Monday, March 26, 2012

My Mother's Vineyard

My brothers and I have been cleaning out my parent's house in Edgartown the last few weeks and I came across this letter that my mother wrote to "Sean", a student, as part of a local MV school project. I think it's a nice way to show you how much my mother loved Martha's Vineyard, and gives you a little history of the island as well. Photos courtesy of

Dear Sean,
My husband Ed and I live on Martha's Vineyard, the largest island in New England, which lies seven miles off the mainland coast. The island was formed by glacial action 10,000 years ago. It is 9 miles wide and 23 miles long and there are 124.6 miles of tidal shoreline. Captain Bartholomew Gosnold landed his British ship here in 1602 and named the island after his daughter Martha and the many grapevines he saw ashore.

Ed and I retired here in 1992. Our house is in Edgartown, established in 1642 by English settlers only 22 years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. Our town is the seat of Dukes County in the state of Massachusetts.

The settlers found the Wampanoag tribe here when they arrived and established friendly relations with them. The Wampanoags are the same tribe as the one which celebrated the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. Native American camps have been discovered on the Vineyard that are carbon dated to about 2270 B.C. More than 300 Wampanoag still live on our island and some continue the fishing and agricultural traditions of the tribe.

Aquinnah is where most of the Wampanoag live on the island. The Wampanoags taught the early settlers how to capture whales, bring them ashore and boil out whale oil. Later, with larger vessels, captains of ships from Edgartown caught whales in the North Atlantic. In 1778, during the Revolutionary War, the British came to the Vineyard and burned many of these ships. Whaling did not recover until the early 1820's.

Whaling brought prosperity to Edgartown and many of the houses, especially the large ones along the waterfront, were built by wealthy ship captains. The first African American whaling captain from Martha's Vineyard, Captain William A. Martin, was born in Edgartown in 1830.

The Civil War nearly brought an end to whaling from the Vineyard. Ships were sunk or confined to port so no money could be made. After the war some Vineyarders still fished for whales but their ships sailed from other ports and whaling was mostly in the Pacific Ocean.

The major source of income to the Vineyard today is tourism, though fishing and agriculture still play a part. The year-round population is about 15,000, about 3500 of which are in Edgartown. The summer population swells to 75,000 and even reaches 100,000 on the Fourth of July. The tourist season is mainly from May through September.

Our favorite times of the year are the quieter ones. All of our immediate neighbors are summer residents so we feel the Island belongs to us then. We are aware, however, that many of the nice things we enjoy – movie theaters, well-supplied grocery stores, good restaurants, and even our hospital and other services – might not exist but for our summer visitors.

The first reason many people come to the Vineyard is to swim, surf, or fish on our many beautiful beaches. Other water sports are popular, especially sailing, paragliding, kayaking, and motor-boating. Bike riding is popular on our many miles of on road and off road bike trails.

Forty-nine designated conservation areas contain trails for hiking, picnicking, and enjoying nature. Our island is a primary flyway for migratory birds so birdwatchers are frequent visitors. We have many songbirds, shorebirds, and seabirds. Several kinds of hawks and herons can be seen. We look forward to the arrival of ospreys each spring. It is a huge bird, once endangered, it is still a rarity. Wild turkeys and guinea fowl roam the island and occasionally traffic must stop to let them pass.

I enjoy gardening so I am especially interested in the many wild plants here. The trees are mainly pitch pine and oak. We have wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries (black and red), cranberries, and grapes. Bayberry, winter berry, and American holly grow wild all over the island. Where I live, less than 1/2 mile from the water, the soil is mostly sand. The weather is milder in winter and cooler in summer than the mainland because we are surrounded by water. My favorites of the hundreds of wildflowers here are the Mayflower (trailing arbutus) which is our state flower and the pink lady slipper.

Some of the other wildlife we see are deer, skunks, rabbits, squirrels, and in the winter, seals. Occasionally, a dead whale washes ashore, usually because a passing ship has killed it or a fish net has tangled it – very sad.

Approximately 20% of the island's population is involved with horses: boarding them, teaching riding, or owning them for their own use. There is one large sheep farm and several smaller ones. Some cattle are raised here also.

We travel to the mainland on a car ferry like this one about every other month to visit our children and grandchildren who live in the suburbs of Boston, the capital of Massachusetts. The ferry is the main transportation to the island. We are always happy to come home again to our beautiful island.

Good luck to you and your classmates – it's a great project.


  1. Thank you for sharing that beautiful letter by your mother.

  2. Amazing letter. She covered all aspects. I love that she mentioned even the sad fact about the whales that sometimes wash up. Way to go Mom.

  3. Greetings; A beautiful letter as well as lovely pictures. However, you say, "The first African American whaling captain, Captain William A. Martin, was born in Edgartown in 1830." Perhaps this is a true statement when discussing whaling on Marthas Vinyard. However, the REAL first African American captain to sail a whaleship, with an all-black crew, in 1822 was Absalom Boston (1785-1855)from Nantucket. Thought you'd like to know.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Duly noted and corrected.