Often called just "The Vineyard," the island has a land area of . It is the 58th largest island in the United States and the third largest on the East Coast of the United States. It is also the largest island not connected to mainland by a bridge or tunnel on the East Coast of the United States.
It is located in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as a part of Dukes County, which also includes Cuttyhunk and the other Elizabeth Islands, as well as the island of Nomans Land, which is both a US Wildlife preserve, as well as a US Naval practice bombing range which continues to be controversial. The Vineyard was also home to one of the earliest known deaf communities in the United States; consequently, a special sign language, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL), developed on the island.
The estimated year-round population is 15,000 residents; however, the summer population can swell to over 100,000 people. About 56% of the Vineyard’s 14,621 homes are seasonally occupied.
Martha's Vineyard is primarily known as a summer colony, and is accessible only by boat and air. However, its year-round population has grown considerably since the 1960s. A study by the Martha's Vineyard Commission found that the cost of living on the island is 60 percent higher than the national average and housing prices are 96 percent higher.
Originally inhabited by the Wampanoag, Martha's Vineyard was known in their language as Noepe, or "land amid the streams." In 1642 the Wampanoag numbered somewhere around 3,000 on the island. By 1764, that number had dropped to 313.
A smaller island to the south was named "Martha's Vineyard" by the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold who sailed to the island in 1602. The name was later transferred to the main island. It is thus the eighth-oldest surviving English place-name in the United States. No one knows who the namesake of the island is, but some suppose that since Gosnold's mother-in-law and his second child, who died in infancy, were both named Martha, Gosnold perhaps named Martha's Vineyard after his daughter, who was christened in St James' Church (now St Edmundsbury Cathedral), Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, England. Martha is buried in the Great Churchyard which lies in front of the Abbey ruins between St Mary's Church and the Cathedral.
The island was also known as Martin's Vineyard (perhaps after the captain of Gosnold's ship, John Martin); many islanders up to the 18th century called it by this name. The United States Board on Geographic Names worked to standardize placename spellings in the late 19th century, including the dropping of apostrophes. Thus for a time Martha's Vineyard was officially named Marthas Vineyard, but the Board reversed its decision in the early 20th century, making Martha's Vineyard one of the five placenames in the United States today with a possessive apostrophe.
English settlement began with the purchase of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Elizabeth Islands by Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts from two English "owners". He had friendly relations with the Wampanoags on the island in part because he was careful to honor their land rights as well. His son, also Thomas Mayhew, began the first English settlement in 1642 at Great Harbor (later Edgartown, Massachusetts).
The younger Mayhew began a relationship with Hiacoomes, an Indian neighbor, which eventually led to Hiacoomes' family converting to Christianity. Ultimately, many of the tribe became Christian, including the pow-wows (spiritual leaders) and sachems (political leaders). During King Philip's War later in the century the Martha's Vineyard band did not join their tribal relatives in the uprising and remained armed, a testimony to the good relations cultivated by the Mayhews as the leaders of the English colony.
In 1665, Mayhew's lands were included in a grant to the Duke of York. In 1671, a settlement was arranged, allowing Mayhew to continue in his position while placing his territory under the jurisdiction of the Province of New York. In 1683, Dukes County, New York was incorporated, including Martha's Vineyard. In 1691, at the collapse of rule by Sir Edmund Andros and the reorganization of Massachusetts as a royal colony, Dukes County was transferred back to the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and split into the county of Dukes County, Massachusetts and Nantucket County, Massachusetts.
Indian literacy in the schools founded by Mayhew and taught by Peter Folger, the grandfather of Benjamin Franklin, was such that the first Native American graduates of Harvard were from Martha's Vineyard, including the son of Hiacoomes, Joel Hiacoomes. "The ship Joel Hiacoomes was sailing on, as he was returning to Boston from a trip home shortly before the graduation ceremonies was found wrecked on the shores of Nantucket Island. Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the son of a sachem of Homes Hole did graduate from Harvard in the class of 1665 (Moneghan, E.J., 2005, p. 59)." Cheeshahteaumauk's Latin address to the corporation (New England Corporation), which begins "Honoratissimi benefactores" (most honored benefactors), has been preserved. (Gookin, as quoted in Monaghan, 2005, p. 60.) In addition to speaking Wampanoag and English, they studied Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. All of the early Indian graduates died shortly after completing their course of study. However, there were many native preachers on the island who also preached in the English churches from time to time.
Like the nearby island of Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard was brought to prominence in the 19th century by the whaling industry, during which ships were sent around the world to hunt whales for their oil and blubber. The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania gave rise to a cheaper source of oil for lamps and led to an almost complete collapse of the industry by 1870. After the Old Colony railroad came to mainland Woods Hole in 1872, summer residences began to develop on the island, such as the community of Harthaven established by William H. Hart. Although the island struggled financially through the Great Depression, its reputation as a resort for tourists and the wealthy continued to grow. There is still a substantial Wampanoag population on the Vineyard, mainly located in the town of Aquinnah. Aquinnah means "land under the hill" in the Wampanoag language.
The island was the last refuge of the Heath Hen, a once common game bird. Despite 19th Century efforts to protect the hen, by 1927, the population of birds had dropped to 13. The last known Heath Hen perished on Martha's Vineyard in 1932.
The island received international notoriety after the July 18, 1969, Chappaquiddick incident, in which Mary Jo Kopechne was killed in a car driven off the Dike Bridge by U.S. Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy. The bridge crossed Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick Island (a smaller island connected to the Vineyard and part of Edgartown). As a foot bridge, it was intended for people on foot and bicycles, as well as the occasional emergency vehicle when conditions warranted. Currently, 4×4 vehicles with passes are allowed to cross the reconstructed bridge.
On November 23, 1970, in the Atlantic Ocean just west of Aquinnah, Simas Kudirka, a Soviet seaman of Lithuanian nationality, attempted to defect to the United States by leaping onto a United States Coast Guard cutter from a Soviet ship. The Coast Guard allowed a detachment of KGB agents to board the cutter, and subsequently arrest Kudirka, taking him back to the former Soviet Union.
In 1974, Steven Spielberg filmed the movie Jaws on Martha's Vineyard most notably in the fishing village of Menemsha and the town of Chilmark. Spielberg selected island natives Christopher Rebello as Chief Brody's oldest son, Michael Brody; Jay Mello as the younger son, Sean Brody; and Lee Fierro as Mrs. Kintner. Scores of other island natives appeared in the film as extras. Later, scenes from Jaws 2 and were filmed on the island as well. In June 2005 the island celebrated the 30th anniversary of Jaws with a weekend-long Jawsfest.
In 1977, distressed over losing their guaranteed seat in the Massachusetts General Court, inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard considered the possibility of secession from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, either to become part of another state (having received offers from both Vermont and Hawai'i), reincorporating as a separate U.S. territory, or as the nation's 51st state. The separatist flag, consisting of a white seagull over an orange disk on a sky-blue background, is still seen on the island today. Although the idea of separation from Massachusetts eventually proved impracticable, it did receive attention in the local, regional and even national media.
On March 5, 1982, John Belushi died of a drug overdose in Los Angeles, California, and was buried four days later in Abel's Hill Cemetery in Chilmark. Belushi often visited the Vineyard and his family felt it fitting to bury him there. On his gravestone is the quote, "Though I may be gone, Rock 'N' Roll lives on." Because of the many visitors to his grave and the threat of vandalism, his body was moved somewhere nearby the gravesite. His grave remains a popular site for visitors to Chilmark and they often leave tokens in memory of the late comedian. U.S. President Bill Clinton spent vacation time on the island during and after his presidency, along with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea. Clinton was not the first president to visit the islands; Ulysses S. Grant visited the vacation residence of his friend, Bishop Gilbert Haven on August 24, 1874. As a coincidental footnote in history, Bishop Haven's gingerbread cottage was located in Oak Bluffs at 10 Clinton Avenue. The avenue was named in 1851 and was designated as the main promenade of the Martha's Vineyard Campmeeting Association campgrounds. On August 23, 2009, President Barack Obama arrived in Chilmark with his family for a week's vacation at a rental property known as Blue Heron Farm.
On July 16, 1999, a small plane crashed off the coast of Martha's Vineyard, claiming the lives of pilot John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister Lauren Bessette. Kennedy's mother, former U.S. first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, maintained a home in Aquinnah (formerly "Gay Head") until her death in 1994.
In the summer of 2000, an outbreak of tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, resulted in one death and piqued the interest of the CDC, which wanted to test the island as a potential investigative ground for aerosolized Francisella tularensis. Over the following summers, Martha's Vineyard was identified as the only place in the world where documented cases of tularemia resulted from lawn mowing. The research may prove valuable in preventing bioterrorism.
Martha's Vineyard is also the setting for Robert Harris' 2007 novel, the political thriller The Ghost.
Hereditary deafness and sign language
A high rate of hereditary deafness was documented in Martha's Vineyard for almost two centuries. The island's deaf heritage cannot be traced to one common ancestor and is thought to have originated in the Weald, a region in the English county of Kent, prior to immigration. Researcher Nora Groce estimates that by the late 19th century, 1 in 155 people on the Vineyard was born deaf (0.7 percent), almost 20 times the estimate for the nation at large (1 in 2,730, or 0.04 percent).
Mixed marriages between deaf and hearing spouses comprised 65% of all deaf marriages on the island in the late 19th century, higher than the mainland average of 20%, and Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was commonly used by hearing residents as well as deaf ones until the middle of the 20th century. This allowed deaf residents to smoothly integrate into society.
In the 20th century, tourism became a mainstay in the island economy. However, jobs in tourism were not as deaf-friendly as fishing and farming had been. Consequently, as intermarriage and further migration joined the people of Martha's Vineyard to the mainland, the island community more and more resembled the wider community there.
The last deaf person born into the island's sign language tradition, Katie West, died in 1952, but a few elderly residents were able to recall MVSL as recently as the 1980s when research into the language began.