Chapter Four


Cools Farmhouse attic bedroom

West Tisbury, England






The Earliest Houses: Evidence of the One-Room Deep Plan

At this point we must ask about earlier precedents: the Governor’s first house of 1646 for example, or those of his fellow colonists in the first generation of settlement on the Island before the 1670s. What were these houses like? And what might this tell us about the evolution of the Vineyard house that appears, so it might seem, fully developed by the last quarter of the century?

Presently available research leads us to two probable conclusions about the earliest Island houses. First, Banks has discovered that “in the early divisions of land in Edgartown there were ‘thatch lots’ set apart for each of the proprietor’s holdings, and they were held as such and passed from owner to owner under this designation as late as 1680.”[1] This would indicate that many 17th century houses, especially those built before 1680, had thatched roofs, and as these usually required a pitch of around sixty degrees, were steeper pitched than those we are accustomed to seeing on Island houses today (usually thirty-five to forty degrees). Second, in view of the prevalence of one-room houses elsewhere in New England at this time (see quotes from Morris, Kelly, and Cummings), one has to believe that there must have been similar houses in the early days on the Vineyard. Thus, we come up with a one-room (or one-room deep) thatched roof  house. Is there any evidence for such a house on the Island, and if so, how did the transition to the two-room deep plan take place?

Recently, Polly and Ted Meinelt brought to my attention, from their collection, an old photograph of the Nathan Mayhew house that once stood at Brandybrow in West Tisbury; the house was torn down shortly after the picture was taken in the early years of the 20th century. It shows us (figure 4-1) an unusual house for the Vineyard; for it is a saltbox, one and one-half stories, a house that evidently was one-room deep and later expanded with a kitchen out the back. The back part was roofed over by extending the rafters and changing their pitch. The disadvantages of this type of house are obvious: there is little usable space upstairs, and the back kitchen area is limited by the slope of the rafters. Still, though no houses like this survive on the Island, the Meinelt photograph is positive evidence that one-room deep houses did once exist here, and that awkward saltboxes were sometimes created from them. From what we can determine, this house dated back before 1770.

The first convincing evidence that an initial single-room stage may have been the nucleus for a more traditional Vineyard house came when I was re-examining the Isaac Robinson (now the Bruno house)in West Tisbury. This house dates from about 1673 and was one of the original houses in Tisbury Village. Isaac was in his sixties when he built his house, probably the oldest resident of the new settlement, and was well known because his father, the Reverend John Robinson, had been pastor of the Pilgrims in Leyden, Holland before they came to this country.

While Isaac and his wife lived in the house it was very likely the simplest kind of dwelling. An exposed post with regular, circular indentations for the springing of wattle and daub(see figure 4-2a) can still be seen just to the east of the chimney beneath the center beam (the main east-west beam that runs through the center of the house supporting joist and summers). This is evidently the last of a series of posts or studs that once defined a wall beneath this beam. The circular indentations held oak staves that were sprung between the studs forming a kind of ladder. Green sprigs and branches were then woven into this “ladder” to create a mesh for holding “the daub”—a clay and hay or straw mixture—the whole compromising the filling for the wall (see the illustration of the wattle and daub at Plimoth Plantation, figure 4-3b). Wattle and daub was an ancient technique brought over from England. In this country, it is an indication of the very earliest kind of wall construction. In fact, there are only four known surviving examples of this infill, one of which is on the Island.

What is surprising here is not only the evidence for the use of this technique in one of the first West Tisbury houses, but its use in an interior wall. Almost always on the Island, interior walls were constructed simply of a single layer of vertical pine boards with tongue and groove joints (sometimes they were plastered over later, but this remains the basic underlying construction). Wattle and daub, an early form of insulation, was used for exterior walls where it would be most effective. We thus have to wonder about the placement of this post, and what it tells us about the house in its earliest form. Our conclusion is that the post was once part of an exterior wall; the back wall of the original house. If we think of it in this context, the odd placement of the indentations toward the “outer” edge of the post makes some sense. Here, the wattle and daub could more readily be built out flush with the outer surface of the wall and if, as in the early days of Plymouth, the wattle and daub was at first left exposed, a smooth, tight outer surface would be important.

As postulated then, the wall along the center beam was once the back wall of the house. This would mean that the house in its first stage was a simple one-room cottage, with chimney at one end, sleeping loft above, clay and wattle walls, and probably a roof thatched with local hay, reeds, or cat-tails. The present east front room may once have been the main cooking, eating, and living space. Though undoubtedly rebuilt several times, the fireplace is still unusually large for the front room of an Island house. Its size may indicate that it was originally intended to be used for cooking, as well as heating purposes.

The subsequent history of the house, gathered from deeds and the probate records, tells us something about how it grew. The next occupant was Isaac’s son, Isaac Jr., as we know from a deed of transfer in 1701.[2] Isaac Jr. lived on in the house until his death, and shortly thereafter his widow, Ann Robinson, began selling off the property. The piece on which the house must have stood was sold to Benjamin Foster, a blacksmith, in 1738.[3] Isaac and Ann Robinson had no children, so there apparently was no pressing need to expand the house significantly. A small addition was evidently added in the back either by Isaac Jr. or his father. This would have included the back part of the house up to the easternmost chimney girt (which has no chamfer on its west face, indicating that there was once probably an exterior wall nailed here). This back addition would not have included the area behind the chimney, and thus there was, as yet, no back kitchen. (See plans of first and second stages.)

Benjamin Foster, who bought the place from Ann Robinson, had seven children and must surely have felt the need to expand the house. In fact, we know this took place because in his will of 1769, he speaks of leaving “the West End of the house of late built” to his older son, Jonathan, and the eastern end of the house to his younger son, Benjamin, “reserving the Front Room for my wife Mariah Foster as long as she shall live.”[4] Thus, the western half of the house plus the kitchen area must have been added between 1738 and 1769. Today, the differences in the two halves of the house can be plainly seen, not only in terms of the proportions of the respective rooms, but also in the exposed framing. In the east, pine is used for the major horizontals; in the west, oak is used. In the older west room, the summer is only roughly squared with no chamfer, the intent being to case in the beams. The present owners, the Brunos, removed the casing so that now the basic rough framing can be seen.

It is evident also that the roof was completely rebuilt at this time. The earlier roof might have been a narrower, steeper pitched affair built originally for thatch, and later, when the small back room was added, a shed roof or lean-to may have covered it. But whatever the original roof was like, we know it was deemed unsatisfactory at the time the western half was added to the house, for the rafters today are marked with builder’s marks that are numbered in sequence from the west (the newer end) to the east (the older end) of the house, and the rafters, purlins, collars, etc. are consistent throughout. The fact that a new roof was thus required with the expansion and extension of the house tends to confirm our belief that it was probably once a one-room dwelling whose roof would have been insufficient for the newer house that was created by Benjamin Foster.

The Mayhew-Hancock house at Quansoo gives us a very good idea of the sequential stages of a growing Island house. This house would have to be included as a prime candidate for the “earliest house on Martha’s Vineyard” as Henry Scott has shown.[5] Here, the older half of the house is obviously the western end (for all documentation on this, see descriptions of individual houses in Part III). Builder’s marks on the rafters indicate a building sequence from the west including the chimney bay, and another from the east taking in the new eastern room. This, among other things, defines the extent of the old and newer sections.

In the attic, the pattern of the old floorboards tells us about certain earlier features of the house. In the foreground of figure 4-4, we can see where the ancient massive chimney (now gone) once came through the floor. Beyond this, also clearly visible and just above the center beam, is a division line along which all the floorboards meet that goes from the old chimney area up to the far west gable wall. No good carpenter makes a continuous joint like this unless he has had to add onto an already existing part, as I believe was the case here. The division line of attic floorboards may define what once was the rear wall of the original house; to the left of the line is the boarding over the west front room (the original part), to the right is the section that may have been added later—the back kitchen area of the house. It should be noted here that there is no such division line on the other end of the attic over the newer eastern rooms which were built as one complete section.

Downstairs, we find confirmation of this idea. The present partition wall between the front and back rooms in the older part of the house follows along the middle of the center beam. The front room side of this beam has the usual beveled chamfer, a simple but effective embellishment that the builder always puts on the edges of the major beams where they will be seen. However, the back room side of the center beam shows no beveling of the edge at all. This lack of a chamfer usually indicates the former presence of a wall; in this case, the old vertically boarded back wall of the house. Thus, here again we have clear indications that the older front room may originally have been the single room nucleus of a house that later grew into something quite different. When the newer eastern half was added, as rafters, purlins, chimney girt, back kitchen post, and attic floorboarding all show (again, see the descriptions of individual houses for a full documentation), it was added as a whole section with front and back rooms, to a western half that was, by this time, two rooms deep. Thus, in this house, the first stage was to add on a back kitchen-borning room area, and the second stage was to lengthen it.

In his well-documented two-part article just mentioned, the late Henry Scott has given support to the family tradition which says that the Hancock-Mitchell house was built by Thomas Mayhew, Jr., the missionary, before 1657 when he sailed for England and was lost at sea. Mr. Scott suggested that the house was used as a mission outpost in Quansoo for the Indians of Nashowakemuck (Chilmark) and neighboring areas, and was originally built as a small, simple structure.[6] If Mr. Scott’s theory is true, this would date the early one-room part of the house back to the 1650s. In the 1670s, John Mayhew, Thomas Jr.’s son, settled in this region. According to Banks, he was Chilmark’s first settler.[7] By this time, the Indian place of meeting had been moved to Christiantown, and John probably rebuilt his father’s mission outpost adding a back kitchen, borning room and pantry, and extending the roof so that there was a sleeping loft above. In this way, he turned the early one-room structure into a two-room deep half-house suitable for himself and his new family. The Walling map lists John Mayhew at the site of the Hancock-Mitchell house in Quansoo by 1681. The newer eastern half of the house was probably not added until the Hancocks took over the house in the mid-18th century; the back ell was put on in the 19th century.

In the Isaac Norton house (now in Farm Neck), a similar break in the floorboards above the center beam both east and west of the chimney, indicate that it was built originally in 1663-4  as a two-room house, but only one-room deep.  Isaac had purchased a thatch lot shortly before he built the house which we believe was used for the original roof covering of the house.  Later in the 18th century, a back kitchen, borning-room, pantry area was added on in back, making the house two rooms deep.  The original thatch roof with the required 60 degree pitch was lowered to 40 degrees and broadened to span the increased two-room depth of the house.

The Standish-Whiting house in West Tisbury (ca. early 1670s) is another house of this period which has clear evidence to show that it was originally a one-room cottage. Here again, the construction of the interior partition separating front and back rooms was built as if it were an exterior wall. In this case, the partition was made of thick one and one-quarter inch vertical, pine planks of the same type as are used on the outside walls. What is particularly curious here is that instead of being fastened at floor level like ordinary partitions, these planks pass down through the floor and are nailed to the mid-sill below exactly as an outside wall would be.

Overlapping floor joists under the center of the house indicate that it had been built in two stages. The dressed ends of the eastern joists and the rafters numbered from the eastern end show that this was the older part. A break in the end girt on this side of the house, at its junction with the center beam, tends to confirm that the large southeastern room comprised the extent of the original cottage. Later, in the 1690s after Edward Cottle, with his large family, had bought the homestead, it was given its back rooms and extended to the west to become a full-house.

Other features give us subtle hints as to what this house looked like in the 1670s. The door from the southeastern front room to the old kitchen in back is placed directly under the center beam instead of to one side of it, as was traditional. This awkward placement forces the borning room partition wall behind it to be out of line with the summer beam (for a full explanation, see Part III on the Standish-Whiting House). The reason for this can only be that the door occupies a space that was once taken by a single back door or window, centered in the former rear wall of the house. In front, there was probably only a single small casement window, occupying the sixteen inch space between the present two front windows—as we know was the case in the contemporary Vincent House, ca. 1672. The chimney bay was originally only four feet in width, which is the extent of the eastern floor joist. The roof was probably of steeper pitch and may have been thatched. Using these features, we have reconstructed the house as it may have looked in the early 1670s (see figure 4-6).

The Vincent House in Edgartown is probably the Island’s best known early house. In 1977, the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Preservation Society was given this exceptional 17th century house by the former owners on the condition that it be moved from its location near the Edgartown Great Pond, and that it be preserved for the public benefit. These conditions were met. The house now stands in the center of Edgartown amidst the classical houses and great whaling church as a reminder of what came before. In the process, it was fully restored under the careful direction of Anne W. Baker. A chimney brick that she discovered inscribed “1672” has given us our most plausible date for the house—the Society claims it to be the oldest known house on Martha’s Vineyard, though this is, of course, still open to question.

In the restoration process, though at first suspecting earlier stages, when Anne Baker discovered unbroken sills summer beams, she concluded that it must have been as a full-house from the start.[8] In this she may be correct, but we have also found evidence for an embryonic one-room deep stage. This is not to say that the house was ever only one-room in plan; however, in the construction of its central partition wall, it may show the influence of a transitional stage. Like the Isaac Robinson House, this wall is, surprisingly, of wattle and daub and the material survives in a remarkable almost perfect state of preservation—only the fourth documented example of this infill.[9] Buried within this central partition wall at its junction with the outside post, is a diagonal weather brace, ordinarily found only at the corner posts of a house. Thus, wall and brace constitute the same construction that would be used at the corner of an early one-room house; the fact that it is “remembered” here is interesting; for it probably indicates that the Vincent House is an early house of its type, possibly one of the first with a two-room deep plan.

In 1656, when William Vincent bought his land at Meshaket overlooking the Edgartown Great Pond, there was already an existing house mentioned in the Deeds.[10] Undoubtedly it was here that he lived for 16 years with his growing family until he was able to build for himself a better place. The “new” house that has come down to us from 1672 is confusing: for its full-house, two-room deep plan seems almost ahead of its time, but this is combined with older construction features like the wattle and daub, the odd structure of the central partition wall, and its former, tiny hinged diamond pane windows (evidence of which were found in the excavation of the house site under Myron C. Stachiw), and the framing of the front walls.[11] After 1672, there is no mention of a second house on the land in subsequent deeds and wills. One likely explanation for this could be that the older cottage may have been torn down at the time when the new house was under construction, and thrifty as early Islanders always were, they may have incorporated some of the structure of the old house within the new, which was a common practice in the early days. This might explain the framing and the wattle and daub that seem to hearken back to the earlier one-room plan cottages.

With these examples, we can begin to date some of the early stages in the development of the Vineyard House. In the 1640s, 50s, and 60s, the one-room deep plan, thatched roof house with wattle and daub walls must have been the predominant house type. In the 1670s, as on the mainland (see Kelly, etc.) the two-room deep plan began to make its appearance, and with it came the abandonment of thatch and probable wattle and daub. By the 1680s, this transition was probably complete. After this, it must have been rare to find a house built in the older style.

There is one surviving Chilmark house of obvious early date, formerly belonging to the late Sydney Preston Harris on the North Shore, which has clear evidence that it was once thatched. This may be the only evidence of this kind in New England showing a stage of Colonial houses that previously had been documented only in written records. The house and its history is also interesting to us because it may show how the change from the one- to the two-room deep plan could have affected the roof structure of a traditional Vineyard house.

This house, which we will call the Norton-Harris house, was moved and altered in the early 19th century. The original structure once stood on the little island of Noman’s Land, located three miles off the southwest tip of Martha’s Vineyard. While there, it retained its original 17th century character with thatched roof and one-room plan until an almost tangibly close historical time. Rebecca Manter, who lived into the 20th century in what was the neighboring mill house at Roaring Brook, recalled to Mr. Harris when he was young that her father, Robert Manter, who often went to Noman’s Land told her that the house, when it was still there, had a steeply pitched thatched roof, and a beach stone chimney, and details of its present construction bear this out. On some of the purlins, there are notches worn smooth by the ropes or thatch ties that bound the thatch to the roof and these can still be clearly seen in the attic. (See figure 4-8a.) The members of the exposed frame are hand-hewn, roughly squared, and the flared posts and accentuated chamfers all indicate an early date. The house was probably built soon after Jacob Norton purchased the island in 1715.[12]

In 1813, or thereabouts, Captain Shubael Norton, a pilot, having inherited one-half interest in the family house on Noman’s Land, plus land on the North Shore in Chilmark, took the house down, properly identified the pieces, loaded them aboard his ship and ferried them over to the landing at Roaring Brook. Thence, he moved them up the hill to the present site overlooking Vineyard Sound. Evidently, the original house as it stood on Noman’s Land was only one-room deep. Sydney Harris said that his father confirmed this some years back, when he went over and measured the old foundation there, and found it to be exactly the same length, but considerably narrower than the present house. Since the War, the Navy has used Noman’s Land for bombing and now it is a wild life refuge, off-limits to civilians. For the time being then, we will have to take Mr. Harris’s word for it. When Shubael set up the house on the hill overlooking the North Shore, he extended the house in back making it two-rooms deep. Evidence for this can be seen in the splicing of chimney girts and plates. In doing so, many of the old rafters were re-used, some were turned upside down to offset sagging, and the ends of all were recut to conform to the new low pitch of the roof, a pinch necessary to span the greater depth of the house. Also, the central chimney, originally of beach stones, was rebuilt with bricks, locally made.

Today, the house looks like a very traditional Vineyard home; yet, the transition, still remembered, from an earlier steep pitched, thatch-roofed, one-room deep house type is significant because it may indicate how aspects of the Vineyard house came into being. For this reason, I decided to “reconstruct” the Noman’s Land dwelling from dimensions that were built into the present house. First I drew the Harris-Norton house to scale as it looks today with a thirty-seven degree pitch to the roof. Then (see figure 4-8) by reducing the breadth to include only the area form the front wall up to the center beam (the probable depth of the Noman’s Land House), and using the same length of rafter, I arrived at a narrower house with a steeper pitched roof of fifty-eight degrees (see figure 4-9). As traditional thatched roofs are around sixty degrees, I believe this drawing is very close to the way the earlier house must have looked; and by extension is probably similar to the thatched roofed one-room cottages that we believe were very much a part of the early Vineyard scene. If the process is reversed, as must have been the case in many early transitional houses when a back kitchen area was added, a sixty degree roof pitch turns into something very close to the thirty-five to forty degree pitch that is traditional for Vineyard roofs of the Colonial period. It is certainly easy to understand how this could have come about. When the house increased in depth, it would be much simpler to recut the ends of the rafters to the new pitch than to chop down new trees and hew out all the new rafters for the purpose. Then, too, the Island carpenters, like those elsewhere in New England, were beginning to replace thatch with shingles, and the very steep pitch was no longer necessary or appropriate; in fact, shingling a steeper roof can be more difficult and dangerous. Of course, not all houses work out this way, and in some, like the Robinson-Foster-Bruno house the rafters may have been completely remade to fit the new dimensions of the house. However, it is probable that enough early houses were adjusted to a deeper plan by recutting old rafters, as we have described, to have established a kind of tradition. When later, newer houses were built two rooms deep from the start, the builders simply continued the tradition already established and pitched their roofs at thirty-five to forty degrees.

Thus, the houses of the Vineyard (and also the Cape) not only exhibit a unique development in terms of their plan, but their roof pitch is also quite different from many contemporary Colonial houses to the North. In Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, the one-room deep plan persists longer, and with it the distinctive high-pitched roof which derives directly from thatched roof predecessors (see figure 4-10). The lower pitched Vineyard roofs gave just enough room in the attic for bedroom and sleeping loft without requiring an excessively long rafter; an important consideration as very large trees were rare on the Island. It also gave these old houses a very pleasing shape: broad, solid, compact, sitting well on the earth, and presenting a low profile to the many storms that buffet the Cape and the Islands. For all these reasons, it appealed to the sensible and practical people of the Colonial Vineyard.

Fig. 4-1. The Nathan Mayhew house at Bradybrow, West Tisbury. House destroyed in the early 1990s. (Photo from collection of Ted and Polly Meinelt.)

Fig. 4-2a. Post with circular indentations for the springing of staves for the support of wattle and daub. Robinson-Bruno house, ca. 1673.

Fig. 4-2b. Wattle and daub from Plimouth Plantation showing the “ladder” of staves which were sprung from circular indentations in the posts, woven with branches and packed with “daub.”

Fig. 4-3. Robinson-Bruno house stages.

Fig. 4-3a. Probable original plan of one-room house 1673. “A” is post with circular indentations.

Fig. 4-3b. Probable plan ca. 1701: Two-room deep half-house. “B” is a gunstock post.

Fig. 4-3c. Present plan from mid-18th century full-house.

Fig. 4-4. The Hancock-Mitchell house at Quansoo, Chilmark. In the foreground, the old floorboards show where the great chimney once came through. Beyond this  is a division line in the boarding which follows the center beam in the western half of the house. To the left of this line was the original one-room section of the house, once a small meeting house from the 1650s. to the right of this line is the extension for a back kitchen probably added by John Mayhew, Chilmark’s first settler in the 1670s.

Fig. 4-5. Hancock-Mitchell house, Quansoo, Chilmark.

Fig. 4-5a. Stage one: One-room meeting house built by Thomas Mayhew Jr. ca. 1655.


Fig. 4-5b. Stage two: Conversion to half-house by John Mayhew ca. 1673.

Fig. 4-5c. Stage three: Full-house plan; Hancock-Mitchell house, Quansoo, Chilmark. East end with double summer beams was added by Russell Hancock in the mid-18th century.


Fig. 4-6. The Standish-Whiting house as it may have looked in the 1670s, in the village of Tisbury (present day West Tisbury), one of the first houses of the settlement.


Fig. 4-7a. The Norton-Harris house, North Shore, Chilmark. Moved from Noman’s Land Island in 1815. Original house from ca. 1715.

Fig. 4-7b. Plan of present full-house.


Fig. 4-8a. Norton-Harris house moved from Noman’s Land in the early 19th century. One of purlins in attic showing thatch tie marks.

Fig. 4-8b. This shows the center beam which once was probably part of the outer wall of Noman’s Land house. To left are two spliced in chimney girts added when house was extended in depth after it was set up on the North Shore of Chilmark in 1813.

Fig. 4-9. Norton-Harris house plans and sections showing reconstructed house of 1815 and house as it probably looked on Noman’s Land. Original thatched roof house dates from ca. 1715 or before.


Fig. 4-10a. House in Toppesfield, Essex, England, showing the characteristic steeply pitched thatched roof. (From Martin S. Briggs, The Homes of the Pilgrim Fathers in England and America, 1620-1685.)

Fig. 4-10b. The Aptucxet Trading Post established by the Pilgrims at Bourne, Mass. c. 1627. This reconstruction shows the probable steep pitched roof that is a direct carryover from thatch-roofed predecessors. Adjustments when depth of house increased.

Fig. 4-11. From the Hancock-Mitchell house ca. 1655; rebuilt 1670s.

Notes – Chapter Four

[1] Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 474.

[2] Deeds 2:35.

[3] Deeds 6:242.

[4] Probate 6:21-23.

[5] See Henry Scott, “The Story of a House; Perhaps the Island’s Oldest,” Dukes County Intelligencer, Vols. 22, nos. 4 and 5, May and August 1981.

[6] Ibid., Vol. 22, no. 4 (May 1981), pp. 123-140.

[7] Banks, History, vol. II, “Annals of Chilmark,” pp. 25-26.

[8] Anne Baker, “The Vincent House: Architecture and Restoration,” Dukes County Intelligencer, Vol. 20, no 1 (August 1978), pp. 10-12.

[9] Deeds 1:325.

[10] See Myron O. Stachiw, “The Vincent House: The Archeology,” Dukes County Intelligencer, Vol. 20, no. 1 (August 1978), p. 47; and Anne Baker, “The Vincent House, Architecture and Restoration,” pp. 10-12.

[11] As told to me by Sydney Preston Harris, then owner of the house, who knew Rebecca Manter when he was a child.

[12] Deeds 3:395-396.