situated at the place where the Great Salt Ponds (Menemsha, Quitsa, and Stonewall) empty into Vineyard Sound, began to be settled from around the 1720s. The Norton house (ca. 1726) home to generations of mariners, fishermen, and sheep ranchers who spent much of the year on Noman’s Land, is the only house surviving from this era in Menemsha.
The westerly neck of the land between Quitsa and Stonewall ponds to the east, and Squibnocket Pond and Aquinnah in the west, was known as the Nashaquitsa region. These beautiful, windswept hills had thin, rocky soil unsuitable for growing crops, and so sheep were raised and thrived in the cool, windy climate of this part of Chilmark. The land was soon denuded of trees by the grazing of the sheep, but peat bogs were found that supplied the hardy settlers with fuel for winter fires. John Mayhew of Quansoo had first title to this land, and in his will left it to be divided between his three youngest sons: John, Benjamin, and Simon. All of them built houses in this region, but only Simon’s survives, built in 1706 in the westernmost part of Nashaquitsa overlooking Squibnocket Pond and the ocean beyond. In this lonely and unlikely spot, Joseph Mayhew was born and raised, a man who achieved some prominence in the colonies. He graduated from Harvard College in 1730, became one of the leaders of the American Revolution, and a Representative to the Provincial Congress in 1774 and 1776. Later, he served as a Justice of the Court of Common Pleas.
Today’s large town of Vineyard Haven—in the seventeenth and 18th centuries known as “Holmes Hole”—is built on the shores of the deepest natural harbor on the Island, defined and protected by the arms of East Chop and West Chop. In very early days, the British recognized its value as a harbor of refuge, and so it was designated on charts going back to 1645. In the 18th century, Crevecoeur remarks on this harbor, “deep enough for ships of the line” (the battleships of the British navy). Its one drawback is that it is open to the northeast and is therefore exposed to gales from this quarter. This is probably the reason why Edgartown, with its well-protected harbor, was preferred for the first settlement on the Island. Holmes Hole became a more important port during the heyday of coastal shipping during the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, when sailing vessels commonly put in here, often to take on Vineyard pilots before rounding the Cape and proceeding up to Boston. After the Cape Cod Canal was built in the 1930s, Holmes Hole, now Vineyard Haven, became a sleepy harbor town, ferry stop, and summer sailing resort.
In 1673-4, Governor Mayhew incorporated Holmes Hole neck into the township of Tisbury. At this time, there were no houses in this part of the Island. In 1674, Isaac Chase of Hampton, New Hampshire, was denied permission to make his home in Tisbury Village, probably because of his Quaker beliefs. Seeking a new place to settle, he and his brother-in-law, Jacob Perkins, managed to purchase from Matthew Mayhew a small plot of land in Holmes Hole neck. Together they constructed the first house in this area. It was probably situated on the rise of ground overlooking Memorial Park in Vineyard haven. After a year, Perkins left the Island, but Isaac Chase stayed on, started a family, and became the area’s first successful resident. Chase was a blacksmith, but he also made a modest income from a new and promising venture—a ferry service to Falmouth, just across the Sound. The ferry service soon led to inn-keeping for travelers to the Island, or those who were detained here by bad weather. With the income from these ventures, Isaac Chase was able to buy most of Holmes Hole neck (West Chop to Tashmoo), which subsequently was divided up amongst his heirs. Thus the Chases became the principal family of this region in the early days.
In 1683, Isaac Chase was joined in Holmes Hole by Thomas West from Newport, Rhode Island. West had established successful legal and medical practices in Tisbury the year before, but was obliged to resettle because of his Sabbatarian Baptist conviction. Apparently, he was accused of making “unsavory speeches” in the town.
Thus, by 1700 there were two houses at the head of the harbor. By 1730, the number had increased to seven. These new homesteads were not clustered together, but spread out from the end of West Chop to the Lagoon area. After 1730, the town began to be filled in, and grew quickly.
Holmes Hole continued to be the center for religious dissenters and free thinkers. In 1892, Tisbury township was split into two separate parishes, which became the two townships of West Tisbury and Tisbury (Vineyard Haven). The West Parish was centered around the Congregational Church in West Tisbury. The East Parish, at Holmes Hole, was comprised largely of those who, since 1780, had refused to pay the town tax for the Congregational minister’s salary. As Norton has observed, “The village of West Tisbury remains to this day a one-church town, while no less than six steeples command the Vineyard Haven skyline.”
Nothing is left of the two original seventeenth century homesteads, but James Norton, Tisbury historian, claims that two early 18th century inns survive, built by Isaac Chase’s two sons: Thomas and Abraham. Thomas Chase built the first in 1717 and, says Norton, it still stands in its original location on the south side of Union Street facing the harbor. Apparently, it was maintained as an inn for nearly a century by Thomas’s widow, Jane Cathcart, and their grandson, Isaac Daggett. However, I have not been able to confirm that this house was in fact Thomas’s inn, nor am I certain of its date. It has been included in the map of surviving houses before 1730, but is not listed in Part III.
The second was built by Abraham Chase in 1730. It has subsequently been altered almost beyond recognition, and was moved in 1922 out of the center of town to the end of West Chop. As for the rest of the early 18th century houses, those that survived the end of that century were consumed in the Great Fire of 1883 which destroyed most of Vineyard Haven.
Today’s township of Oak Bluffs is the most recent on the Island. It was built largely in the mid to late 19th century as a summer resort community and the place of the Methodist Camp Meetings. In the seventeenth and 18th centuries, this township was part of Edgartown. The Isaac Norton house (1660’s) was moved to its present site on Lagoon Pond around 1760, according to family tradition. Two of its earliest houses were subsequently moved to Edgartown. The Linton house (ca. 1695-1710) once stood in Eastville near the mouth of the harbor to Holmes Hole. In the late 1940s it was brought to its present site just off Pease Point Way. The Norton-Achelis house was one of the pioneer dwellings at Farm Neck. Legend has it that it once stood near an Indian settlement on Major’s Cove of Sengekontacket Pond. It was moved in the 19th century to its present site across from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, at the corner of School and Cook Streets.
Aquinnah, at the westernmost end of the Island, and until the 1990s known as Gay Head, was always the Indian township. Throughout the first half of the 18th century, as the diary of Judge Sewell tells us, the Island Indians still lived in their traditional wigwams. I have been unable to discover any very early houses in this township.
These then are the locations of the earliest surviving houses on the Island. A full documentation will be given for each one in Part III. This is vitally important for this study because, aside from the Vincent house, the Hancock-Mitchell house and the Little-Goff house, no full, accurate or systematic history of the earliest Vineyard houses has been attempted.
Notes – Chapter One
 Charles Edward Banks, The History of Martha’s Vineyard, Vol. I (Edgartown, 1966), p. 64. For a more complete account of Gosnold’s voyage, see Warner F. Gookin and Phillip L. Barbour, Bartholomew Gosnold Discoverer and Planter: New England 1602, Virginia 1607 (Hamden, CT, 1963), and Warner F. Gookin, A Voyage of Discovery to the Southern Parts of Norumbega (Edgartown, 1950). The latter is a comparison of the Archer and Brereton accounts of Gosnold’s voyage in 1602. More recently Lincoln A. Dexter has come out with The Gosnold Discoveries…in the North Part of Virginia, 1602 (Brookfield, MA, 1982), which prints the day-by-day accounts of the voyage by Archer and Brereton, “arranged in parallel for convenient comparison.”
 Ibid, p. 41.
 Ibid, p. 62.
 See Marshall Shepard, Our Enchanted Island (Edgartown, 1940), which attempts to connect Martha’s Vineyard with the island of Shakespeare’s Tempest.
 Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 61.
 Ibid, pp. 61-62.
 Ibid, p. 62.
 Who was Martha? has been a much debated question. Gale Huntington, in Martha’s Vineyard: A Short History and Guide, edited by Eleanor Ransom Mayhew (Edgartown, 1966), p. 21, says, “Gosnold named the Island Martha’s Vineyard in honor of his infant daughter and the wild grapes he found here growing in great profusion.” Henry Franklin Norton in his Martha’s Vineyard: The Story of its Towns (Hartford, Connecticut, 1923), p. 10, states that Martha was Gosnold’s mother. In other legends, she is his wife. Actually, the Island was called alternately “Martha’s Vineyard” and “Martin’s Vineyard” throughout the seventeenth century. Martin may have been a Captain John Martin who was in Gosnold’s company on this voyage and later figures as an associate of his in the early settlement of Virginia. As for Martha, Banks points out that “a careful search among the females of this family (Gosnold’s) at that period does not reveal a Martha in any remote generation.” (Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 74.) Thus, who Martha was has remained something of a tantalizing mystery that may never be solved.
 Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 63.
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Ibid, p. 65.
 See Part III and the discussion of the Norton-Harris house in Chilmark.
 Banks, History, p. 69.
 Gale Huntington, “The Vineyard Before 1642,” Martha’s Vineyard: A Short History and Guide, edited by Eleanor Ransom Mayhew (Edgartown, MA, 1966), p. 23.
 Banks, History, Vol. I, pp. 70-71.
 For a discussion of this, see Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 71.
 Ibid, p. 117
 James Norton, “Holmes Hole, 1674-1860,” The Heritage of a New England Coastal Town, 1983. Unpublished manuscript, p. 2.
 Lloyd C.M. Hare, Thomas Mayhew: Patriarch to the Indians (1593-1682), New York, 1931, p. 30.
 Ibid, pp. 27-32.
 Ibid, p. 32.
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Joseph C. Allen, “Fighting-Farming-Fishing,” Tales and Trails of Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, 1938, p. 19.
 Norton, Holmes Hole, p. 2.
 Hare, Thomas Mayhew, p. 63.
 Norton, Holmes Hole, p. 2.
 Allen, Tales and Trails, pp. 19-20.
 Richard M. Candee, “A Documentary History of Plymouth County Architecture, 1620-1700,” Old-Time New England, Vol. LIX, no. 3, January-March 1969, p. 62.
 Hare, Thomas Mayhew, p. 64.
 Joseph C. Allen, Martha’s Vineyard: A Short History and Guide, edited by Eleanor Ranson Mayhew (Dukes County Historical Society, Edgartown, MA, 1966), p. 41. Also see Allen, Tales and Trails, p. 23.
 Banks, History, Vol. II, “Annals of West Tisbury,” pp. 42-43.
 See Richard M. Candee, “A Documentary History”, Vol. LX, No. 2, October-December, 1969, pp. 37-50.
 Henry E. Scott, Jr., “The Story of a House: Perhaps the Island’s Oldest,” The Dukes County Intelligencer, Part I, May 1981, p. 135.
 Allen, Tales and Trails, p. 28.
 Banks, History, Vol. II, “Annals of West Tisbury,” p. 7.
 Ibid, p. 4.
 Ibid, p. 7.
 This was probably drawn by Charles E. Banks. The information given on this map checks out completely with the records in the Dukes County Registry of Deeds.
 Banks, History, Vol. II, “Annals of West Tisbury,” p. 10. See also discussion in Part III of the Standish-Whiting house.
 Candee, “Plymouth Architecture,” Old-Time New England, October-December, 1969, pp. 37-50.
 See Hugh Morrison, Early American Architecture (New York, 1952), p. 32.
 Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 154.
 Letters from an American farmer, by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, reprinted from the original ed., with a prefatory note by W. P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York, Fox, Duffield, 1904. Original Scan: Jill Spearma, The University of Virginia 5/95. Copy Editing and Hypertextualization: Michael R.H. Owens and Tuomi J. Forrest The University of Virginia 10/95, p. 114.
 Hare, Thomas Mayhew, p. 219.
 Banks, History, vol. I, p. 248.
 Ibid, p. 250.
 Ibid, p. 253.
 Crevecoeur, Letters, p. 114.
 Norton, Holmes Hole, p. 10.
 Ibid, p. 11.
 Ibid, p. 17.
 See Banks, Vol. 2, “Annals of Oak Bluffs.”