December 7, 2023 in Massachusetts

From Wampanoags to Whaling: The Story of Edgartown

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Early History

The land that is now Edgartown was originally inhabited by Native American tribes, including the Wampanoag people, for thousands of years prior to European settlement. The Wampanoag called the area Mattakeset or Sengekontacket. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Native American settlements dating back over 10,000 years in places like Katama Bay and Cape Pogue.

The Wampanoag lived in small bands or family groups and moved seasonally to take advantage of resources like shellfish and fish. They cultivated corn, beans, and squash and developed complex systems of trade between different bands. The Native Americans called the island Noepe, meaning “land amid the streams.” They were accomplished whalers and fishermen.

When English settlers later arrived in the 1600s, the Wampanoag sachem (leader) Tequenoman greeted them peacefully. However, relations between the Native Americans and English would deteriorate over the following decades, eventually leading to King Philip’s War in 1675-76. This devastating conflict marked the beginning of the end for Native American control and habitation of Martha’s Vineyard.

European Settlement

The first European settlers arrived in Edgartown in the 1600s. The area was originally inhabited by the Wampanoag tribe. English settlers from Plymouth first explored the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 1642 under the leadership of Thomas Mayhew Sr. Mayhew purchased the island from two English agents in 1641 and sent his son, Thomas Mayhew Jr., to establish the first European settlement at Great Harbor in 1642, originally named Meacox.

In 1646, Edgartown was officially incorporated and named in honor of Edgar, son of James I of England. Early colonial life on the island centered around fishing, whaling, and farming. Edgartown was the county seat for Dukes County and became an important colonial port. The settlement grew in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as the whaling and maritime trades became the pillars of the island’s economy. Edgartown emerged as one of the primary towns on Martha’s Vineyard and a center of commerce and culture for the island. Many historic homes and buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries still stand today as a testament to Edgartown’s long history as one of the earliest European settlements in New England.

Colonial Era

Edgartown was first settled by English settlers in 1642 and was officially incorporated in 1671. During the colonial era, Edgartown was a center of whaling and maritime trades.

The sandy soils of Martha’s Vineyard were not ideal for agriculture, so the economy of Edgartown focused heavily on the whaling industry. Whaling ships would leave Edgartown harbor for trips lasting months or years at a time to hunt whales for their oil and other products. Whale oil was used for heating, lighting, and lubricants.

The most common whales hunted by Edgartown whalers were sperm whales, right whales, humpback whales, and gray whales. Whaling became a hugely profitable business in the 18th century, making Edgartown one of the wealthiest ports in New England. Wealthy whaling merchants built grand mansions along the harbor.

Daily life in colonial Edgartown centered around the harbor and whaling industry. Most men in town worked as whalers, shipbuilders, blacksmiths, coopers, and other maritime trades. Women managed households and family farms while their husbands were away at sea. Colonial Edgartown had a bustling waterfront filled with goods from around the world.

The whaling industry started declining in the late 1800s, but left a lasting mark on Edgartown’s architecture, culture, and seafaring traditions. Remnants of the colonial whaling era can still be seen today in the grand old homes of sea captains and the lighthouses that guided ships into harbor.

19th Century

The 19th century was a time of tremendous growth and prosperity for Edgartown, largely driven by the booming whaling industry. During this period, Edgartown was considered the whaling capital of the world.

Whaling ships from Edgartown traveled all across the globe in search of whales. The whaling voyages could last up to several years before returning home to Edgartown with holds full of whale oil and other lucrative products derived from whales. At its peak in the mid-1800s, the Edgartown whaling fleet numbered over 100 ships.

The whaling industry made many Edgartown families extremely wealthy. Successful whaling captains and ship owners built grand mansions in Edgartown, reflecting their fortune and status. Prominent whaling families included the Dunhams, Peases, Vinsons, and many others.

Despite the dangers of whaling, it was a great source of prosperity for Edgartown in the 19th century. Young men eagerly signed up for whaling voyages as it provided an opportunity to earn a share of the profits. The population of Edgartown swelled as crewmen returned flush with cash and built homes in town.

Decline of Whaling

During the mid-1800s, New Bedford eclipsed Nantucket as the whaling capital of the world. As whale populations declined and petroleum emerged as an alternative fuel source, the whaling industry entered a period of steep decline. This had major economic implications for the coastal towns of Massachusetts that had prospered during the height of whaling.

Edgartown was no exception. While the town had already begun transitioning to tourism and summer residences for wealthy industrialists, the collapse of the whaling trade accelerated this process. No longer able to rely on the bounty of the sea, Edgartown increasingly turned to tourism and new industries to sustain its economy.

The decline was gradual, spanning decades rather than years. Old whaling families descended from the island’s earliest English settlers struggled to maintain their wealth and influence. Meanwhile, steamships began bringing tourists who marvelled at the quaint architecture and dramatic ocean vistas. While whaling left an indelible mark on Edgartown, the island community underwent an economic transformation at the end of the 19th century. The age of whaling was over, replaced by an economy centered around tourism, arts and recreation.

Prominent Families

Edgartown was home to several prominent whaling families that accumulated great wealth and influence during the 19th century. The Pease family owned a successful candle factory and were one of the richest families on Martha’s Vineyard. Daniel Fisher, an Edgartown native, made his fortune in the China trade and built a grand Greek Revival home called Harbor View. The Coffin family, descended from Tristram Coffin who settled the island in 1642, included several successful whaling captains. The Vincent family also produced a number of prominent whaling captains and owned a large tract of land in Edgartown known as the Vincent Farm.

These wealthy families dominated the social and political scenes in Edgartown. They built magnificent homes, donated land for public buildings like the library, and helped establish cultural institutions such as the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. The influence of these whaling dynasties began to decline in the late 19th century as the whaling industry collapsed. But their legacy on the architecture, institutions and character of Edgartown remains evident today.

Tourism

The tourism industry in Edgartown began to develop in the late 1800s as wealthy families from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia began building summer homes in Edgartown. Steamship service brought visitors from the mainland, marking the beginning of Edgartown’s transformation into a summer resort area.

In the early 20th century, grand hotels like the Harbor View Hotel and the Colonial Hotel provided upscale accommodations for these seasonal visitors. The construction of grand “summer cottages” by prominent families like the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Morgans established Edgartown as a fashionable and exclusive summer colony.

During this period, the downtown area expanded to accommodate the needs of summer residents and tourists. Shops, restaurants, hotels, and other services catered to this seasonal influx of wealthy visitors. Regattas and other social events drew the social elite. The natural beauty of Martha’s Vineyard and the preserved historic character of Edgartown itself were major draws.

Tourism expanded greatly in the postwar period as automobiles made the island more accessible. Inns, bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, and other lodging options proliferated. Whale watching, sailing, beaches, biking, arts, and dining all contribute to making tourism the lifeblood of Edgartown’s economy today. The tradition of summer visitors continues, although the town has become more democratic as a tourist destination. Edgartown has maintained its historic architecture and seaside charm, which provide an idyllic setting for vacationers.

Art Colonies

In the late 1800s, Edgartown gained prominence as an art colony, attracting many prominent American artists. The island’s natural beauty, quality of light, and rural nature provided inspiration for artists seeking escape from the cities.

Some of the notable artists who spent time painting in Edgartown include Childe Hassam, Thomas and Jane Matthews Eakins, John Twachtman, Maurice Prendergast, William Merritt Chase, Frank Benson, and Thomas Wilmer Dewing. The artists were drawn to the island for its rustic, small-town charm and seaside landscapes.

The summer art colony brought painters, poets, and writers to the island. They were hosted by prominent families who provided patronage and sponsored artists. Some built studios for visiting artists, fostering a creative, intellectual environment.

This blossoming of the arts established Edgartown as a cultural destination. The artistic heritage from this era continues to shape the island’s creative spirit and attracts visitors to this day. The vibrancy of the late 19th century art scene marked an important chapter in Edgartown’s development.

Modern Era

Edgartown today retains much of its historical architecture and seafaring charm. While the heyday of whaling has long passed, tourism and summer visitors now sustain the economy. Quaint inns, hotels, and bed and breakfasts cater to guests who come to enjoy the beaches, sailing, shops, and restaurants.

Efforts to preserve the historic downtown have been very successful. The center of Edgartown along Main Street and the Old Whaling Church still appear much as they did 100 years ago. Strict ordinances prohibit neon signs, franchise fast food, or buildings over three stories tall. The result is a picturesque village frozen in the 1800s.

Local preservation groups such as the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust work to maintain historic homes and properties. Edgartown was one of the first locations in the U.S. to establish a historic district in 1950 to protect its architectural heritage. Today there are over 200 historic buildings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Walking tours allow visitors to explore this living history museum.

The town also celebrates its past through events like Moth Week, a festival for antique and classic wooden boats held every July. Although the harbor no longer teems with whaling ships, recreational boating and yachts now fill the local waters. Edgartown continues to cherish its long connection to the sea.

Historic Landmarks

Edgartown is home to numerous historic buildings and landmarks that provide a window into its past as a prominent whaling town and summer retreat.

The Old Whaling Church, built in 1843, is one of the most iconic landmarks in Edgartown. This white Greek Revival church was funded by whaling captains and has a soaring steeple that was used as a navigational aid by ships coming into the harbor. The adjacent Captain’s Cottages were built in the 1840s as homes for retired whaling captains.

Another prominent whaling-era building is the Vincent House, built in 1672 by James Pease Jr, one of the first English settlers on Martha’s Vineyard. This is considered to be the oldest house on the island.

The Dr. Daniel Fisher House, also known as the Gothic House, was built in 1819 for the prominent Edgartown doctor. It showcases a rare Gothic Revival architectural style in New England.

The Thomas Cooke House, built in 1742, is one of the oldest Georgian-style homes in Edgartown. It later became part of the Harthaven complex, an artists retreat in the early 20th century. The Greek Revival Daniel Fisher House next door was part of the same complex.

The Edgar H. Coffin House is a distinctive example of Shingle-style architecture from the 1880s. The expansive home features Queen Anne massing and ornament mixed with colonial revival details.

Lighthouses are another important landmark, including the Edgartown Harbor Light and the Cape Pogue Lighthouse on Chappaquiddick Island. The picturesque red-roofed Martha’s Vineyard Museum, originally the Marine Hospital, is also an important historic building in Edgartown.




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