Thursday, March 15, 2007

Apple #231: Martha's Vineyard

Here it is, the first Apple in answer to the What's Your Favorite Place question. Sorry it's taken me a while to get this up here, Jarred.

For those who haven't checked the Comments on the What's Your Favorite Place entry lately, Jarred asked me to find out about Martha's Vineyard. Here is his question:

Hello Apple Lady!

My favorite place is Martha's Vineyard. When Mark & I go there we usually stay in Edgartown, one of three or four towns on the island. I really think it's the most beautiful place that I've been to....although I haven't been to many places. I think the Vineyard has an interesting history. Something about it being a vacation place for African Americans in the 19th century. Will you consider this for your new blog series? :) I hope all is well!!!


I remember seeing some PBS program about the history of Martha's Vineyard, and that it used to be a vacation spot for African Americans. I will definitely check that out.

It turns out that, for such a small place, Martha's Vineyard has a lot going on. This is an especially long one. I guess that will make up for my time lag, Jarred!

  • Martha's Vineyard is an island located 7 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, underneath the flexed arm (Cape Cod) that sticks out from the Massachusetts mainland.

On this map, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are both in purple. I don't think that means anything in particular, except that neither of these islands are considered part of Cape Cod.
(Map from Bed & Breakfast Cape Cod)

  • People have been living on Martha's Vineyard for a LONG time. The oldest Native American camps have been dated back to 2270 BC.
  • Some people say that the Vikings landed here -- the first place Vikings ever landed in North America -- in AD 1000 and called the place Vineland.
  • Lots of explorers landed on the island, but the explorer who landed and whose name for it stuck was Bartholomew Gosnold, who arrived in 1602. He called the island Martha's Vineyard -- Martha after his daughter and Vineyard for all the wild grapes that grew there.
  • At about this time, Europeans were buying up parcels of land all over New England, and in the 1640s, miller and businessman Thomas Mayhew bought the island and Cape Cod for 40 pounds.
  • His son, Thomas Mayhew, Jr., led the settlement on the island and founded Edgartown.

Today, Edgartown is located just inland from the icon of the little house in the Great Harbor on this map.
(Map from the Seashell Press)

  • Mayhew Jr was the settlers' teacher and pastor, and he spent a lot of time preaching to the native tribes. Having learned their language, he made friends with them fairly easily and converted many to Christianity.
  • He also decreed that no land should be bought from the native tribes without their consent and without paying a fair price for it. This decree helped keep relations between the tribes and the Europeans amicable, while much blood was shed over land rights in other parts of the country.
  • However, the Europeans brought with them the smallpox, and this wiped out much of the native population on the island. Those that survived were mainly members of the Aquinnah tribe, who lived on the opposite end of the island from the Europeans, and some of the Wampanoags.
  • The Wampanoags taught the Europeans how to catch whales, haul them ashore, and harvest the oil to use as fuel. The Europeans caught onto this like crazy and turned it into an industry, complete with many whaling ships and buildings in Edgartown to support the whaling and shipping trade.

Stereograph of a detailed diorama showing how Martha's Vineyard folks performed the whaling trade.
(Photo from Martha's Vineyard Museum's exhibit on the Photography of Richard Shute)

  • When the American Revolution hit, the British stormed the island and burned many ships and the whaling buildings, and they stole all sorts of sheep and cattle and essentially decimated the economic welfare of the island. It took a while for the islanders to recover, but soon they were whaling away again, although at less of a clip.
  • Then during the Civil War, many of the whaling ships were captured by the Confederate navy or otherwise held up at sea. As a result, lots of the whaling companies went bankrupt. This combined with the discovery of cheaper petroleum in nearby Pennsylvania helped put an end to the whaling trade on Martha's Vineyard.
  • Just before the Civil War, it had become fashionable for people to attend multi-day revival meetings. People were becoming increasingly wealthy, and they feared they were losing touch with their religion. Also at this time, Methodism was becoming popular throughout the early US, and it was primarily the Methodists who were having these revival meetings.

Revival meeting in 1850, held in a sheep pasture in what is now Oak Bluffs
(Photo from Norton's History of Martha's Vineyard)

  • Most of the revivals were held away from the pernicious influence of the towns. They were also held outdoors, to accommodate lots of people, and for this reason, revivals happened mainly in the summer. Especially impassioned Martha's Vineyard residents built new homes in the woods, smaller than their Greek Revival homes in town. It wasn't long before they seemed to forget their original purpose in moving out to the woods and added more and more gingerbread to their homes, trying to out-do other people's cottages.

An especially gingerbread-bedecked cottage in Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard
(Photo by Laura McLean, SouthCoastToday)

  • The meetings were becoming increasingly popular with the mainlanders, and after the Civil War, it had become even easier to get to the island. Enchanted by the beautiful scenery and the beaches, they came back, ostensibly to attend more revival meetings. The residents soon built cottages in the woods specifically to rent to the summer visitors. In 1863, much of the island was still forested, but 10 years later, nearly all the woods had been replaced by cottages. The island's summer resort trade had begun.
  • Today, most of the year-round residents live in one of six major towns: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven (used to be called Tisbury), West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah (used to be called Gay Head).

Map of Martha's Vineyard showing the six major towns and the regions associated with them. "Chappy" refers to Chappaquiddick, which is often included with Edgartown.
(Map from Wallace & Co real estate)

  • Martha's Vineyard has a long-standing reputation as being friendly to people of color. Some claim that this is because slavery never existed on the island. This is incorrect; records show that some of the island's early landowners -- and pastors! -- bought and sold people as slaves.
  • However, as was true of every place in Massachusetts, people of color on Martha's Vineyard never lost the right to challenge their status in a court of law, and they never lost the right to own property.
  • After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, many African Americans came north and to Martha's Vineyard looking for work. They found jobs in the fishing industry and soon began to establish their own businesses.
  • African American visitors discovered that, while it was difficult to find hotels that would rent them rooms on most of the island, they did not have that problem in Oak Bluffs. Soon more African American-owned businesses sprang up throughout Oak Bluffs, so serve the growing African American tourist community.

Screen shot from A Place of Our Own, a documentary about African Americans on Martha's Vineyard

  • One beach in particular was a favorite with African Americans, who called the beach the Inkwell. This beach was the subject of a movie called The Inkwell. Apparently, the movie depicts the area as low-class-friendly, but in fact Oak Bluffs catered to the upper middle-class African American, just as the rest of the island was considered posh and pricey by white tourists and homeowners.
  • Notable past and present African American residents of Martha's Vineyard include:
    • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • Paul Robeson, famous for his role in Show Boat
    • Dorothy West, Harlem renaissance novelist
    • Spike Lee
    • Vernon Jordan, lawyer and advisor to President Clinton
    • Bill Cosby (not a resident but a frequent visitor)
You can read more about Martha's Vineyard from the African American perspective in Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island.

  • Martha's Vineyard is also deaf-friendly. This is because many of the island's early settlers carried the gene for deafness. For a while, as many as one in four children born on the island were born deaf.
  • Residents soon developed a sign language, called Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. This was later merged with additional signs developed on the mainland into a language called American Sign Language.

  • Other 20th century notable events on Martha's Vineyard:
    • Ted Kennedy's mysterious car accident at Chappaquiddick in 1969
    • Jaws was filmed on the island in 1974
    • Jackie Kennedy Onassis purchased land in Chilmark in 1978
    • Princess Diana visited in 1994
    • President Clinton and Hillary were at a party on the Vineyard when they got the news of Princess Diana's death
    • John F. Kennedy, Jr.'s plane crashed off Aquinnah in 1999.

If you would like to ask the Apple Lady more about your favorite place, enter your query as a comment in this earlier entry.

Martha's Vineyard Gazette, Vineyard History
Henry Franklin Norton, History of Martha's Vineyard
Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce
Official Site of the Town of Oak Bluffs, MA
PBS, Independent Lens, A Place of Our Own
The African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard
The Suburban Sista's Guide to African-American Literature and Culture, Martha's Vineyard - A Place for Us, Deaf History - Martha's Vineyard
Time, Special Report: Princess Diana, 1961-1997


  1. Apple Lady, that was great! Thank you, thank you, thank you!


  2. Happy to oblige. I'm glad you enjoyed it.


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