Chapter Five

Village of Chilmark, Wiltshire, England.  Thomas Mayhew was from this part of England, where traditional houses are of stone, often with thatched roofs.



English Influences

Up into the 19th century, English houses, like English society, can be divided into two distinct types: first, that of the “better” or upper classes, and second, the vernacular housing of the common people. Throughout most of New England and particularly in Plymouth, the Cape, and the Islands, the earliest framed houses were derived from the latter category. This is because most of the emigrants came from the rural areas and were farmers or tradesmen—“yeoman” (a farmer and freeman), “husbandman” (somewhat down from yeoman on the social scale, also a farmer, and later a keeper of animals), “housewright,” “cordwainer,” “mariner,” are the most common designations on early Vineyard deeds. In the cases of men of more wealth or better status, as a religious matter, ostentatious displays were frowned upon. “A man of wealth usually lived as modestly as his neighbor of lesser means.”[1] Though occasionally members of the first family on Martha’s Vineyard, the Mayhews, displayed aristocratic ambitions, and in the early deeds occasionally called themselves “gentlemen,” their houses, though sometimes larger, were essentially of the same plain type and plan as those of everyone else on the Island. Even in the Colonies, the uniformity of the Island houses was remarkable. The basic two-room deep half-, three-quarter- and full-house plans were to continue, only slightly modified by Georgian detailing, as the traditional Island house type until the early 19th century.

This Vineyard house type that takes shape in the latter half of the 17th century is a New World adaptation of the plan and structure of earlier rural English antecedents. Island settlers and builders benefitted from the recent revolution in vernacular English house design that had been taking place in the century before the first English colonists settled on these shores, and the evolution of the Island house must be seen in the light of this “revolution.” Thus, we must briefly trace important developments in the design of English rural houses in the years just prior to the coming of colonists to America.

Until well into the 16th century, the traditional English house was called the “long house” (see figure 5-1b). From a later perspective, the most unusual feature of this design was the fact that it had no chimneys or fireplaces. In the center of the great room, or “hall,” was a large hearth on which was built an open fire for cooking and heating. Above, there was no ceiling, but instead one looked up to a complex and beautiful truss work of tie-beams, struts, crown-posts, and rafters that stiffened the structure and supported the roof. The smoke from the fire below rose to the peak and passed along it to either side exiting through louvers at the gable ends. The design of the “long house” has been likened to that of an English parish church, not only for its open hall, but because of the longitudinal plan with entrance at one end.[2] This entrance took the form of a cross passageway or “screens-passage,” as it is called, with outside doors at both ends.[3] Across this passageway in early times was the animal barn, or “byre.” Later, the animals were removed to a separate barn and the service rooms—buttery, pantry, sometimes brew house and dairy—replaced the byre at this end of the house. The hall, with its hearth, was the heart of the house serving as a living room, work space, and eating area, and these multiple functions were to continue in the “halls” of early American Colonial houses. Next to the hall, at the opposite end of the house from the service area was the “parlour” which was usually at this time a downstairs or master bedroom. Above it was a small sleeping loft for the children.

Though existing earlier in structures belonging to the Church and the noble classes, it was not until the 16th century that chimneys and fireplaces began to be incorporated into the smaller farmhouses. This was a revolutionary change and took some time to be universally adopted. William Smith noted in 1585 that the farmers in the vicinity of Cheshire,

…till of late years … had their fire in the midst of the house against a Hob of Clay, and their Oxen also under the same roof [though he adds that] within these forty years, it is altogether altered: so that they have builded chimnies, and furnished other parts of their houses accordingly.[4]

By 1601, a Thomas Hinds of Ingatestone was presented at the manor court for lighting a fire in a room with no chimney and was ordered to build one or pay a fine of ten shillings.[5] Cummings conjectures that amongst the earliest settlers of New England, “there must have been a few older persons at least who could recall a childhood in England in a cottage which had lagged somewhat behind its neighbors and had neither a chimney nor glazed windows.”[6] He goes on to quote Governor Winthrop who recorded in 1632 that,

Mr. Oldham had a small house near the west at Watertown, made all of clapboards, burnt down by making a fire in it when it had no chimney.[7]

On Martha’s Vineyard, the first record of a chimney is not until 1659, nineteen years after the first settlers arrived, though chimneys, if not of brick then possibly of logs and clay, were undoubtedly built here from a much earlier time. In fact, by the 1640s we would expect that almost all the English colonists would consider fireplaces and chimneys to be a necessary and integral part of their houses.

In England, the placement of the chimney was more various than in the New World. Figure 5-2 shows several common arrangements. In the top plan, one chimney backed on to the screens-passage and its fireplace opened out into the hall. The other was built into the end wall of the house where its fireplace could warm the parlour. This latter placement was particularly popular in stone or brick houses where the chimney could be incorporated into the masonry of the exterior wall. In New England, the stone-enders of Rhode Island and the Henry Whitfield house in Guilford, Connecticut (also stone) made use of this placement. More practical, perhaps, was the bottom plan in which the chimney was located between the parlour and hall where back-to-back fireplaces faced out into each room, but only one stack was necessary. The middle plan was the immediate predecessor of the basic design adopted by most Colonial New England builders. Here the chimney was placed in the middle of the screens-passage effectively blocking it off. The back door was eliminated in this location, and the front door now led to a small lobby (in early New England called the “porch), just in front of the chimney stack. To right and to left were doors that opened to the parlour (taking the place of what was once the pantry of buttery) and the slightly larger hall. As the cooking was still done here, the service rooms—pantry and buttery—opened conveniently off the hall, at the unheated end of the house where the parlour once was. In the English houses, the stairway was most often placed behind the stack, though occasionally it appeared, as in this country, in the front lobby opposite the main door. Thus was created the three-celled lobby-entrance house (see figure 5-3a). Tracing its development and spread, Eric Mercer says of the Lobby-entrance plan:

By the beginning of the 17th century the lobby-entrance plan had proliferated in southeastern England and an almost standard farmhouse had been evolved there: an unjettied [with no overhang] timber-framed building of one and a half storeys or more of three cells entered by a doorway in the lateral wall opposite a chimney stack.”[8]

In southern England, he goes on to say that this was an age of experimentation in house planning:

…in some houses…the chimney heated only one room, the hall-kitchen. In a few others…the parlour was still the room reached from the hall and not from the lobby entrance. But by far the commonest arrangement that reveals the main motivation for the whole development, was to have in series, a heated parlour, a lobby entrance, a heated main room and an unheated service and, sometimes divided into two small rooms.[9]

Thus, the three-celled lobby-entrance plan was commonest in the south and southeastern parts of England. It also appeared in the West Midlands (where the Mayhew family was from), and was popular in East Anglia, though here “the axial-chimney house with a through passage was probably as common.”[10] These are the areas where most of the early settlers in Massachusetts came from. In much of the North and West, which sent out fewer emigrants, the lobby entrance remained very rare.[11]

When this distinctive plan crossed the ocean to the New World and was transplanted in the soil of Massachusetts, the house at first was pruned back. The third cell containing service rooms was cut off and eliminated, thus creating a more compact and symmetrical two-room design built around a chimney that was truly central to the house. How or why this contraction from the three to the two-celled house took place in the New World, no one has adequately explained, but we have to note that the two-room plan was rare (though not unknown) in the Old World, and the three-celled plan was almost unheard of in the New England colonies. In New England, I have been able to find only one Colonial three-celled house—the Joseph Whiting house in Connecticut (ca. before 1667)—and in this house, the third cell was a later addition on the house though still of an early date.[12] In two Vineyard houses that were extended in this way—the Damon-Price house and the Von Mehren house—the third room or cell, on closer examination, proved in each case to have been an addition of the 19th century.

As for the pantry and buttery, when they were re-introduced into the Colonial house in the latter part of the 17th century, they were placed, not as an extra cell along its length, but opening off the new kitchen in the back corners of the house. Thus, the basic symmetry of the two-room central chimney plan house was maintained. This new placement for the service rooms may have affected the orientation of Colonial houses. Though the siting of English houses varies a good deal, with the three-celled plan, it was often popular to speak of the ends of the house as the “solar” and the “service” ends.[13] This meant that the parlor usually faced the sun (the solar end) and the service rooms—pantry and buttery—were on the cooler north side of the house where the sun’s heat would not be so likely to spoil food or drink stored here. When the buttery and pantry were put in the back of the house, keeping to the English principle of solar and service ends, the Colonial house was often re-oriented so that the front of the house rather than its ends faced the sun. On the Cape and on Martha’s Vineyard, the early houses almost invariably face south, or just a few degrees to east or west of this. As Connally notes about the Cape Cod house: “Now, as then, it faces south, as all the historians agree, ‘without regard to the street or road’.”[14] This has always been explained as being the most logical solar orientation, which it is, but its roots may go back to English antecedents where the desire was not so much to have the front rooms warm and sunny, as to keep the service rooms cool and shady.

The simple one-room plan which must have been very common in the early days of this country (see chapter 4 on the one-room plan Vineyard houses, and chapter 3 on others) was rare except in the humblest of cottages in England. However, that it sometimes became the nucleus of a growing house could also be true in the mother country. A house at Southend in Wiltshire, in the same district that the Mayhews of Martha’s Vineyard were from, illustrates this quite well. (See figure 5-3b.) As Mercer describes it:

It is now of three cells and of one story and an attic. [In the early 17th century] the west bay was originally part of a pre-existing timber-framed house running N.-S., but this became the third cell of a stone and flint house built to the east. The entrance is on the south side against an axial stack heating the central room; there is an unheated room beyond to the east. …In 1669, a second stack was added backing onto the first and heating this west room. The stairs are in the lobby against the stack and…there is a date on a panel at the head of the stair.[15]

The development is not as clear as one might wish. Evidently, the present fireplace in the older west part was added after the later eastern rooms were built. One has to wonder what the arrangement of the original, one-room, timber-framed house might have been, and especially where its chimney was. As is often the case on the Vineyard, it is quite possible that the chimney of 1699 was the rebuilding of a much older stack; this would certainly make the sequence more logical. In any case, the growth pattern of this house mirrors that of many American colonial houses that once were only one-room in plan. The lobby entrance with staircase in front of the chimney stack, and back-to-back fireplaces heating the two main rooms is, of course, very much the sort of thing you would find in New England houses of this period. This house is of particular interest to us because, as mentioned, it is near the English home of the Mayhews, and must have been built about the time that the elder Thomas Mayhew came to America. Though this house was of a poorer sort than he would ordinarily have been accustomed to, because of the pioneer conditions in the new settlement on the Vineyard, it is likely that most of the early cottages at Great Harbor were of this type—one or two rooms in plan with a central chimney in the expanded houses.

We must note that while the earlier part of this Wiltshire cottage was of timber-framed construction, the later addition (early 17th century) was of stone. Wiltshire is a stone district. A recent picture of Chilmark, England (figure 5-4), neighboring town to Thomas Mayhew’s childhood home of Tisbury (and namesake to the Island town of Chilmark) shows a little village of stone cottages with end chimneys and thatched roofs. Later, when Mayhew came to America, it is recorded that he lived in Craddock’s “Great Stone House” in Medford.[16] Why then are the early houses of the Vineyard exclusively of timber-framed construction? The answer seems to be that, though there are miles of stone walls in the up-Island towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury built with the abundance of glacially deposited fieldstone (which may have reminded the elder Mayhew of his childhood home), Great Harbor was established in one area of the Island which was totally lacking in good building stone. Furthermore, limestone for the making of proper mortar was also totally unavailable. Therefore, timber-framed construction was the only expedient method.

Banks has a drawing done at the turn of the century of a street in the center of another little English town, Great Baddow, in Essex, adding a grassy commons and period costumes to give it the look of the 17th century (see figure 5-5).[17] At least three of the earliest settlers of Great Harbor – Malachi Browning, John Pease and William Vinson (Vincent) – can be traced back to this little town or its immediate environs. These timber-framed houses are much closer to what we find on the Vineyard. The half timber house on the right has, as its basic wall structure, studs and wattle-and-daub, just as we find it in the later Vincent house of 1672. The clapboard siding on the others across the street duplicate what was once probably used as an exterior covering on the earliest Vineyard houses. Though it is possible that the cottages at Great Harbor may have had end chimneys similar to those that we see in this drawing, this placement was later changed and the chimney was brought within the framework of the house. The clustering of houses was also given up in the New World Settlement (see chapter one on the plan of Great Harbor).

During the 17th century, both in England and in the Colonies, extensions on the earlier plans were being made. In America, as we have seen in chapter 3, after the middle of the century, additions onto the back of the house were making possible new a new kitchen and service rooms. Most commonly in England the need was for more living rooms, and, in this case, the parlor end might be doubled in size, creating an L or a T plan house. Where more service rooms were required, the first recourse was to set them within an “outshut” under a lean-to roof in back, creating what in America is called the saltbox shape. The earliest English example of this is at Great Puntley Farm in Hampshire from the second quarter of the 16th century.[18] However, it is not until the 17th century that many houses began to be built with outshuts. In America, the principal reason for the lean-to addition in back was to make possible a separate kitchen with its own cooking fireplace and, of course, pantries and butteries opening off of this. It is therefore a surprise to find that in England, the early outshuts did not include a kitchen, but instead a staircase often occupied the place where the cooking fireplace would be in American homes, and the other rooms in the outshut would include a dairy, brewery, or pantry. It was not until the late 17th century in southern England that the outshut occupies a larger area and features a rear kitchen with a cooking fireplace feeding into the main stack like the preferred Colonial plan. Yew Tree Cottage in Kent from the very late 17th century and Rambler Cottage in Sussex of 1699 are examples that are very similar in plan to their contemporary American counterparts.[19]

The distinctive early house of the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard are not, however, of the saltbox or outshut type, but by the late 17th century are two-rooms deep under a single symmetrical roof, with both front and back walls of the same height. In England, this would be called a “double pile” house, and vernacular houses of this type, though not exactly like their American counterparts, date from a similar period in time—the second half of the 17th century. Early examples include: Commissary’s Farm, Lancashire, ca. mid-17th century, the Post Office, Airton, Yorkshire of 1666, and the larger Stapleford Manor near Nottingham, ca. 1689, and Rossal Mansion Shropshire of 1677. These examples are almost contemporaneous with the earliest two-room deep Island houses of the 1670s.

There appears to be two possible origins for this type of house in England. The first is that it was an outgrowth of the outshut type. As Mercer says:

Dwellings with a continuous outshut at the rear may be seen as a step on the way to the “double pile” house; the house which is two rooms deep and has the front and back of the same height. … It is when the rear wall and front wall are the same height that the house with an outshut becomes a double-pile house, but early double-pile houses of vernacular origin were not quite up to the standard of those of the upper classes.[20]

The second is that it may be a vernacular imitation of upper class houses which had been using this design from the 16th century onwards. R.W. Brusnkill puts it this way:

The double-pile plan may be considered as the farmhouse imitation of the double-pile Large house, or it may be considered as the final development of the continuous outshut plan wherein the rear eaves were raised to match the front eaves and the asymmetrical end elevation was abandoned; but it is probably more accurate to consider it as a happy combination of both influences.[21]

In the vernacular double-pile house, the back room was extremely narrow, like the early outshut type, and had a staircase where the cooking fireplace would be in houses of the New World. In the upper class English homes of this type, the back rooms were more ample, but here the houses were almost always of masonry construction with end rather than central chimneys, and a much more pretentious style than would be the case in the Colonies at this time. In fact, nowhere do we find a double-pile plan exactly like the one that develops in southeastern Massachusetts in the late 17th century.

In England, the adoption of this two-room deep design caused some problems of roof construction, since most traditional roofing materials required a steep roof pitch. P. Cunningham describes the English solutions:

To start with, the roof was often constructed in two parallel ranges, with a central valley gutter. This could cause maintenance problems, and sometimes the central area between the ridges was covered with a flat lead roof. Later, after improved transport made Welsh slates available over most of England, roofs could be roofed in one span. Sometimes a mansard roof was preferred, providing useful attic service.[22]

Because of this weight of the slate or other heavy roofing materials, we notice that the English double-pile houses often had a truss system for their roof structure, whereas American colonials, using the lighter boarding and shingles, found a single collar tie to be sufficient; thus, they were able to open up the attic space for a usable sleeping area of the house. On the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, the problem of spanning the two-room deep house was solved with the adoption of roof boards, newly available from sawmills on the Cape, and shingles, probably a Dutch innovation, which technique did not require the same steep pitch as the earlier thatched roofs. The mansard roof that Cunningham illustrates was, in this country called a gambrel. Early two-room deep houses in southeastern Massachusetts that have gambrel roofs are the two 17th century Harlow houses in Plymouth, and on the Vineyard, the Dunham-Brainard house in Edgartown, ca. 1685, and Little-Goff house in Chilmark, ca. 1711.

With the saltbox houses of Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, it is possible, as we have seen, to find contemporary, or somewhat earlier, counterparts in England with similar plan and shape. However, in the case of the distinctive two-room deep houses of the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard, we can find a parallel English development in the double-pile house, but beyond this it is difficult to find any close prototype: for the English double-pile houses differ from the Cape and Vineyard type in plan or arrangement of rooms, in external appearance, and in the structure and character of the roof.

On the small house level, the English developed a “double-pile, single-fronted cottage” which is somewhat similar to the Cape and Islands half house. This one and one-half cottage featured a main front room that was both living room and kitchen with a service room to the rear, and two small bedrooms upstairs. Brunskill describes it in this way:

…such dwellings shared the two-room depth and a rear staircase of the double-pile plan but lacked the extra pair of rooms which lent symmetry to such a house. In the latter sense they represent the culmination of a process of addition and improvement to the simpler cottages. For as the loft space of the cottage was improved to become a bedroom, so the ladder which was inconvenient and encroached on the main living space was replaced by a winding or a double-flight staircase extending from the rear; and as an additional larger or wash-house or other service room was placed alongside the staircase, so an extra bedroom was added above.[23]

While the lack of a separate kitchen, and stairs “extending from the rear” seem at first to be uncharacteristic of Cape and Vineyard houses, there was, perhaps, some early precedent for this scheme. In the Isaac Robinson-Bruno house of ca. 1673, the kitchen/living functions remained in the front room until the mid-18th century, while a 17th century addition on the rear of the house must have been for service functions. The Simon Athearn house of 1673 may also initially have had a front hall/kitchen with back pantry or buttery. However, in contrast to these, John Mayhew’s house (Hancock-Mitchell) of the 1670s, the Vincent house of 1672, and Governor Mayhew’s two and one-half story house of 1670 all almost certainly were built with separate back kitchens. Rear staircases are not uncommon in Cape and Vineyard houses, but in the earliest examples—the Hancock-Mitchell and the Vincent houses—access was originally from the front lobby and then was moved to the back kitchen in the 18th century.

Aside from differences in plan and design, the chief problem in assigning influence here is that the English “double-pile, single-fronted” cottage seemed to have developed as a type long after its half house counterpart in America. Mercer, in his catalog of surviving vernacular houses in England, finds no example of this type of cottage in the 17th and 18th centuries. Brunskill says “cottages of this type are mainly of late eighteenth-, nineteenth- or even early twentieth-century date.”[24]  Thus, the American half-house and the English single-fronted, double-pile cottage seem to be similar, but divergent types, which must have had a common ancestor in the emergence of the vernacular double-pile house in the mid-17th century England.

One other aspect of these English cottages is interesting for us. As Brunskill puts it:

Such cottages were rarely built singly. Most commonly they were built in reflected pairs, symmetrical about a centre line which marked two front doors placed together, or symmetrical about a chimney stack which grouped together flues from all the living room and bedroom fireplaces. Sometimes they were built in villages in short rows of three or four, sometimes they were built in mining or quarrying districts in long rows.[25]

Attached cottages or “mirror-image” houses, though not of double-pile type, can be traced back to the 17th century in English country districts.

The unique development pattern of Cape and Island houses in modular units from half to three-quarter or whole-house pans, may possibly derive from early English mirror-image cottages which were, in fact, two houses placed back-to-back.

The modern terminology—half-house, three-quarter house, full-house—seems to imply a development towards the larger symmetrical plan. The earlier nomenclature, however, gives a different, and perhaps historically revealing picture. On the Cape, comparable houses in the early days were called “house,” “house-and-a-half,” and “double-house;” and on the Vineyard, they were termed, “low single” (1-1/2 story), “high single” (2-1/2 story), “single-and-a-half” or “double” houses. This obviously implies that a full house (modern terminology) was actually a combination of two houses, and a three-quarter house was a house with another half-house added to it on the opposite side of the chimney. This may possibly go back to the English predilection for combining two (or more) cottages into one unit. Of course, when this happened the results were different in the old and the new country. In more densely populated England, the desire was to fit two or more families into small, economical units. Often they appear in rural or mining villages, or as laborers’ cottages on large estates. In southeastern Massachusetts, the half-house satisfied the need for a small, compact dwelling that could easily be erected as a first stage in the establishment of a single-family pioneer homestead. Later, as the family and its resources grew in size, the house could be increased by fifty percent, making it a three-quarter house, or doubled, to create a full-house scheme, in a logical, efficient, and attractive way. In the Old World, the double created two single-family cottages; in the New World, it doubled the size of the existing house to keep up with the needs of the growing families and more settled prosperous conditions.

American colonial designs seem to be a simplification of more complex and various forms of houses in the mother country. Compact, symmetrical, and uniform types are chosen over the somewhat rambling three—cell, H, T or L plans of their English counterparts. Throughout New England, there is an early preference for a separate kitchen in the rear of the house. In Plymouth Colony, the Cape and the Vineyard, the borning room seems to be a local innovation created in response to the needs of large and growing families. This room takes the place of one of the back service rooms in a traditional Old World design. The tiny pantries are a diminution of relatively large dairies, butteries, and pantries common in even the smaller English households. Part of the storage of foodstuffs took place in small cellars which are found under all early Vineyard houses, but occur rarely in England.

In framing, too, we find a desire in early Vineyard houses for a simplification of English methods. Actually, many overly complex Medieval techniques had been weeded out during the “housing revolution” just prior to the first settlers arriving on these shores. For example, with the inclusion of chimneys into the house and the consequent flooring over of the open-ceilinged hall, the complex truss systems with crown and queen posts, interlocking struts and collars, was boiled down to a single tie-beam, collar tie affair, which is what we find on all Island houses.

The English rafter system preferred in Massachusetts Bay consisted of principal rafters with attached purlins supporting closely spaced subsidiary rafters to which horizontal boarding was nailed. The Vineyard roof was a simpler affair deriving from the English double-through purlin type (see figure 5-6b). Here, the rafters are on wide five to seven-and-a-half foot centers with three sets of horizontal purlins and a peak purlin for each side of the roof. Vertical boarding was then nailed to the purlins. Only one house—the Hancock-Mitchell house—remains with simply two purlins, in English fashion, on its older west end. Very quickly, a third purlin was found to be necessary for nailing and support for the newly introduced boarding, which replaced thatch in the late 17th century. The third purlin was added to all subsequent Island houses, including the later east end of the Hancock-Mitchell house.

For the walls, the English wattle and daub was known and used on the Vineyard (see discussions of the Vincent house and the Robinson-Bruno house). However, without a local source of lime (see Part II, chapter 2) for the stabilizing outer surface of cob or plaster, wattle and daub proved to be vulnerable to driving coastal storms (see Governor Winthrop’s accounts). Thus, from an early time, possible clapboards, and later boarding and shingles, were found to be necessary. When stud wall construction was used, the studs were placed on two foot centers, rather than the one foot six inch centers of English houses. (The next chapter will discuss plank-frame construction where the studs are eliminated.)

The basic framing of the Vineyard house is simply a continuation of the English boxed-frame construction. The cruck-built cottages and barns so common from Medieval times in the mother country are totally absent in the New World, though it is possible that the well-known bowed-roof houses of Cape Cod are an outgrowth of English cruck construction with their structural supports being taken over as curved rafters. There are, however, no authentic early bowed-roof houses on Martha’s Vineyard. The summers, girts, and splayed or gunstock posts found in Vineyard houses all derive from English timber-frame construction, both in form and finish. However, on Martha’s Vineyard, the timbers tend to be of scanter dimensions than those in England, or in the other Colonies to the north. This is perhaps because the trees on the Island tend to be smaller than those on the mainland. Only the simplest of English chamfers were chosen to articulate the edges of major structural members on Vineyard houses. Here, as elsewhere, simplicity was preferred.

Thus, the early Colonial Island house was still fundamentally an English house: however, it embodied certain preferences and distinctive features derived from local needs and conditions that made it different from any particular house that you would find in England at this time. It must be kept in mind that the American colonies by the 1660’s and 1670’s—the period in which the earlier surviving Island houses were built—were already well-established. The settlement on the Vineyard, then in its second generation, had many inhabitants who were born here. Others, like Simon Athearn, had come over as children and for them, England may have been a place that was only dimly remembered. Most English settlers who came to the Island in the 1670s and 1680s had already spent a significant length of time in the New World growing accustomed to the place, its needs and requirements, before settling and building their homes on the Vineyard. Thus, it is no surprise to find that a distinctive local house type could be coming into being at this time which combined traditional English features with new characteristics—the natural result of life and conditions in the New World.

Below is a list of early Vineyard settlers from the 1670s and the 1680s whose houses have survived in some form, specifying, as nearly as we can tell, where they came from, and how long they had lived in the New World. This may give some idea how close Old World ties were at the time on the Vineyard.









Date the House Was Built

The Man Who Built it


1670: (House demolished in 1910, but pictures of it survive).

Governor Thomas Mayhew. Born in Tisbury, Wiltshire, England. Came to America as a young man. Lived in Massachusetts Bay for 13 years, and at Great Harbor (Edgartown) for 26 years before he built this, his second house.

Nicholas Norton was born in Somerset, England.  He came to the New World in 1635, and for at least twenty years was a residence of Weymouth, Massachusetts. In 1658 or 1659, he removed to Great Harbor where he lived out his days with his wife Elizabeth.



Their eldest son, Isaac, was born in 1641 in Weymouth (the year Thomas Mayhew purchased the Island).  When he was 16 or 17 he came to the Island with his parents.  In 1663, he married Ruth Bayes, and about this time built his house somewhere in Great Harbor.  In this house they had ten children.  The house still survives, but was moved in 1760 to Lagoon Pond .



William Vinson (Vincent). Born in Bromsfield, Essex, England. Came to Connecticut in 1651, and to the Vineyard in 1655. Bought land with a house on the Edgartown Great Pond in 1656. He had lived 4 years (?) in Connecticut and 17 years on the Vineyard before he built his new house at age 45.



Simon Athearn, born in England in 1643. Came to this country as a boy in the employ of Nicholas Butler of Edgartown. Had lived on the Island for at least 20 years before he built his house in “New Town” (West Tisbury).



John Mayhew built his house, or possibly rebuilt his father’s mission outpost at Quansoo (Quenames?) probably in 1673 when he was married. He was born and brought up on-Island.

Early 1670s

Josiah Standish. Son of Miles Standish. Born and lived in Plymouth Colony. If he ever lived on the Vineyard, it was only briefly. Possibly built his house within a year of his coming to the Island in 1672.



Early 1670s

Nathaniel Skiffe. Born in Sandwich, Cape Cod, Plymouth County, and early a resident of that town. Came to the Island in the early 1670s and either built a house or took over Josiah Standish’s house (above) within a year of his coming to the Vineyard.



Reverend Jonathan Dunham. Born in Leyden, Holland in 1632, the year before his family arrived in Plymouth with other English Pilgrims. Came to the Vineyard in 1684, and built his house within a year.



Joshua Daggett. Born and raised on the Island. Built his house about the time he was married. The house was moved to Main Street, Edgartown in the 19th century and was considerably rebuilt. Now known as the “Desire Coffin House.”



James Allen. Born in Braintree, Massachusetts, and later a resident of Sandwich, Cape Cod. Came to the Vineyard as one of the first Proprietors of West Tisbury in 1672. A resident of that town for 16 years until  he built his house and settled in Chilmark, about 1688.



Nathan Skiffe. Born in Sandwich, Cape Cod. Lived in West Tisbury for about 15 years before he built his house in the new settlement in Chilmark around 1690. The house is now known as “Barnhouse.”





Fig. 5-1a. Long-house plan showing “Byre” of barn across screens-passage from Hall. (From P. Cunnington, “How Old is Your House?)

Fig. 5-1b. Long-house in plan and section. Here Pantry and Buttery have replaced “Byre” across screens-passage. Section shows open hearth and smoke exiting through louvers in gable ends. (From E. Sandar, Suffolk Houses.)


English “Mud and Stud” house. Here the chimney has been incorporated into the house between the Hall and Parlour. The elimination of the open hearth has made it possible to add a continuous second floor. (From Mercer)


Fig. 5-2. 16th and 17th century adaptations of Medieval farmhouses showing three methods of incorporating the chimney(s) into the house. (From P. Cunnington, “How Old is Your House?”)


Fig. 5-3a. Three-celled lobby entrance house. (From Mercer: English Vernacular Houses.)


Fig. 5-3b. The Wiltshire house at Southend, early 17th century, from near Thomas Mayhew’s childhood home. Like many American Colonial houses, this house grew out of an original one-cell nucleus. (From Mercer, English Vernacular Houses.)

Fig. 5-4. Street in Great Baddow, England. (Drawn ca. 1900 by Charles Banks.)


Fig. 5-5a. English house with an outshoot; the prototype for the Colonial “saltbox.” From Mercer, English Vernacular Houses.)

Fig. 5-5b. Comparison in plan and section of outshoot and double-pile houses. (From Mercer, English Vernacular Houses.)

Fig. 5-6a. Typical 18th century English double-pile house. As in the Colonies, the rear rooms are deeper in the later houses of this type. (From Brunskill, Houses.)


Fig. 5-6b. Because traditional roofing materials required a steep pitch, spanning the two-room deep, double-pile house posed problems. Here are four English solutions. (From P. Cunnington, “How Old Is Your House?”)

Figure 5-7. Six types of English roof trusses. Only the simplest of these, the through purlin type in example C, was used in Colonial Vineyard houses. (From Mercer, English Vernacular Houses.)

Notes – Chapter Five

[1] Doris Doane and Harold L. Rich, A Book of Cape Cod Houses (Chatham, 1970, p. 12).

[2] Eric Sandon, Suffolk Houses: A Study of Domestic Architecture (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 1977), p. 41.

[3] Ibid., p. 42.

[4] As quoted in Cummings, Framed Houses, p. 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Eric Mercer, English Vernacular Houses (Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, London, 1975), pp. 62-63.

[9] Ibid, p. 63.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., p. 64.

[12] See Norman Isham and Albert P. Brown, Early Connecticut Houses (New York, 1965), pp. 41-43, for a complete description of the Joseph Whiting house.

[13] Mercer, Vernacular Houses, p. 61.

[14] Ernest Allen Connally, “The Cape Cod House: An Introductory Study,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. XIX, no. 2, May 1960, p. 3.

[15] Mercer, Vernacular Houses, pp. 216-217.

[16] Banks, History, Vol. I, p. 117.

[17] Banks, History, Vol. II, “Annals of Edgartown,” p. 92.

[18] Mercer, Vernacular Houses, p. 71.

[19] Ibid., pp. 71 and 209.

[20] Ibid., p. 72.

[21] R.W. Brunskill, Houses (London, 1982), p. 90.

[22] Pamela Cunnington, “How Old Is Your House?” Historical Development: The Last Three Hundred Years (London, 1980), pp. 81-82.

[23] Brunskill, Houses, p. 95.

[24] Ibid., p. 97.

[25] Ibid.