Organization and Jurisdiction of the County of Dukes County

Organization and Jurisdiction
of the County of Dukes County

The following pages are from pp. 258-262 of
The History of Martha's Vineyard Volume I
by Dr. Charles E. Banks (originally published 1911.)

On the first day of November, 1683, the Provincial Assembly of New York divided the province into several counties and incorporated them by name, including Kings (now Brooklyn), Queens (Long Island), and Dukes, the last being decreed to "conteine the Islands of Nantuckett, Martin's Vineyard, Elizabeth Island, and Noe Man's Land." [N. Y. Col. Mss., Vol. XXXI.]

Laws were made at the same time, regulating the times of holding courts; but "Dukes County was referred to the Governeur and Counsell." The following also was then passed: "And forasmuch as there is a necessity of a high sheriffe in every county thro' the Province, Be it enacted by the Governor, Counsell, and Representatives in General Assembly met, and by the authority of the same, that there shall bee, yearly, and every year, a High Sheriffe constituted and commissionated for each county; and that each Sheriffe may have his under-sheriffe, deputy or deputies."

The effect of these laws was to combine the separate jurisdictions of the Vineyard and Nantucket and to add another office or two to the civil list, which was promptly filled by Matthew Mayhew, who seemed to feel that nothing was too small for his attention from chief magistrate down to register of deeds. Nantucket heretofore had been conducting its own affairs under a local autonomy subject to a certain suzerainty of the Mayhew proprietary government, while the outlying Elizabeth Islands with Noman's Land were under the jurisdiction of the Lord of Tisbury Manor. The county now being organized the officials met at Nantucket and passed the following order respecting the courts on Sept. 21, 1686:-

Its ordered by the Court that henceforward the Court shall be held the last Tuesday in May at Nantucket, and the last Tuesday in September at Mathews Vinard.

Sept. 21, 1686, The Court is adjourned to this day senit or till Mr. Mayhew come.

[Nantucket Records, II, 38. "Senit" is an abbreviation of Sennight, or seven nights, meaning a week.]

This county organization continued to exist as outlined during the few remaining years of its connection with the province of New York, until by the charter of William and Mary it became on Oct. 7, 1691, a constituent county of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

At the time of the incorporation of Dukes County there were only four counties in Massachusetts, namely: Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk, which were each incorporated May 10, 1643, and Hampshire, May 7, 1662. Next came Barnstable and Plymouth, June 2, 1685, followed by Bristol on June 21, 1685.

The people of Nantucket did not desire to have further connection with Martha's Vineyard, after the separation from New York, and wished to dissolve the county organization and become a separate county by themselves. Requests for this arrangement were made to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1694, by the leading men of Nantucket. The following communication from Matthew Mayhew, acting for the governor and council, to the petitioners shows the progress of the matter at that date:-

Mart: Vineyard Sept'r: 28: 1694
on motion to the Governor and Counsell of the province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England intimating the present state of that part thereof formerly Dukes County, through some misinformation, to be abridged of the libertie of subjects to the Crown of England the further consideration is remitted till your selves appear at Boston there to them render your reason for your urgent desier of your separation out of s'd County, my self being desired to give you notice that his Excellency Sr William Phips in Councill will hear the same in their Convention beginning tusday the 16 of October next when it will bee expected you should therefore render your reasons therefore. I am gentl.
Your humble servant

To the worship:
John Gardner James Coffin & William Geyer Esqrs
on Nantuckett.

"If I may adventur," wrote Simon Athearn to the General Court on March 12, 1694-5, "to shew my opinion concerning marthas vineyard & Nantucket being a County as when under York - It will be uneasy to the Inhabitants, and disturb peace and Trad, But it will be most easy for each Island to keepe their particular sessions at home & in case of appeale to sum supearior Court: Besides it will be a province Charge to heire a vessel once a year to Carry the Justices of the Supearior Court to Marthas Vineyard or Nantucket." [Mass. Col. Archives, CXIII, III.]

This suggestion was effective. Nantucket continued to be a part of Dukes County until the seventh year of the reign of William III. On the 28th of May, 1695, the following act was passed by the General Court of Massachusetts:-


Be it enacted by the Lieutenant Governour, Council, and Representatives convened in General Court, or Assembly, and by the authority of the same: That the Islands of Martha's Vineyard, Elisabeth Islands, the Islands called Nomans-Land, and all the Dependencies formerly belonging to Dukes County, (the Island of Nantuckett only excepted) shall be, remain and continue to be One County, to all intents and purposes; by the name of Dukes County:

It was further provided that appeal of cases should be to the Superior Court at Plymouth and jurors be summoned from both counties. There was also a provision for

The Island of Nantuckett to remain and continue under the same Form of Government as is already there settled: And Appeals from the Judgments given or to be given in the Inferiour Court of Pleas within the said Island, to be heard and tryed in the Superior Court of Judicature to be held at Boston within the County of Suffolk, as is by law provided.
[Province Laws, Vol. I, c. 7, Act of May 29, 1695.]

Whether intended or not this statute created a county "by the name of Dukes County" instead of "Dukes," and in consequence all legal phraseology used in connection therewith has always read "County of Dukes County" and it so continues down to the present day. [The words "County of Dukes County" are used in the Land Records, viz:-the first time in Vol. I, p. 160, Feb. 24, 1702; Vol. II, p. 3 Oct. 29, 1703; Vol. II, p. 238, Mar. 20, 1706; Vol. IV, p. 273, Oct. 2, 1707, and Vol. II, p. 160, Mar. 3, 1707-8. ]

This reduction of the limits of the county to Martha's Vineyard alone was not entirely satisfactory to the people of this island, as it threw the management of affairs back into the family "ring," and the old agitation began once more. Simon Athearn again wrote a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. James Converse, June 23, 1699, in which he voices the sentiment of the opposition:-

Wee in our discors, by the way, have thought it well that auks County was annext to barnstabl County, only it would increst a perpetual! Charg.

But duks County want able Lamed men to Ingaig such a subtell serpent who is headgd about with so many relations thats its thought theres scarse a Jury to be found to try suit against him or his..... [This refers to Matthew Mayhew.]

As the Elliment of fier would have all fier so have Major Mayhew and his have used all means to have all Rule in his house except a Cifer to make the summ. Its probable being annext to Barnstabl County may be a remedy.

[Sup. Jud. Court Files, No. 4605. (8)]

Athearn further said that he had thought of preferring a petition "in Consideration of these and other things," but it does not appear that this was done. Matters did not improve, but the atmosphere was different under Massachusetts rule from the old New York oligarchy.

This changed political condition encouraged the opponents of the existing official family, which had gradually regained its power, to further efforts to shake off the continued yoke of family judges on the bench. Of the four justices at this time three were Mayhews (with Richard Sarson), and the minority member was James Allen of Chilmark. Under the lead of Simon Athearn of Tisbury, in all probability, the following vote was passed in that town in 1701, to influence the sentiment for the termination of this condition:-

October 2d: 1701 it is voted by the maiger part of of the freeholders at a Leagall town meeting that Tisbury do pettion to the General Court that Dukes County may be anext to the County of barnstable with . . . not to attend the Courts Except nessasary ocation ariseth from amongst us and that the Register of Lands of the Island be kept on marthas vinyerd."
[Tisbury Records, p. 43.]

Nothing came of this however, but it was the early beginning of a long struggle, continuing for nearly two centuries, to remove the courts from Edgartown, and to keep them at that time from family management and influence.

From this time until the year 1717, Nantucket Island alone constituted Nantucket County. In that year it was

Ordered, that Tuckanuck is .... to be accounted a part of Nantucket .... and the Justices and all other officers of Dukes County are commanded to take notice of this Resolve. This was the result of repeated efforts asking for annexation."
[June 5, 1711, James Coffin, Tristram Coffin, and others, petitioned the General Court that Tuckanuck be annexed to Nantucket County.-(Mass. Archives, Vol. XXXI, page 85.) Later on, June 6, 1713, James Coffin, of Nantucket, petitioned the General Court "that Tuckanug be annexed to Nantucket township."(Nantucket Records, Vol. I, page 79.)]

These were not the only attempts of the people to enlarge their county bounds. At a legal town meeting of the town of Sherborne, on Nantucket, June 6, 1771,

Voted, That a petition be preferred to the General Court to desire and request that the islands of Muskekit and Gravelly Island me be annexed to this County.
Voted, That Abishai Folger, Esq., Zaccheus Macy, Frederick Folger, Josiah Barker, and Timothy Folger, in conjunction with the Selectmen of the town, be a committee, in behalf of the town, to draw up said petition, and send the same to the General Court.

At a town meeting in Edgartown, Sept. 4, 1771, it was

Voted, That an answer should be made to a petition put into the General Court, by the town of Sherborne relative to the Island of Moskekett and the Gravelly Islands adjacent.
Voted, That there should be a committee chosen consisting of five men: and Voted, That John Norton, Esqr., Mr. John Pease, Jr., Mr. William Jernegan, Mr. Beriah Norton, and Mr. Ebenezer Smith, Jr., be a committee to make answer to the said petition.
Voted, That Enoch Coffin and John Worth, Esqr., be added to this committee.
[Edgartown Records, I, 295.]

At a town meeting in Sherborne on the Island of Nantucket, Sept. 11, 1771,

Voted, That a remonstrance be sent to the Governor to lay the state of inoculation before him in a true light, and to desire him to sign a bill to annex Muskeket and Gravelly Islands to this County, by a majority of 114 voices against 4.

A committee was chosen to prepare and present it.

The petition of Abishai Folger and others was presented in July, 1771. A bill passed both branches making the annexation prayed for, but the governor refused his assent. In other words, using the language of these latter days, he vetoed it.

On Oct. 19, 1805, the town of Chilmark, at a special meeting, voted that a committee of three persons, Benjamin Bassett, Matthew Mayhew, and Allen Mayhew, be authorized to petition the General Court "to alter the name of Dukes County to that of Mayhew." [Town Records, Chilmark, loc. cit.] It is not known whether this was expressive of any general sentiment among the people of the Vineyard, but it may be assumed to the contrary as no other town took similar action, and there is no further record of this in the archives of the Commonwealth.

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