Martha's Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard

Martha's Vineyard (adjoining the smaller Chappaquiddick Island) is an island off the US east coast, to the south of Cape Cod, both forming a part of the Outer Lands region. It is often called just "the Vineyard". With a land area of 87.48 square miles (231.75 km²), Martha's Vineyard is the 57th largest island in the United States.

It is located in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, in Dukes County, which also includes Cuttyhunk and the other Elizabeth Islands, as well as the island of Nomans Land). It was home to one of the earliest known deaf communities in the United States; consequently, a special dialect of sign language, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language, developed on the island.

The island is primarily known as a summer colony, and is accessible only by boat and by air. Nevertheless, its year-round population has grown considerably since the 1960s. A study by the Martha's Vineyard Commission found that the cost of living on the island is 60 percent higher than the national average and housing prices are 96 percent higher.



Originally (and still) inhabited by the Wampanoag Indians, Martha's Vineyard was known in their language as Noepe, or "land amid the streams." It was named Martha's Vineyard by the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who sailed to the island in 1602. Gosnold's mother-in-law and his second child, who died in infancy, were both named Martha. Gosnold perhaps named Martha's Vineyard after his daughter, who was christened in St James' Church (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral), Bury St Edmunds in the English county of Suffolk. Martha is buried in the Great Churchyard which lies in front of the Abbey ruins between St Mary's Church and the Cathedral.

The original English-language name of the island was Martin's Vineyard (after the captain of Gosnold's ship, John Martin); many islanders up to the 1700s called it by this name. The United States Board on Geographic Names worked to standardize placename spellings in the late 19th century, including the dropping of apostrophes. Thus for a time Martha's Vineyard was officially named Marthas Vineyard, but the Board reversed its decision in the early 20th century, making Martha's Vineyard one of the few placenames in the United States today with a possessive apostrophe.

Colonial Era

English settlement had its origins in the purchase of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands by Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts. Mayhew worked through the claims of two English "owners" of the islands and during his lifetime had friendly relations with the Wampanoags on the island in part because he was careful to honor their land rights as well. His son, also Thomas Mayhew, began the first English settlement in 1642 at Great Harbor (later Edgartown, Massachusetts).

The younger Mayhew began a relationship with Hiacoomes, an Indian neighbor, which eventually led to Hiacoomes' family converting to Christianity. Ultimately, many of the tribe became Christian, including the paw-waws (spiritual leaders) and sachems (political leaders). It became arguably the first successful cross-cultural church planting mission in the history of Protestantism (Eliot's work on the mainland began a few years later). By most evidence the Mayhew approach was remarkably free of the cultural imperialism so often a part of other missions of that and later eras. During King Phillip's War later in the century the Martha's Vineyard band did not join their tribal relatives in the uprising and remained armed, a testimony to the good relations cultivated by the Mayhews as the leaders of the English colony.

The younger Thomas Mayhew was lost at sea on a trip to England in 1657. The site of his farewell address became a memorial stone pile created by the Wampanoags and is preserved today. The elder Mayhew took over leadership of the English component of the Indian mission, and the Mayhew involvement continued for another three generations.

Indian literacy in the schools founded by Mayhew and taught by Peter Folger, the grandfather of Benjamin Franklin, was such that the first Native American graduates of Harvard were from Martha's Vineyard, including the son of Hiacoomes, Joel Hiacoomes. "The ship Joel Hiacoomes was sailing on, as he was returning to Boston from a trip home shortly before the graduation cermonies was found wrecked on the shores of Nantucket Island. Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the son of a sachem of Homes Hole did graduate from Harvard in the class of 1665 (Moneghan, E.J., 2005, p. 59)." Cheeshahteaumauk's Latin address to the corporation (New England Corporation), which begins "Honoratissimi benefactores" (most honored benefactors), has been preserved. (Gookin, as quoted in Monaghan, 2005, p. 60.) They were literate in Wampanoag, English, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. All of the early Indian graduates died shortly after completing their course of study. However, there were many native preachers on the island who also preached in the English churches from time to time.

In 1683, Dukes County, New York was incorporated, including Martha's Vineyard. In 1691, the entire county was transferred to the newly formed Province of Massachusetts Bay, being split into Dukes County, Massachusetts and Nantucket County, Massachusetts.

Nineteenth Century

Martha's Vineyard was brought to prominence in the 19th century by the whaling industry, during which ships were sent around the world to hunt whales for their oil and blubber. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania gave rise to a cheaper source of oil for lamps and led to an almost complete collapse of the industry by 1870. After the Old Colony railroad came to mainland Woods Hole in 1872, summer residences began to develop on the island, such as the community of Harthaven established by William H. Hart. Although the island struggled financially through the Great Depression, its reputation as a resort for tourists and the wealthy continued to grow. There is still a substantial Wampanoag population on the Vineyard, mainly located in the town of Aquinnah. Aquinnah was formerly known as Gay Head, but was recently renamed its original Indian name, which means "land under the hill" in the Wampanoag language.

Modern Era

Like the nearby island of Nantucket, The linguist William Labov wrote his MA essay on changes in the Martha's Vineyard dialect of English. The 1963 study is widely recognized as a seminal work in the foundation of sociolinguistics.

The island received international notoriety on July 18, 1969, when Mary Jo Kopechne was killed when a car driven by U.S. Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy drove off the Dike Bridge. The bridge crossed Pocha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island (a smaller island connected to the Vineyard and part of Edgartown). As a foot bridge, it was intended for people on foot and bicycles, as well as the occasional emergency vehicle when conditions warranted. Currently, 4x4 vehicles with passes are allowed to cross the reconstructed bridge. The incident tarnished Kennedy's reputation enough to kill his chances of following in his brothers' footsteps with a Democratic presidential bid.

On November 23, 1970, in the Atlantic Ocean just west of Aquinnah, Simas Kudirka, a Soviet seaman of Lithuanian nationality, attempted to defect to the United States by leaping onto a United States Coast Guard cutter from a Soviet ship. The Coast Guard allowed a detachment of KGB agents to board the cutter, and subsequently arrest Kudirka, taking him back to the then-Communist Soviet Union.

In 1974, Steven Spielberg filmed the movie Jaws on Martha's Vineyard. Spielberg selected island natives Christopher Rebello as "Chief Brody's" oldest son "Michael Brody", Jay Mello as the younger son "Sean Brody", and Lee Fierro as "Mrs. Kintner". Scores of other island natives appeared in the film as extras. Later, scenes from Jaws 2 and Jaws the Revenge were filmed on the island as well. In June, 2005 the island celebrated the 30th anniversary of Jaws with a weekend long "JawsFest".

Distressed over redistricting, in 1977, Martha's Vineyard tried to secede from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts along with the island of Nantucket to become the nation's 51st state.

On March 5, 1982, John Belushi died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles, California, and was buried four days later in Abel's Hill Cemetery in Chilmark. On his gravestone is the quote, "Though I may be gone, Rock 'N' Roll lives on." Because of the many visitors to his grave and the threat of vandalism, his body was moved elsewhere within the cemetery. Many people visit his grave and in the summer it is often littered with beer cans, joints and other "tokens" for Belushi.

Martha's Vineyard received more world-wide attention when U.S. President William J. Clinton spent vacation time on the island during his presidency, along with his wife, US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter Chelsea. While the Clintons have made the island famous in recent years, during the 1800s another famous President, Ulysses S. Grant, was also a summer visitor, staying in a Gingerbread cottage in the Methodist campground in Oak Bluffs.

On July 16, 1999, a small plane crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, claiming the lives of pilot John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette. Kennedy's mother, former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, maintained a home in Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) until her death in 1994.

In the summer of 2000, an outbreak of tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, resulted in one death and piqued the interest of the CDC, which wanted to test the island as a potential investigative ground for aerosolized Francisella tularensis. Over the following summers, Martha's Vineyard was identified as the only place in the world where documented cases of tularemia resulted from lawn mowing. The research may prove valuable in preventing bioterrorism.

Political geography

Martha's Vineyard is made up of six towns:

  • Tisbury, which includes the main village of Vineyard Haven, and the West Chop peninsula. It is the island's primary port of entry for people and cargo, supplemented by the seasonal port in Oak Bluffs.
  • Edgartown, which includes Chappaquiddick island and Katama. Edgartown is noted for its rich whaling tradition, and is the island's largest town by population and area. It is one of the island's "wet" towns.
  • Oak Bluffs is most well known for its gingerbread cottages, open harbor, and its vibrant town along busy Circuit Avenue. Oak Bluffs enjoys a reputation as one of the more active night-life towns on the island for both residents and tourists, and is also a "wet" town. It was known as "Cottage City" before being incorporated as Oak Bluffs. Oak Bluffs includes several communities that have been popular destinations for affluent African Americans since the early twentieth century. It also includes the East Chop peninsula and Harthaven.
  • West Tisbury, sometimes called the "Athens" of the island. West Tisbury is the island's agricultural center, and hosts the beloved MV Agricultural Fair in late August each year.
  • Chilmark, including the fishing village of Menemsha. Chilmark is also rural and features the island's hilliest terrain.
  • Aquinnah, formerly known as Gay Head. Aquinnah is home to the Wampanoag Indian tribe and the famous Gay Head cliffs.


Martha's Vineyard is located approximately three and a half miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod. It is reached by a ferry that departs from Woods Hole, Massachusetts and by several other ferries departing from Falmouth, New Bedford, Hyannis, and Quonset Point, Rhode Island. There is regularly scheduled air travel (in season from June-October) from Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC to the Martha's Vineyard Airport. Regular shuttle services operate between most of the ferry piers and the Amtrak station in Providence. Amtrak has connections to the ferries all year.


Locals refer to Martha's Vineyard as "the Vineyard" and its residents as "Vineyarders."

Its relatively small year-round population has led to a very activist citizenry who are highly involved in the island's day-to-day activities. Tourism, over-development, politics and many other subjects are of keen interest to the community. Keeping the balance between the much needed tourist economy and the ecology and wildlife of the island is of paramount importance. In contrast to the seasonal influx of wealthy visitors, Dukes County remains one of the poorest in the state. Residents have established resources to balance the contradictions and stresses that can arise in these circumstances, notably the Martha's Vineyard Commission and Martha's Vineyard Community Services, founded by the late Dr. Milton Mazer, whose book People and Predicaments remains a valuable source of insight.

The majority of the Vineyard's residents are well-established, yearly summer visitors from up and down the northeast coast of the United States. While many "Vineyarders" come from all over the United States and abroad, the island tends to be a destination for those within close proximity. Many communities around the island tend to have deep family roots in the island that have matured over the years to create hamlets of good friends and neighbors. Nevertheless, many Island visitors are summer renters and weekenders, for whom the island is simply a "home away from home."

Because of its many high-profile residents, movie stars, politicians, writers and artists also band together with residents in fundraisers and benefits to raise awareness for the fragile ecosystem of the Vineyard and to support community organizations and services. The largest of these is the annual Possible Dreams Auction

The best known celebrities who live on or frequently visit the island are former president Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, comedian and talk show host David Letterman, Bill Murray, Ted Danson and wife Mary Steenburgen, Larry David, the Farrelly brothers, Meg Ryan and musician Carly Simon. Also, retired anchorman Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes are summer residents of Martha's Vineyard. Other regularly appearing celebrities include film writer/director Spike Lee, attorney Alan Dershowitz, comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, politico Vernon Jordan, and television news reporters Diane Sawyer and Charlayne Hunter-Gault. A slew of celebrity visitors have been spotted in recent years, including Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, and "Charlie's Angel" Kate Jackson, Stanley Tucci, Beyoncé Knowles, Jay-Z, Tom Welling, Steven Tyler and Ray Romano. Despite popular perceptions of the Vineyard as "Hollywood East", the island is very low-key and quiet; celebrities go to the Vineyard to enjoy the atmosphere, and not to be seen. Locals tend to be protective of celebrity privacy. Most Vineyard social life occurs in private, down country roads, and not in the small towns, only two of which even sell alcohol.

In addition to the national celebrities who have homes on Martha's Vineyard, the island has also become a summer retreat for many of the nation's most prominent Jewish families. The first Jewish families to build summer estates on the island did so in the mid 20th century when they were implicitly discouraged from settling on the equally exclusive island of Nantucket. Today the island is famous as a summer hideaway for wealthy Jewish families, like the Rosenwald, Pillsbury, Fleishman, Tishman, Sulzberger and Scheuer families.

Similarly, many of the country's most affluent black families have enjoyed a century-old tradition of summering on the island. Concentrated primarily in and around the town of Oak Bluffs, and the East Chop area, these families have historically represented the black elite from Boston, Washington, D.C., and New York City. Today, affluent black families from around the country have taken to the Vineyard, and the community is known as a popular summer destination for judges, physicians, business executives, surgeons, attorneys, writers, politicians, and professors. The historic presence of black residents on the island resulted in the nickname of one of Oak Bluff's most popular beaches. Dubbed "The Inkwell," this small beach is central to Oak Bluffs and within short walking distance to many of the homes of the more notable black families. The Inkwell (1994), directed by Matty Rich, dealt with this close-knit Vineyard community.

Martha's Vineyard has also been or is home to a number of artists and musicians, including Evan Dando, Tim "Johnny Vegas" Burton of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, James Taylor, Willy Mason, Unbusted, Mike Nichols, Gordon Healy and Kahoots. Historian and author David McCullough is also an island resident, as is the young-adult books author Judy Blume. The late author William Styron also lived on the Vineyard. The Academy Award winning Patricia Neal owns a home on the island. Paul McCartney owns a house in Edgartown.

The year-round working population of Martha's Vineyard earns 30% less on average than other residents of the state while keeping up with a cost of living that is 60% higher than average. Many people are moving to more affordable areas. Schools have seen a successive drop in enrollment over the past few years. Typically home to artists, musicians and other creative types, many of the island's residents manage by working several jobs in the summer and taking some time off in the winter. The lack of affordable housing on the island has forced many families to move off-island. A growing number of workers live on Cape Cod and take a ferry over to the island for day labor.

Points of Interest

Vineyard Haven (Tisbury) (formerly "Holmes Hole")

Oak Bluffs (formerly "Cottage City")


Edgartown is an old whaling town that re-emerged in the 20th century as a summer sailing and beach town. It is characterized by 18th and 19th century homes, including well-preserved whaling captains' homes and historic churches.

West Tisbury


Aquinnah (Formerly "Gay Head")

  • Gay Head cliffs
  • Gay Head Lighthouse
  • Lobsterville

Well-Known Beaches


Martha's Vineyard is served by Martha's Vineyard Public Schools:

Five of the six towns have their own elementary schools, while Aquinnah residents usually attend nearby Chilmark's elementary school. The Chilmark school only serves grades pre-K to 5, so students in grades 6 - 8 must attend another middle school, usually the Tisbury school. Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, which is located in Oak Bluffs, serves the entire island.

Annual events

All Towns

  • Annual Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby (Sept. 15 - Oct. 15)


  • Aquinnah Music Festival


  • Chilmark Road Race (August)


  • 4th of July parade and fireworks
  • 12 Meter Boat Race at the Edgartown Yacht Club (Featuring many winning America's Cup boats)
  • Martha's Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby (Early Fall)

Oak Bluffs

  • The Grand Illumination
  • Oak Bluffs Harbor Festival
  • Annual Oak Bluffs Fireworks, presented by the O.B. Fire Department
  • Juneteenth Celebration
  • Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament (covered on ESPN)
  • Chili Festival
  • Annual VFW Fluke Derby
  • The Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby (in September)
  • Annual Dick's Bait and Tackle Memorial day weekend tournament


  • Last Day/First Night. Many events and fireworks.
  • Tisbury Street Fair
  • Santa arrives on the ferry every December.

West Tisbury

  • Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Fair
  • Farmer's Market
  • Chilmark Flea Market


The Vineyard grew as a tourist destination primarily because of its very pleasant summer weather (during summers, the temperature rarely breaks 90°F) and many beautiful beaches. It is primarily a place where people go to relax. Most social life and activity takes place at people's houses, not in the very small towns.

During the whaling era, wealthy Boston sea captains and merchant traders often created estates on Martha's Vineyard with their trading profits. Today, the Vineyard has become one of the Northeast's most prominent summering havens, having attracted numerous celebrity regulars. Martha's Vineyard Airport links the island to the mainland with scheduled air carrier service.

Martha's Vineyard is one of the traditional resorts of the country's African-American upper class. Due to a long history of racial harmony on the island, many black families started vacationing there a century ago. The center of black culture on Martha's Vineyard is the town of Oak Bluffs, where many affluent African American families own houses. Its main beach has been dubbed "The Inkwell" by African-American residents.

The island now boasts a year-round population of about 15,000 people in six towns; in summer, the population swells to 100,000 residents, with more than 25,000 additional short-term visitors coming and going on the ferries during the summer season. The most crowded weekend is July 4, followed by the late-August weekend of the Agricultural Fair. In general, the summer season runs from June to the end of August, correlating with the months most American children are not in school.

In 1985, the two island of Martha's Vineyard and Chappaquidick Island were included in a new American Viticultural Area designation for wine appellation of origin specification: Martha's Vineyard AVA. Wines produced from grapes grown on the two islands can be sold with labels that carry the Martha's Vineyard AVA designation. Martha's Vineyard is home to the winemaker Chicama Vineyards in West Tisbury.

Other popular attractions include the annual Illumination festival in Oak Bluffs; Katama Farm in Edgartown; and the Flying Horses in Oak Bluffs, the oldest carousel in the United States.

More information about visiting Martha's Vineyard including planning guides may be found at the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce.

Local TV & Radio

Hereditary deafness and sign language

A high rate of hereditary deafness was documented in Martha's Vineyard for almost two centuries. The island's deaf heritage cannot be traced to one common ancestor and is thought to have originated in the Weald, a region in the English county of Kent, prior to immigration. Researcher Nora Groce estimates that by the late 1800s, 1 in 155 people on the Vineyard was born deaf (0.7 percent), almost 20 times the estimate for the nation at large (1 in 2,730, or 0.04 percent).

Mixed marriages between deaf and hearing spouses comprised 65% of all deaf marriages in the late nineteenth century, (higher than the US average of 20%) and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language was commonly used by hearing residents as well as deaf ones until the middle of the twentieth century. This allowed deaf residents to smoothly integrate into society.

In the twentieth century, tourism became a mainstay in the island economy. However, jobs in tourism were not as deaf-friendly as fishing and farming had been. Consequently, as intermarriage and further migration joined the people of Martha's Vineyard to the mainland, the island community more and more resembled the wider community there.

The last deaf person born into the island's sign language tradition, Katie West, died in 1952, but a few elderly residents were able to recall MVSL as recently as the 1980s when research into the language began.

See also


  • Gookin,Historical Collections, 53; Railton, "Vineyard's First Harvard men," 91-112.
  • Monaghan, E.J.(2005). Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America University of Massachusetts Press. Boston: MA

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