Annals of Chilmark: NOMANS LAND by Dr. Charles E. Banks


The following pages are from pp. 71 - 74 of
The History of Martha's Vineyard, Volume II, Annals of Chilmark
by Dr. Charles Edward Banks (originally published 1911.


This island, situated two and three-quarters miles to the southward of Gay Head, enjoys the distinction of being the first land touched by Gosnold in 1602 and receiving from the explorers the name of "Marthaes Vineyard." This title, as we know, became attached to the present island bearing the name, although the reasons for the transfer of nomenclature are not understood. When Gosnold and his companions landed here it was "a disinhabited island," but the two journalists of the voyage give detailed accounts of their investigations of its natural features. They found it "full of wood-vines, gooseberry bushes, whortleberries, raspberries, eglantines, etc. Here we had cranes, steames, shouters geese and divers other birds which there at that time upon the cliffs being sandy with some rocky stones, did breed and had young. In this place we saw deer; here we rode in eight fathoms near the shore where we took great store of cod,- as before at Cape Cod, but much better.'' [Archer, Relation of Captain Gosnold's Voyage, 4.]

The subsequent history of the island, after this elaborate introduction to the world, is practically a blank for over half a century, and but for its appearance on the maps of this period nothing is known of it.


The christening of Gosnold did not stick to this lonely isle of the sea, and it came to have a variety of titles in the maps of the seventeenth century. The second name it bore was "Hendrick Christiaensen's Eylant" in 1616 and "Ile de Hendrick" in 1646, both having reference to the Dutch explorer of that name who probably visited it. The curious name of "Dock Island" appears on a map of 1675, but it was not repeated in later charts.

After its inclusion in the jurisdiction of New York it came under other influences, and in 1666 was first called "Nomans Land," also the Isle of Man. The origin of the name "Nomans" is not known. It is usual to attribute it to a combination of two words, No Man's Land, as descriptive of its ownerless condition, but while this is the easiest conclusion it does not seem to be the correct one. The word is scarcely ever divided and its almost universal spelling is Nomans Land from the earliest times. There was a great Powwaw on the Vineyard called Tequenoman residing here when the English came and it is possible that he had jurisdiction over, or ownership of, this small island which came to bear the last half of his name, (Teque)nomans Land. This name became attached to it at the time above noted and has been its sole title ever since. The Indian name (1666) was Cappoaquit. [Dukes Deeds, I, 70.]


Nomans Land was not included by name in the original sales of Gorges and Sterling to Mayhew in 1642, and it does not appear that the Governor or his family ever assumed jurisdiction over it or disposed of it by sale. Immediately after the Duke of York obtained his charter for New York, in 1664, his representative proclaimed the authority of the Duke's patent over this island, and on Aug. 3, 1666, granted it to William Reeves, Tristram Dodge, John Williams and William Nightingale, conditional upon the establishment of a fishing trade, construction of a harbor within three years, and the annual payment of one barrel of cod fish as a quitrent. [New York Col. Mss., Patents, I, 50.] It was further stipulated that when a certain number of families settled on it the privileges of a township would be granted and a justice of the peace appointed. These conditions were not fulfilled within the three years and the grant was forfeited. This failure, according to the statement of John Williams, was due to "the default of his Partners," and upon his petition the grant was renewed to him June 28, 1670; "to settle a fishing trade there," and again, on Feb. 23, 1674, he obtained a second renewal. [N. Y. Col. Mss., Court of Assizes, II, 538; Patents, IV, 91.] It is not believed that anything was ever done under these patents and it remained in the gift of the Duke for ten years longer. When Governor Dongan invested Matthew Mayhew in 1685 with the Lordship of Martha's Vineyard, he included Nomans Land by name in the patent and a few days afterwards Mayhew sold it to Dongan, who thus came into possession of the island by purchase. [The aboriginal ownership at this time, the first on record, was vested in the Sachem Cascanabin, who sold the western half May I, 1686, to his brother Tackquabin (Dukes Deeds, I, 70).] Dongan sold it on August 3, 1689, to William Nichols of Islip, Long Island, for a money consideration and a "good fat lamb" annually. [John Philip, sachem, sold the island in 1692 to Matthew Mayhew as steward for 50 and Mayhew sold his rights' to Nichols the next year (Dukes Deeds, I, 137-138).]

The island was held by Nichols for twenty-five years, probably without occupation, until Oct. 17, 1715, when he sold it to Jacob Norton (32) then of Newport, R. I., in whose possession and that of his heirs it remained for over half a century. [Dukes Deeds, III, 395.] Jacob Norton gave one quarter of the island in 1742 to his daughter Abigail (77), wife of Peter Simon of Newport, and she sold this share in 1772 to John Banister of the same place. The remainder, after his death (1743), descended to his sons, Shubael (69) of Bristol, R. I. and Jacob (73) of Chilmark and their heirs. Shubael had died before his father (1737) and Jacob shortly after (1750), and the island came into frequent litigation between the various claimants.


The first record of any settlement here is in the early part of the 18th century. Judge Sewall in 1702 says of Nomans Land, that the "Inhabitants (are) mostly of the 7th day Indians," i. e., Sabbatarian Baptists. It is probable that with the purchase by Norton in 1715 the first Englishmen came here to live. His son Jacob came here to reside soon after and in Id was granted a license as innholder of Nomans Land. Doubtless he continued a resident with his family till his death, and Samuel Norton (413) who married his sister, Mary (71) is called in 1740 "of Nomans Land." These two families numbered twenty souls in 1750, and there may have been others living there besides. They were probably engaged in fishing, as at that time the surrounding waters were considered "the only certain places for Fishing for Cod." [Sewall, Diary, III, 397.] It is not supposed the place was valuable from an agricultural point of view, though in 1745 it was testified that the island was valued at 10,000, old tenor. [Evidence given by Jeremiah Mayhew, husbandman, and Elishab Adams, cordwainer (Sup. Jud. Court Mss., 61016).] Another early settler was Israel Luce (67), [b. 1723, d. 1797], who removed to Nomans Land as a young man and spent the rest of his life there as a resident and was buried there. His sons Daniel (290), Thomas (292), and Ebenezer (294) remained on the island with their families until their deaths. George H. Butler was a resident about forty years (1860 to 1898), and Henry B. Davis with his family are the only inhabitants of the island at the present time.


The status of this island up to 1714 was an anomalous one, though being practically unoccupied except by Indians, it gave little concern to the people of the Vineyard. In the act of Oct. 30, 1714, when Chilmark was made a township, "an Island called No Mans Land" was included in its corporate limits. [Records General Court, IX, 428.] Two years later, for some reason, not now understood, the new town petitioned to have "an Island call'd No Mans Land" added to it and the General Court, on Nov. 30, 1716, passed the necessary resolve. [Acts and Resolves, IX, 508, ch. 140.] Since this time the island has remained a part of Chilmark, though it has always occupied, until recently, a negligible share in the concerns of the town. It is scarcely mentioned in the proceedings of the annual meetings for years at a time.

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