County of Dukes County: "The Shire Town" by Dr. Charles E. Banks

The County of Dukes County:

The following pages are from pp. 271-273 of
The History of Martha's Vineyard Volume I
by Dr. Charles E. Banks (originally published 1911.)

By reason of its primogeniture, rather than by a decree by statute, Edgartown has been the county seat since the settlement of the island, a period of over two and a half centuries, but it has not always held peaceful possession of the title. As the only "towne uppon the Vineyard" for thirty years, there was no rival to dispute its hold on the official records of the estates of the inhabitants of the island. When the government was reorganized in 1671, and other towns were incorporated, no provision was made for a county jurisdiction, and hence no shire town was required; but Edgartown continued to be the residence of the governor whose influence was paramount, and who doubtless kept all the court and land records in his possession or in that of his family. When the county was organized in 1683, no shire town was named, but it was provided in the organization of the courts that they should be held at such "places as shall bee thought fitt & convenient" by the justices, who selected the Vineyard and Nantucket alternately without naming the township. There was really but one place for such a purpose, and that was Edgartown. In this situation matters remained until the transfer of jurisdiction to Massachusetts when, on Nov. 25, 1692, in an act relating to the time and place of holding courts, Edgartown was for the first time specified as the location, and thus acquired an official confirmation of her primacy. [Acts and Resolves, Mass. Bay, I, 73. In a subsequent act dated June 16, 1699, this was repeated. (Ibid., I, 367.)] This seat of the new jurisdiction remained firm for about thirty years, during which time a new generation had grown up and the towns of Chilmark and Tisbury were increasing in wealth and population. In 1700 the province taxes for Edgartown were 15, for Chilmark 9, and for Tisbury 7; and in 1708 they were for, Chilmark 51,for Edgartown 50, for Tisbury 30, showing for the first time the lead of Chilmark in taxable value. In 1720 the figures were still more noticeable-Chilmark 38, Edgartown 23, and Tisbury 11, making a total of 49 or over two-thirds at the middle and west end of the island. With wealth and numbers came ambition, and we find as a result, in 1720, the first definite move made to procure the removal of the shire town to the geographical center of the island. The townsmen of Chilmark started the ball rolling at a meeting held on Sept. 15, 1720, when it was

Voted, That Pain Mayhew Esq who is the Representative of said town be & is hereby dyrected to put in a pettission in behalf of the town to the Generall Court to obtain the Remove of the sheir town from Edgartown to Tisbury and that the Courts holden for the County of Dukes County may for the futur be held att Tisbury.
[Chilmark Records, p. 365.]

Supplemental action was taken later at a town meeting held in Chilmark Nov. 28, 1720, when it was voted that a petition be sent to the General Court to obtain a committee to see about removing the place of "setting" of the courts for Dukes County.[Ibid., p 22.] With becoming modesty, as the beneficiary of this change, Tisbury took no action, maintaining a passive attitude. For several years Chilmark and Tisbury had been pooling their interests in the matter of representatives to the General Court, and with one of the Mayhew family, Major Pain, then the joint representative, it was felt that the change could be effected. But nothing came of this first concerted attempt to remove the shire town.


Sittings of the courts were probably held at the residence of the elder Mayhew, as appears by an entry in the court records under date of March 26, 1677-8, when a person was fined for an "unseemly Act in the governers house when a difference was in triall & examination before the Govourner."

Whether there was a court house in existence before this date is not known, as there are no references to such a building in the early records. On June 3, 1680, at a general court, the following law was passed:-

Ordered That the Court shall be accommodated and provided for during their sitting at the charge of the County.
[N. Y. Coll. Mss., XXIX.]

This would indicate that no accommodations had been provided heretofore, and even this does not specify that a building should be erected for the purpose. It is not likely that such was the case, and it is probable that the quarter sessins were holden in the church at Edgartown. But a new element had been injected into the situation, and now Chilmark and Tisbury were making an effort to obtain the "county seat" for the latter village. Under these circumstances the office holders of Edgartown proceeded to anchor down the title of their place as shire town by providing a court house for the county, and thus have an argument against removal in case of further squalls from the west. Accordingly the bench entered into negotiations for a site, and finally, on March 14, 1721, bought a lot from Samuel Bassett, which is described as follows:-

[Dukes Deeds, VI, 124.]

Samuel Bassett to the Inhabitants of Dukes County and the Present and future Justices.

Land on which to build a Court House in Edgartown, being a part of a lot lately bought of Simon Athearn, "25 foot in breadth, beginning at a foot path that goeth along the town on the S. W. side of sd Bassett's lot, adjoining the land of Sam'l Butler, & extending westward 40 feet . . . for the use above expressed so long as the Justices from time to time shall keep or order the County Court house yard kept, warranting they shall and may build thereon.

[Bassett sold three acres and a house to Samuel Waldo of Boston in 1729 (Deeds, IV, 313), and Waldo deeded same to Samuel Stewart in 1734, "reserving for Court House land 30 feet in width and 80 feet in length joining to said loot path," i. e., along the bank, the present North Water street. (Deeds, V, 142.) This is a different measurement of the plot as described in Bassett's deed.]

This lot was on North Water street, on the west side, about half way between Thomas and Morse streets, and it is supposed that a court house was erected thereon at once as it is known that the building was in existence some years later and described as located "within 20 rods" of the water. [Mass. Archives, CXV, II, 758.]

For forty ensuing years peace reigned on this question and, presumably, Edgartown considered herself secure in her glory, but the same causes were still operating and the west end of the island was not satisfied. It was a state of neutrality that all understood and, in 1761, the agitation began again. We may suppose that Chilmark was the chief conspirator at this time as on the previous occasion, for the battle was started by its people in the latter part of that year...

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