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Excerpt: Finding Martha's Vineyard

Cover of <i>Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island</i>
Cover of Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island

This is a loving look at a summer spot that's been cherished by generations of East Coast families, written by a Vineyard veteran.

Nelson wants the reader to know that more than a century before President Clinton made the Vineyard famous, black families have been gathering there to enjoy the summer landscape and the spiritual sustenance they received from each other. Part history, part extended-family photo album... and very charming.

Chapter 1: What We Found Here

"Way back when, the Indians lived all over Martha's Vineyard, now most of them live in Gay Head, where the clay cliffs are," my mother tells me. It is a summer in the late 1950s, my father is here, too, and we are going up-island to spend the day at the beach at Gay Head, a major family excursion.

I do not remember how old I was when I first visited Gay Head, on the westernmost tip of Martha's Vineyard, maybe six, seven, or eight. What I do remember is my mother telling us about Indians and clay cliffs as we collected beach towels, sweatshirts, sneakers, packed sandwiches, and filled a thermos for the trip to Gay Head. Then as now, the trip to Gay Head is an all-day affair that, if we're lucky, stretches into the nighttime.

Back then, there was no public parking lot, no pathway to the beach, the fabulous clay cliffs were not protected. (In 1965 the United States government designated the cliffs a National Natural Landmark.) Instead, we parked the car on the side of the road and scrambled down the cliffs to the beach way below, clinging to rocks and sliding on our rear ends to avoid falling or slipping down the striated formations of clay.

The effort, then as now, when there is a parking lot and a long path to the beach, is always worth it. To my mind the beach at Aquinnah/Gay Head is the most beautiful on the island. There is something unique here, in the huge rocks that sit in the water not far from shore; in the cliffs, once large and colored red, yellow, gray, almost black, now shrinking through the erosion of humans and nature but still magnificent; in the cold, shimmering water that rolls in waves and that, once you're submerged, never fails to rejuvenate, this water here that is absolutely magical.

As a child growing up here the beach at Gay Head was almost empty. We would swim all day, stand holding hands in the surf and dare the waves to tumble us, happy when they did. We pulled our knees up to our chests, held our breath, and went under, the only sound that of the water roaring and crashing around us, the curl of the wave stirring up sand and pebbles that bombarded our bodies until the wave finished breaking and we could stumble to our feet, laughing and looking around to make sure everybody was okay, quickly grabbing someone's hand and holding tight before the next wave came. We body surfed, walked the beach all the way around the bend to the natural clay pits, sat on blankets and ate sandy sandwiches until we were ready to go in the water again.

I have walked this beach nearly every year of my life and it is always different. Each year the configuration of the beach and the cliffs changes as does what the ocean brings to shore. One summer the shoreline is littered with hundreds, thousands of live starfish. Another year it glitters with the smooth, purple-white pieces of clamshell known as wampum; the next year it is bare of all but the tiniest pebbles; the year after that rocks twice as big as my hand line the shore.

The Wampanoag people of Aquinnah say that this is a magical place, filled with legend, lore, and history, and over the years I have found it is impossible not to feel it. There is evidence that contact between members of the Wampanoag tribe and European settlers predates the arrival of English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold in the region in 1602, eighteen years before the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

But it was Gosnold who saw the gaily colored cliffs of Aquinnah, on the island the natives called Noe-pe, "the land surrounded by bitter waters," and renamed it "Martha's" after his daughter and "Vineyard" for the wild grapes growing there. What the Natives called Aquinnah he named "Gay Head" for the gaily colored cliffs.

Geologists tell us that the cliffs were formed over eons, first by layers of sediment and later by debris deposited by glaciers and outwash. The magnificent colors of the cliffs were created by millions of years of the sea rising and falling, flooding a swampy forest, depositing green sand and marine life. The bones of whales, sharks, walruses, seals, and all manner of shellfish have been found as fossils in the clay cliffs, created by the lifting and buckling up of the land in response to the push of glacial ice.

"Lying on top of all the clay is a layer of gravelly material called the Aquinnah Conglomerate, which is the last visible deposit before the coming of the ice," Paul Schneider writes in his wonderful book, The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. He continues:

Though it's only about a foot and a half thick at the most, there are so many bones and teeth in the Aquinnah Conglomerate that it was once called the Osseous Conglomerate. There are jaws, teeth, ribs, skulls, and paddle bones of whales and other marine mammals, along with the four-inch-long teeth of giant Pleistocene sharks that were probably sixty feet long. These gave way in the usual pattern to land animals as the water receded. A camel that roamed the rolling dry savanna that would become the Cape and Islands left its bones in the middle of the Aquinnah Conglomerate. (pp. 52-53)

The Wampanoag people of Aquinnah have their own story of the creation of the island of Noe-pe and Aquinnah, collected in Helen Vanderhoop Manning's book, Moshup's Footsteps. She writes:

So, more than 5,000 years ago, Moshup got a glimpse of the coastal plain and told his father that was where he wanted to settle; there was a magical call to him. Everything was perfect there and no one was yet continuously living on the coastal plain; rather, People were coming and going to hunt and fish.

Moshup had lots of cousins and they were all named Moshup too. He gathered them together and told them of the beauty at Aquinnah and the abundance of whales and game meat for food. Moshup was not happy on the mainland. So, after long and careful consideration, he decided he would search out a new place where he and his followers might live in peace. He invited all who wanted to come to follow him to this new home.

Moshup wandered along marshes, over dunes and through the forest. After dragging his huge foot, Moshup paused to look around and the ocean rushed to form a pool behind him. The pool deepened and became a channel; and, the waves, along with the full moon tides, formed the wide opening which now separates the Elizabeth Islands and Cappoaquit/Noman's Island. Still, it was the land ahead where Moshup wished to live in peace. So, he again dragged his great toes, permitting the waters of the ocean to rush in and surround the land we now know as the island of Martha's Vineyard. He dragged his foot once again and the majestic Aquinnah cliffs appeared. (pp. 22-23)

According to Wampanoag legend, the marine fossils found in the cliffs of Aquinnah are the result of Moshup throwing the bones and shells of sea creatures he and his followers devoured into a vast compost pit.

Forty years after Gosnold first saw the island that he named Martha's Vineyard, Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts, bought Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands--Cuttyhunk, Nashawena, Pasque, Penikese, the Weepeckets, and Naushon islands--from two Englishmen, who both claimed ownership, for forty pounds. A year later, his son Thomas, Jr., arrived and established the island's first white settlement in Edgartown. Today, the Elizabeth Islands, with the exception of Cuttyhunk and Penikese, are owned by the Forbes family of Boston, relatives of Senator John Forbes Kerry.

Records of a black presence on the Vineyard--slave, escaped slave, or free--are scant, but it is likely that, as elsewhere, slaves came with the earliest European settlers, or not far behind. What records were kept and still exist concerning the African-American presence on the Vineyard prior to emancipation indicate that their numbers were small. Much of this information comes from the wills of white Vineyard residents, some of whom left slaves as property to their heirs. These records indicate that slave ownership by Vineyard residents was small, consisting of between one and four slaves to a family, with probably fewer than fifty slaves on the island at any one time. According to a document from 1765, forty-six blacks lived on Martha's Vineyard, although it is not clear how many were slaves or free. It is also likely that some African Americans, slave or free, married into the Wampanoag community, were adopted by the tribe, and did not appear on any official records.

In a will probated in 1770, property listed included "One Negro woman, two boys . . . 60 pounds." According to an essay by island summer resident Jacqueline L. Holland, whose grandmother, Phoebe Moseley, first came to the Vineyard in 1883 as governess, housekeeper, and cook for a white family, "The estate of Samuel Sarson, Gov. Thomas Mayhew's grandson, who died August 24, 1703," included "a Negro woman, valued at 20 pounds," perhaps the earliest documented evidence of a slave presence on Martha's Vineyard. The Federal Census in 1790 encompassing the island towns of Tisbury, Edgartown, and Chilmark (the towns of West Tisbury, Gay Head, and Oak Bluffs did not yet exist) specify white males and females, then lists only a total of twenty-seven people described as "free persons." It is reasonable to assume that these "free persons" included Native American members of the indigenous Wampanoag tribe and people of African descent as well. What is clear is that blacks, slave, free, or indentured servants, were either not counted, undercounted, or listed vaguely in the early census.

It is known that an enslaved woman named Rebecca lived on Martha's Vineyard from the mid to late 1700s, the property of Cornelius Basett of Chilmark. It is thought that she married a Native American and known that she had a daughter, Nancy, who in 1779, at age seven, was sold to Joseph Allen in Tisbury.

Nancy Michael had a daughter, Rebecca--presumably named after her grandmother. By 1812 Michael was described as a "public pauper" living in Edgartown. She was probably around forty years old. In 1851, after supporting Michael for half her life, Edgartown lost a court case in which it took the town of Tisbury to court demanding repayment of the money the town had spent supporting Michael, since Tisbury was where she had been enslaved.

Michael died in 1856. The following article appeared in the Vineyard Gazette January 2, 1857:


Mrs. Nancy Michael known to most of our readers by the familiar cognomen of "Black Nance" is no more. She departed this life on Saturday last, at a very advanced age, probably she was not far from 100 years old. She had changed but little in her appearance for 40 years past, and those who knew her 50 years ago looked upon her as an old woman.

She was a very remarkable character in her day. Naturally possessed of kind feelings, she was fond of children and unusually attentive to their wants, and there are but few among us who have not at some time been indebted to her.

Possessed of a strong natural mind, she acquired great influence over some of our people, by many of whom she was looked upon as a witch. She professed to have the power of giving good or bad luck to those bound on long voyages: it was no unusual thing for those about to leave on whaling voyages to resort to her, to propitiate her favor by presents and etc., before leaving home.

Special woes were denounced by her upon those who were too independent to acknowledge her influence. In case of bad news from any vessel commanded by one who had defied her power, she was in ecstasies, and her fiendish spirit would at once take full control of her. At such times she might be seen in our streets, shaking her long, bony fingers at all unbelievers in her magical power and pouring forth the most bitter invectives upon those she looked upon as her enemies.

Her strange power and influence over many continued till the day of her death, though for two or three years past she was mostly confined to her room. Taking her all in all, she was a most singular character, and it will doubtless be a long time before we shall look upon her like again. She was a professor of religion and we believe at one time adorned the profession. "May her good deeds live long in our remembrance and her evil be interred with her bones."

The 1780 Declaration of Rights in the state of Massachusetts prohibited slavery but did not provide specifically either for the emancipation of slaves or legislative action prohibiting slavery. In 1783 Massachusetts courts abolished slavery, saying that the constitution of 1783 stated that "all men are born free and equal." The black population census of 1790 lists a total black population of 5,369 in Massachusetts and no slaves.

By the late 1700s a number of black families lived in the community of Eastville on Martha's Vineyard, the area of Oak Bluffs between Sunset Lake (across from the Oak Bluffs harbor) and Farm Pond (at the beginning of the road from Oak Bluffs to Edgartown). At that time, the total population of Eastville consisted of 180 people. By 1880, the Eastville community had been incorporated into the newly established Cottage City, with a population of 672 residents. It is unknown how many of them were black.

In the early to mid-1800s, the black American presence on the island was represented by indentured servants, skilled workers, laborers, and at least one whaling captain, William A. Martin, the son of Nancy Michael's daughter, Rebecca.

The number of slaves on Martha's Vineyard was always small. It is impossible to be exact, since blacks were often lumped into one category, without distinction between slave and free, and it is also likely that both were undercounted. It appears that the connection between free blacks, slaves, and the Wampanoag community was strong and that some whites as well resisted slavery.

I like to think that the expansiveness and sense of freedom that attracts African Americans to the Vineyard today existed in the past as well, one of the reasons I am so intrigued by the following story that appeared in the Vineyard Gazette of September 1854. It chronicles how Vineyard residents of Tisbury and Gay Head assisted a fugitive slave, Randall Burton, who stowed away on a freight ship, The Franklin, out of Charleston, South Carolina. Once discovered, the captain was determined to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that demanded the return of escaped slaves whether they were in a slave or free state when apprehended. When The Franklin docked at Holmes Hole, now the town of Vineyard Haven, the fugitive stole a small boat and escaped to the Vineyard. Burton traveled to Gay Head, and hid in a swamp for several days, where he was helped in eluding the sheriff by members of the Wampanoag community. With the assistance of two women from Holmes Hole and an extra dress and bonnet, Randall Burton was finally put on a boat in Menemsha that took him to abolitionists in New Bedford, Massachusetts. It is not clear if he went on to Canada, remained in New Bedford, or traveled elsewhere.

Excerpted from Finding Martha's Vineyard by Jill Nelson Copyright © 2005 by Jill Nelson. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Jill Nelson