A Martha’s Vineyard Guide and History Lesson
By Shelley Rotner
Most people think of Martha’s Vineyard as a summer destination known for its pristine beaches, white picket fences, celebrity visitors, ice cream shops, distinct maritime towns, and quaint fishing villages.
While all this is true, there’s more than meets the eye. It’s worth taking another look, off the beaten path, to have a greater appreciation for the island’s history and how the early link to farming and fishing still plays an important role in preserving the island’s beauty today. It all started tens of thousands of years ago with the arrival of the Wampanoag Tribe.
Martha’s Vineyard, also known as “MV” is an island off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It is steeped in history little known. Year round, there are activities and programs that add another dimension and a “sense of place” through conscious stewardship of the land and sea. The link to the land and the sea is ever present.
I first got to know the vineyard from hippie days during the ’70s when we headed up-island to Gay Head to the beautiful and dramatic multi-colored cliffs to paint our naked bodies in the red, orange, yellow, green, and cream clay.
Now Gay Head is called by its native tribal name — Aquinnah — and is still home to the Wampanoag Indians who first settled the island, predating colonial contacts. Aquinnah still remains the most beautiful and undeveloped part of the vineyard.
Today, the beauty remains thanks to respect and lots of land preservation. This comes with some restrictions. It is now unlawful to take clay from the cliffs, some trails and dunes are off limits, but nude bathing is still allowed.
Most of Aquinnah, about 480 acres, is now private and rightfully claimed by the Wampanoag Tribe dedicated to protecting and preserving the land and culture through traditional practices.
The Wampanoags invite the public to hike the Moshup Trail via a boardwalk to the sandy beach and cliffs. The cliffs are open year-round for public viewing from a high point near the Aquinnah Lighthouse (open only in season). There’s a different show every day depending on the weather.
I’ve seen many spectacular sunsets here. The wind can be intense. From this vantage point, you can see water on three sides. Noman’s Land can be seen to the south and the Elizabeth Islands, which are scenic and mostly unoccupied off on the opposite horizon.
Once Called Noepe
Martha’s Vineyard, or Noepe, was formed by glacier retreat about 10,000 years ago. Noepe is the Wampanoag word for Martha’s Vineyard. It translates as “amid the waters,” a reference to the two distinct tidal currents offshore.
According to the Wampanoags, MV was created by the giant Moshup, who taught them how to farm and fish and set their destiny. Tribal member, Adrieno Ignacio says, “Moshup sustained our tribe. We think he is still there.”
These shallow tidal waters provide the perfect environment for raising oysters and clams. There is a revival in growth and management of shellfish. Fishing is also a big attraction because of the diversity of fish.
Mid-September through October the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby is held every year. Thousands of anglers come to fish and try and win a new fishing boat.
A dozen shops called The Cliffs, are perched on top of the Gay Head cliffs and sell native food and handicrafts including wampum jewelry made from the purple and white quahog shells.
I met Berta Welch at her shop. Everyone in her family makes wampum. Her son Giles shows and sells his jewelry at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.
Originally dating back to the 1500s, wampum was first used for communication and currency, for declaring marriage or war or for barter. Each shell is ground and polished by hand. Generations continue this craft unique to coastal tribes.
Faith Vanderhoop’s Seafood Shack and Sushi Bar has a native food shop on The Cliffs. “We have a varied menu but keep traditional food in mind.” She is raising her daughter on-island with the intention of preserving cultural heritage. The Wampanoag Tribe population on MV is about 300 but about two thousand live elsewhere.
The Aquinnah Cultural Center is located in a restored homestead as a cultural enrichment source with artifacts and photos that document the tribe’s history. Sophie Welch, a Wampanoag studying anthropology, met me there. Her motivation to pursue this field is to preserve her cultural past.
“My mission is to carry on traditional cultural history for her people, visitors and for island people,” she said. Check the web for events and workshops here that teach traditional arts such as beadwork, basket weaving and pottery.
Legends of Moshu
The Wampanoag Tribe has its headquarters in a nearby building open to the public with expansive views of the ancestral Aquinnah land. Their sacred land serves as a stage for their annual “Legends of Moshup,” which re-enacts the history of their early leader who they believe was endowed with great powers and responsible for “shaping” Martha’s Vineyard.
The lobby walls are covered with portraits of past chiefs and tribal members. It was there that I met the current chief, Ryan Malonson, who posed for a portrait taking on the role of chief, just as his father did. Every September there is a traditional powwow.
The MV Museum in Edgartown has a collection of Wampanoag photos, paintings and artifacts including agricultural tools, baskets, costumes and fishing tools. In addition there are recorded oral stories told by tribal members that preserve the Wampanoag’s rich cultural tradition by passing their stories down to the next generation
“That’s the beauty of oral history,” Tobias Vanderhoop said. “I am very staunch about not having our stories written down and put into books. Our oral tradition is a living tradition.”
The early lighthouse’s original Fresnel lens that was used for almost 100 years is there for viewing.
The town hall in Vineyard Haven has large murals painted by Stanley Murphy, a vineyard artist who captured the people, landscapes and flowers of the island for 60 years. These murals depict the island’s history. One large wall shows Moshup catching a whale and teaching his people about the land and sea.
Beach Plum Bushes
It is hard to separate the land and the sea while on the island. In May, the drive up-island on Moshup Trail passes an expanse of dunes covered with beach plum bushes in white bloom that will later produce fruit to be made into beach plum jelly.
Dramatic glimpses of the blue sea forms the horizon line beyond, while occasional hawks float above, yellow finches catch the golden light and cranberry bogs await a celebration and harvest in the same ancient way.
Every fall, the tribe celebrates Cranberry Day. Children are excused from school, and it is a day of harvesting, much as it was in the past with scoops and long handle rakes.
It is a day filled with story telling of past legends, dance and traditional foods to celebrate and give thanks to the land. There’s a revitalization for oyster farming.
The Farm Institute is another “link to the land.” Its mission is to reconnect children and adults to the land, animals and each other with hands-on experience at its teaching farm. Sustainable agriculture is taught through the culture and history of farming on Martha’s Vineyard through land preservation and nutritional awareness.
Activities range from planting gardens, caring for chickens and collecting eggs, caring for animals (cattle, poultry, pigs, sheep and goats) and learning about nutritional awareness and land stewardship. The public is welcome. The vibe is great and the farm stand sells its local, organic vegetables and grass fed meat.
There are other teaching farms. Native Earth in Chilmark also has programs about sustainability and classes such as yarn dying with indigenous material.
There are many ways to explore MV. The Trustees of Reservations has five properties on the vineyard with walking trails and access for canoes and kayaks. Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank provides miles of walking trails. Maps are available at the Chamber of Commerce. There are 44 miles of bike trails-great ways to get to know the land.
Here are some words of advice. The population of Martha’s Vineyard goes from 15,000 year round to 100,000 in the summer. If you’re planning a trip, you might want to think about pre-season or fall, when the water is still warm and the crowds have diminished, although the season seems to be expanding. Ferry reservations can be tough to get. The ferry parking lots are notorious for long stand-by lines.
On my last night I went to The Lure Grill in Katama outside of Edgartown for dinner. It’s the perfectplace to have an island-inspired signature cocktail while watching the sunset over the Atlantic. The restaurant works with local farmers, growers and fisherman. Try the Katama oysters!
The link to the land and sea seems to be more important than ever. Once you know the history of Martha’s Vineyard, it’s hard not to have a greater appreciation and respect for the beauty that remains, preserved for generations as once envisioned and lived by its earliest inhabitants.
Up-island beaches are difficult to access during the summer season but worth it. Here are some of the choices:
Lobsterville Beach is on a calm north shore beach with limited parking.
West Basin is at the end of Lobsterville Beach again with a small parking area.
Moshup Beach is part of the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank property. Parking is $15 in season. The beach never feels very crowded.
For information about the Wampanoag Tribe and events: www.wampanoagtribe.net/
For ferry information and reservations: www.steamshipauthority.com/
Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce: www.mvy.com
Martha’s Vineyard Online: www.mvol.com
Farm Institute information: www.farminstitute.org
Shelley Rotner is the author of more than 50 children’s books, and every day she has another idea for a new one. She is a regular contributor to GoNOMAD and lives in Northampton MA and New York City.