Chapter Two

Harbor, Gloucester, Mass. in 1606, showing both round and arbor-like Indian dwellings (from Cummings, Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay).


Native Wigwams and First Shelters of English Settlers

The first homes on the Island were, of course, the Native “wigwams.” The earliest English settlers must have viewed these with considerable interest, and they may have provided inspiration for their own first shelters. Banks gives a description based on Thomas Mayhew Jr.’s accounts while he was a missionary among the Vineyard Indians:

Their dwellings were known as wigwams, a corruption of the Algonquin word “wekuwomut” meaning, in our language, a house. The younger Mayhew (Thomas Jr.) described these structures as “made with small poles like an arbor covered with mats, and their fire is in the midst, over which they leave a place for the smoak to go out at” (Light appearing, etc., London, 1651, p. 5). This was in 1650, and probably is a correct description of them as they were used before the coming of the whites. The Island Indians did not use skins for a covering like those on the mainland, as there were not any animals numerous enough to supply them for that purpose. The mats were woven from the common marsh flag, or flower de luce, and probably long native grasses were added for binding. The name of Scrubby Neck, or a portion of it, in Algonquin, was Uppeanash-Konameset, meaning the “covering mat place”, where the cat-tail flags grew in profusion and were woven into coverings for their wigwams.[1]

The closest contemporary illustration that I can find is the drawing made in 1606 of the harbor area at what is now Gloucester, Massachusetts, showing both round and arbor-like Native dwellings. A similar description was given of “Indian houses” that the Pilgrims found on nearby Cape Cod in 1620:

[These wigwams] were made with long yong Sapling trees, banded and both ends stucke into the ground; they were made round like unto an Arbour, and covered downe to the ground with thicke and well wrought matts, and the doore was not over a yard high, made of a matt to open; the chimney was a wide open hole in the top, for which they had a matt to cover it close when they pleased; one might stand and go upright in them, in the midst of them were foure little trunches knockt into the ground, and small stickes laid over, on which they hung their Pots, and what they had to seeth. … The houses were double matted, for as they were matted without, so they were within, with newer and fairer matts.[2]

The double matting refers to the fact that the wigwams of the Eastern Woodlands Indians usually had two layers of bark, skins, or woven materials; the space between was stuffed with grasses or seaweeds for insulation in the winter. Those familiar with native life often noted that their dwellings seemed warm or warmer than the framed houses of the English that had been built with considerably more time and expense.[3] This was partly because the early wattle and daub was not as good an insulation material as well-packed grass or seaweed. In the 18th century, Vineyarders, having given up wattle and daub, often used eelgrass to insulate their houses—a technique possibly learned from the Natives (see pictures of the Mayhew-Sands house in Nashaquitsa).

William Wood writes in 1634 that it was the task of the Indian women to build the wigwams and in the summertime “they gather flagges, of which they make the matts.”[4] These were “close wrought mats of their own weaving which deny entrance to any drop of raine, though it come both fierce and long, neither can the piercing North Winde find a crannie, though which he can conveigh his cooling breath.”[5] Recently, reconstructions have been made of these wigwams at Plimoth Plantation, which have helped to correct the popular but erroneous notion that conical teepees were used by Eastern coastal Indians.

On the Vineyard, the whites and the natives often lived in close proximity throughout the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, each tolerating and often cooperating with one another, but also retaining something of their own distinctive ways of life. The Island Natives, at this time, were slowly being Christianized and, to some degree, assimilated into the white community. For their part, the whites were not unaffected by the natives, especially in the early years when they learned from the native agricultural methods, fishing and shellfishing techniques, and later, whaling, which was in the 19th century to become a great joint venture. The early deeds of West Tisbury indicate that in the beginning the whites and natives were close neighbors. The Sachem, Josias, sold a certain parcel of land with the proviso that “the English should herd their cattle, and not allow them to roam at large … because the cattle would destroy their cornfields and squash meadows.”[6]

Further on, this deed speaks of a boundary “to run Southerly unto the water that comes into the valley where Titchpits house and his sonnes were in the winter of 1668.”[7] From this we gather that the native’s “houses,” unlike the whites, were not always in the same place from winter to winter. Hare observed the following:

The home life of the Natives was simple and largely nomadic. Upon Martha’s Vineyard the tribes lived in several villages or towns. These were of no permanency, composed as they were of loosely constructed wigwams, which their owners moved about as they willed in accordance with the food supply and the season. Josselyn tells of having seen half a hundred wigwams together on a piece of ground, where they showed “prettily” yet within a day or two, of a week, were all dispersed.[8]

The natives of the Vineyard continued to live in their wigwams into the 18th century, and the presence of these “Indian houses” must have been a common ingredient in the Island landscape throughout the first hundred years of English settlement. Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston writes of his visit to the Island in 1702: “Tuesday, April 7 … Dine at Major Mayhew’s [Matthew], then rode to the Gay-Head Neck, to Abel’s wigwam [the Indian who gave his name to Abel’s Hill in Chilmark], where was pleased with the goodness of his house, especially the Furnitures, demonstrating his Industry…”[9]

We have no descriptions of how the first English settlers on the Island sheltered themselves until they were able to build proper frame houses. Banks conjectures that “The dwellings were probably log huts at first, built in the manner of construction familiar to all. The cracks and chinks were daubed with clay and the roof covered with salt hay laid in the form of a thatch.”[10] This, however, was written in 1911 before Harold R. Shurtleff came out with his important book, The Log Cabin Myth, in which he was able to show that the log cabin did not exist in any of the English colonies in the 17th century. Nor were log cabins in New Netherlands or French Canada. It was a form of construction unknown in England and Southern Europe and it was likewise unknown to the American Indian. Swedes who settled in Delaware in the 17th century brought the log cabin from Scandinavia where they were widely prevalent. Later Germans and Scotch-Irish learned the technique and by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it became the popular pioneer cabin of the Westward Expansion.[11] However, since the early settlers of the Vineyard were all English and would never have seen a log cabin at this time, we have to discount Bank’s colorful picture of the first Vineyard Houses.

Probably the first makeshift shelters built by the English on the Island were similar to those erected in other new settlements in coastal New England. A legend in the Pease family tells of John Pease and others who spent their first winter(s) in caves on Tower Hill (Edgartown). Since there are no caves on Tower Hill the story may refer to shelters dug out of the side of the hill, like a cave. This type of dugout shelter was described in a contemporary account by Cornelius Van Tienhoven, secretary of the province of New Netherland in 1650:

Those in New Netherland and especially in New England, who have no means to build farmhouses at first according to their wishes, dig a square pit in the ground. Cellar fashion, six or seven feet deep, as long and as broad as they think proper, case the earth inside all around the wall with timber … floor this cellar with plank and wainscot it overhead for a ceiling, raise a roof of spars with bark or green sods, so that they can live dry and warm in these houses with their entire families for two, three or four years.[12]

Research at Plymouth indicates that a primitive type of cabin was built in the early days of the settlement, which was made of vertical stakes driven into the ground, woven with wattles and daubed with clay. The ridgepole was supported on forked sticks and this carried a roof of poles and turf or thatch. Similar stave or “palisade” houses were described in many of the new towns of Massachusetts Bay Colony. In comparison to these crude shelters, the wigwam was clearly a superior structure, easy to build, and more weatherproof. Probably with the rapport that was established between the English and the Vineyard Natives from the start, it would not be surprising if a few of the early settlers on the Island adapted the native wigwam for an early shelter. It is interesting that in the early deeds and accounts, it is called interchangeably a “house” and a “wigwam.” We know that adaptations of the wigwams were used by the early colonists elsewhere in Massachusetts. For example, one Jonathan Gatchell reported in 1677 that he had lived in Marblehead when old John Golt first came there, forty or more years before, and that Golt first built a wigwam and lived there until he got a house. Governor Winthrop in 1630 described a Mr. Finch of Watertown (where the Mayhews were from) who “had him wigwam burnt and all his goods,”[13] and Thomas Dudley a year or so later laments the flammability of “English wigwams which have taken fire in roofs covered with thatch or boughs.”[14] In the Pioneer Village at Salem, Massachusetts built in the 1930s, there are some re-creations of what these “English wigwams” might have looked like. Chimneys were added at the end to replace the Indian smoke hole, and doors and primitive windows were also included. These may very well be accurate, though certain features like the above were based purely on conjecture.

Finally, within the first year of settlement at Plymouth, Salem, Jamestown, and most probably the Vineyard as well, more substantial “cottages” were built. These were roughly framed, one-room structures with a loft above and chimney at one end. The roofs were thatched and the walls were filled with wattle and daub between the studs as was common practice in England at the time. Early on, in the harsher climate of New England, there seems to have been some trouble with this as an exterior covering as both Bradford and Winslow reported at Plymouth in 1621 describing a storm which “caused much daubing in our houses to fall down.”[15] This necessitated a better covering, and probably very soon the English colonists began sheathing their cottages and houses with hand split clapboards. Some very good reconstructions of these cottages have recently been built at Plimoth Plantation. Here we can see how the wattle and the daub was done, the way the early stone and clay or wood and clay chimneys were constructed, the hand split clapboards below and the steeply pitched thatched roofs above. To judge from the framing traditions on Martha’s Vineyard, some of the framing in these reconstructions may not be completely accurate, but the general effect must be very close to the look of the early English settler’s cottages.

Within a year or so, the dugouts, the cabins, the wigwams must have been largely replaced, but the one-room cottages may often have formed a nucleus for the earliest framed houses.


Notes – Chapter Two



[1] Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 42.

[2] George B. Cheever, The Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (New York, 1848), p. 39.

[3] Gookin, who was superintendent of the Indians subject to the Massachusetts Colony, writing in 1674, says, “The best of their houses are covered very neatly tight and warm, with barks of trees, slipped from their bodies in those seasons when the sap is up, and made into great flakes, with pressure of weighty timber, when they are green. … Some I have seen, sixty or a hundred feet long and thirty feet broad … I have often lodged in their wigwams, and found them as warm as the best English houses.” Quoted in Thoreau while discussing the relative merits of Indian wigwams and the housing of the white settlers. See Henry David Thoreau, “Walden,” The Portable Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode (New York, 1979), pp. 284-285.

[4] As quoted in Abbot Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982), p. 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dukes County Registry of Deeds, Book I, p. 33.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hare, Thomas Mayhew, pp. 43-44.

[9] Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 482.

[10] Ibid, p. 474.

[11] E.B. O’Callaghan, editor, Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, 1856-1883), I, p. 368. As quoted in Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, p. 19. Similar to Van Tienhoven’s description is that of Edward Johnson, one of the first comers to Massachusetts Bay, who says of the New England settlers, “They burrow themselves in the Earth for their first shelter under some Hill side, casting the Earth aloft upon Timber; they make a smoky fire against the Earth at its highest side … yet in these poor wigwams [author emphasis] (they sing Psalms, pray, and praise their God) till they can provide them houses.” At the founding of Philadelphia in 1682 similar “caves … were formed by digging into the ground, near the verge of the river-front bank.” One was still in existence as late as 1760. Fiske Kimball, Domestic Architecture of the American Colonies and the Early Republic (New York, 1922), pp. 5-6.

[12] Cummings, Framed Houses, p. 20.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Hugh Morrison, Early American Architecture (New York, 1952), p. 11.

[15] Ibid.