Annals of Edgartown by Dr. Charles E. Banks

Annals of Edgartown

The following pages are from pp. 9-16 of
The History of Martha's Vineyard Volume II
by Dr. Charles E. Banks (originally published 1911.)


The beginnings of the history of Edgartown took place in Watertown, when, on March 16, 1641-2, the grant of township was made by the two patentees, Mayhew senior and junior, unto five of their townsmen as previously stated, and the first foundations were laid in that year when young Thomas Mayhew set foot on the shores of its "great harbour," with his companions, to consummate the title and take possession.

The identity of the passengers who came in that first shallop to Great Harbor in 1642 as companions of young Mayhew is yet an unsolved problem. We only know he came "with some other persons" and that there were "divers families," including "some of Watertown," and the records lend us no aid in the solution. Speculation may be indulged in to the extent of supposing that some of the original grantees of Watertown came to look over their deed of gift, but we know that of these only John Daggett remained to become a settler, and he may be included with the first contingent. To these we may add John Folder, John Smith (John Bland), possibly Edward Sales of Rehoboth, and their families, and- here we stop, lest speculation carry us too far.

Such was the beginning of our first settlement by the Mayhews and their associates, and little that they did in the early years of the plantation is known to us. We can picture them as busy in clearing the land east of Pease Point Way, felling timber, building houses, laying out lots, tilling the soil, and fishing in the adjoining waters.

As they landed at their future home, doubtless they were met in a questioning attitude by groups of Indians under the leadership of Tewanquatick, Sagamore of Nunnepog, for such was the Algonquian name for the place which Mayhew chose for the town site. This Indian name for the territory now comprising the present bounds of Edgartown is the only one which was attached to the sachemship of the eastern half of the Vineyard. It occurs in various forms: as Nunpauket, Nunpaug, Nunpog, and in an Indian deed of 1684 it is written Unnunpauque (Deeds I, 18), and in another of 1696, Wonnottaquan, squaw sachem of Nunpawquit, sold land situated on the east side of Watchusate neck (Ibid., I, 208), [It would seem that the name had, perhaps, a more circumscribed application. for the Report of the Commissioners for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, made in 1698, refers to Nunnepoag as a part of Edgartown.]

The meaning of this word is "fresh pond or water place." [Eliot in James III, 12, has Nunnupog, equivalent to "fresh water."] Just what particular pond gave its character to the sachemship of Nunnepog is a matter of speculation, but it was probably the Great Pond, on the shores of which was the Mashakemmuck, or Great House of the sachems of this territory.


The basis of all land titles in Edgartown rests upon the original grant of the two patentees to certain individuals named in the following grant of township rights:-

..... unto John Doggett, Danish Pierce and Rich'd Beeres and John Smith and Francis Smith with ourselves to make choice for the Present of a large Towne upon the same Terms that we have it: And also equall Power in Governm't with us, and equall Power in admission of all that shall present themselves to come to live upon any part of the whole grant of all the Islands; and wee grant also to them and their Associates with us to receive another Townshipp for Posterity upon the same Terms wee have from the Grantees.
[New York Col. Doc. Deeds, I, 72.]

This document invested these grantees with proprietary rights in the soil, and the management thereof in a corporate capacity as townsmen, but it was not until the elder Mayhew came to live on the island that the extent of this "large Towne" was made clear, by which their rights were defined:- [Ibid., III, 68.]

This witnesseth that Mr. Mayhew the Elder and also Mr. Mayhew the Younger have freely given to the men now inhabiting on the Island namely the Vineyard, this Tract of land following for a Townshipp: namely all Tawanquatack's his Right, together wth all the Land as farr as the Easter-Chop of Homses Hole, and also all the Island called Chapaquegick, wth full Power to dispose of all and every Part of the said Land as they see best for their own comfortable Accommodation. The Line is to goe from Tequanoman's Point to the Eastermost Chop of Homses Hole. This I doe acknowledge to bee the free Grant of myselfe and my Sonn, the day and yeare above written.
per me
Tho: Mayhew
Decem: 4 th, 1646.

There is nothing of record to show the reason for the selection of this locality as the site of the new settlement, but it offered the most natural advantages for the purpose, a safe harbor and what was quite as important, a spring of potable water convenient to the shore. As elsewhere related, it is probable that the younger Mayhew determined this selection upon his first visit, and chose the homestead site for his father and himself as a nucleus of their personal holdings on the island.

In fact, the senior Mayhew himself, in an instrument dated Dec. 1, 1642, clearly shows that on that date he had not selected all his own land. In their grant to John Daggett, Sr., the proprietors, father and son, provide that the meadow and farm shall not be selected by Daggett until the elder May hew had picked out similar lots for himself. The deed, however, indicates that the elder Mayhew had visited the island and had chosen his home lot, "upon the point," [Dukes Deeds, I, 189.] and Daggett was limited to a distance of three miles from "the Spring that is by the harbor in my lot."


The present limits of Edgartown do not comprise all the territory above described, as in 1880 the northern half of the town was set off and incorporated as Cottage City, since changed (1907) to Oak Bluffs, leaving for consideration topographically and historically the land within the following bounds:- Beginning at the middle of the inlet to Sanchacantacket Pond, and crossing the pond to the ancient landmark known as Miober's Bridge, at the head of Major's Cove; thence on a straight line to the stepping stones at the head of the Lagoon; thence on a straight line crossing the State Highway to the head of Tashmoo Pond; thence returning on a straight line to the Four Town Bound; thence by nine bound-stones in a direct line southerly through the middle of Watcha Neck to the South Beach. All territory south and east of these divisional lines, including the island of Chappaquiddick, now belongs to Edgartown, and the events of historic interest connected with the people who lived within this region will be related in the annals of the town which are to follow.


For the first few years after the settlement of the town, no name was formally bestowed upon it, as it was the only place upon the island inhabited by the whites and it needed no distinguishing title. In all the extant correspondence of the elder Mayhew, during that early period, his letters were uniformly dated as "Uppon the Vyneyard" or "the Vyneyard" simply, while contemporary legal instruments referred indefinitely to the "Towne uppon the Vineyard." The name of Great Harbor first appears in 1652 in the town records as the title of the settlement now comprised in the territory of Edgartown, but even ten years later in a suit prosecuted by John Daggett at Plymouth the legal entry of it was made as Daggett versus "the towne of the said Vinyard." As the population increased and new settlers began to occupy the territory now covered by West Tisbury and Chilmark, the necessity for a distinctive nomenclature was felt, and Great Harbor began to be applied slowly to the settlement now known as Edgartown, while the newer village was called Middletown, probably because of its location in the center of the island. This condition lasted for about twenty years when it received the title of Edgartown, which it has ever since borne. The inquiry is frequently heard " why was it called Edgartown?" because it is an unusual name. Indeed, there is but one Edgartown in the world! The Gazetteer confirms the fact that in the nomenclature of places, throughout the known world, the name of our shire town has stood alone in unique isolation for over two centuries. The source of its title has long been an object, not only of curiosity on the part of the public, but of prolonged investigation at the hands of historical students, past and present. A number of ingenious suggestions have been made, such as it might be a corruption of Egerton, a parish in England, but no answer has ever been given that could be defended on historical grounds, and indeed no really serious suggestion as to its origin has yet come to light.


The baptism of the town took place in New York City, at Fort James, the seat of the Provincial governor, during the important conferences held between Colonel Lovelace, the representative of the Duke of York and the elder Mayhew, in the month of July, 1671, when the entire government of the Vineyard was reorganized. These events are narrated elsewhere, and it will not be necessary to explain the details of this meeting beyond a cursory review of so much as relates to this particular topic.

"The business under consideration," read the council minutes, "was Mr. Mayhew's affayre about Martins Vineyard, etc. His Peticon and Proposalls rec'd." It was at once decided " that the Townes seated there shall have Patents of Confirmation as other Townes." On the next day a satisfactory relationship and mutual understanding had been reached; and from that time on during the remainder of the conference all was plain sailing. Mayhew had found his "Popish" master more than complaisant, and equally generous in As dealings. On the next day, July 8, it was decided to issue patents for the incorporation of the two towns on the island hitherto called Middletown and Great Harbor; and it became necessary either to adopt these names as the permanent designations or to choose others more distinctive. The latter alternative was adopted. Tisbury was selected for the settlement "formerly known by the name of Middletown," doubtless at the suggestion of Mayhew in memory of his native parish in Wiltshire; and it was now necessary to deal with the principal settlement, the chief town of the island.

We may here surmise that Mayhew, desirous of establishing and continuing the reciprocal cordiality which had been manifest throughout, requested Governor Lovelace to christen the place "formerly knowne by the name of Great Harbour." It was then the custom to honor the royal family, particularly the reigning monarch, in the bestowal of names on places in the new English possessions on this continent, as, for examples, Jamestown, Charlestown, Maryland, and later we find Williamstown and Georgetown. Whether this surmise be correct as to the initiative in this matter, the probabilities strongly point to a suggestion from Lovelace that His Royal Highness, the Duke of York, Lord Proprietor of the Provinces which included the Vineyard then in its confines, should be complimented in the selection of a name for the principal town in this new county. King Charles was childless, and besides his name was already attached to another town. The same situation obtained with relation to the Duke's name, then in use by the first settled colony in Virginia.

The children of James, as heir presumptive, would therefore become heirs apparent to the crown of England, and the eldest son in turn become King. At this date (1671) the first three children of the Duke, viz.: Charles b. 1660, James b. 1663, and Charles b. 1666 had died in infancy, and the fourth, born Sept. 14, 1667, was the only surviving son and heir to perpetuate the direct royal line. This young Prince was named Edgar, and bore the title of Duke of Cambridge. He would become the Prince of Wales upon his father's accession to the throne. What more natural suggestion could have been offered than that Great Harbor should exchange its indefinite name for a distinctive title in honor of the He's only son, Edgar, a possible future King of England? Whoever was responsible for the suggestion, it was then decreed that Great Harbor "for the future shall bee called by the Name of Edgar Towne, and by that Name & Style shall bee distinguisht and Knowne." There can be no mistake in the word. It is plainly " Edgar Towne " in the patent of incorporation.

The young Prince did not live to know or appreciate the honor intended. In fact, he was dead when his name was bestowed on our county seat, his demise having occured June 8, 1671, just one month before, a fact doubtless unknown to Lovelace and Mayhew when the choice was made, owing to the infrequency of communication with the mother country.

These, then, were the actual and supposed events leading up to the christening of our shire town, all of which have unmistakably pointed to a natural and reasonable conclusion as to the naming of Edgartown. The death of young Prince Edgar, scarcely four years old, has made him practically an unknown personage, even though of royal birth. Edgar was an uncommon name in the reigning family, that being the first use of it for many generations. Besides this, King James, his father, came to be thoroughly hated and feared in the colonies on account of his religious affiliations, and except in this instance, which was doubtless done as a stroke of policy, there was no disposition in Puritan New England to honor him or his family.


The growth of population in this town prior to 1700 has to be estimated from scattered and unsatisfactory bases. We only know that at first "divers families" came, but beyond surmising how many that might comprise, we have no means of telling with any accuracy. In 1653, there were fifteen persons known to be "heads of families" who took part in a division of land, and by using five as a multiple we have an estimate of 75 souls living at that date in the town. In 1660 there were probably twenty "heads," and by the same process a total of 100 souls is obtained. In 1676 there were about twenty-seven "heads," making a total of 125 souls, a slow but steady increase. Eighteen years later, 1694, we have the first definite basis of calculation, the Athearn map of that date in which he states that there were "35 or 36 houses in the town." Census returns always show that more than one family is to be reckoned to a house, and by counting this number as forty families, and applying the same multiple we have as a result, about 200 souls living in the town in the last decade of that century. The data is not sufficient for any further accurate computation until after the middle of the next century, in 1757, when a muster roll of the company of militia in the town give us an enumeration of 182 persons able to bear arms. Using the accepted multiple, we can estimate, at this date, a total of about 900 souls then resident in this town. The first census of the Province was taken in 1765, and from this we obtain the following figures:-families 150 comprising a total of 1030 souls living in 128 houses. Of these, there were 233 males and 248 females above sixteen years of age; 234 males and 209 females below sixteen; 20 negroes (12 males and 8 females), and 86 Indians, of whom 37 were male and 49 female. At this date, Edgartown had the largest population of the three towns, about 38 per cent. of the entire country. In 1776, there were 1020 persons credited to the town in the census. The first national census of 1790 gives us an enumeration by names, and from this the following statistics are drawn:- total population, 1356 (whites), of which number there were 335 males above sixteen years, 318 below sixteen and 683 "free white" females and ten "other free persons." This leaves a balance of ten, which are assumed to be negroes.

The following figures show the population of Edgartown as enumerated in the decimal censuses of the United States from 1800 to the present time:- in 1800 it was 1226; in 1810, 1365; in 1820, 1374; in 1830, 1509; in 1840, 1736; in 1850, 1990; in 1860, 2118; in 1870, 1516; in 1880, 1303; in 1890, 1156; and in 1900, 1209.

The maximum population of over 2000 was reached in 1860, but the census of 1900 showed a decrease of 17 from that of 1800. The population had thus been practically stationary for a hundred years. The state census of 1905 showed a population of 1175. [Assessed valuation (May 1, 1900), $720,682.00; rate of taxation, per $1000, $15-40; number of dwelling houses, 391; number of horses, 116; number of cows, 213; number of sheep, 934; number of acres of land assessed, 11,337; number of persons assessed on property, 781.]

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