The Island’s First Visitors
The first Englishman known to have set foot on Martha’s Vineyard were Captain Bartholemew Gosnold and members of the crew of his ship Concord in 1602. It is believed they came ashore in Edgartown, on the northern tip of Chappaquiddick; and that Captain Gosnold named the island Martha’s Vineyard in honor of his infant daughter. While this landing marked Edgartown as one of the first places known to English explorers, Gosnold and his crew did not stay long. In fact, the first official settlement of Martha’s Vineyard was not until nearly four decades later when King Charles of England provided Thomas Mayhew and his associates “full power and authority to plant and inhabit” the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Of course, at the time of Mayhew’s arrival, the island already had a population of roughly 3,000 native Indians.
From the Great Harbour to Edgar Towne
The village itself was originally called “Great Harbour” a literal reference to its most defining feature. Only later when the town was incorporated in 1671, was the name changed to Edgar Towne. The name, Edgar Towne, was chosen to honor the only son of the Duke of York, brother of King Charles. Because the king himself was childless, Edgar, a three-year-old, was next in line to the crown upon the death of his Uncle Charlie. The Mayhews, hoping to curry favor, chose the name Edgar, not knowing the boy had died a month before. It is said that this is the only Edgartown in the world. Had the youngster lived, there might be as many as there are Charlestowns and Jamestowns today.
The Boom Years of Whaling
In the first 100 years on the island, some settlers worked the land as farmers, but most turned to the sea for their livelihood. Their real prosperity, however, came in the early 1800s, the boom years of whaling. As early as 1775, Martha’s Vineyard had 156 seamen employed on whaling vessels. By the 1800s, more than 100 Edgartown men were masters and when they returned from their voyages with a full cargo, they were rich beyond their dreams. Most of the historic houses in Edgartown Village were built by whaling masters during this golden era of whaling. After the Civil War, whaling went into decline as petroleum became abundant, cheaper and better than whale oil.
New Visitors Discover the Vineyard
As it happened, the island was rescued from financial decline by a religious happening; which inadvertently transformed Martha’s Vineyard into a summer vacation destination. It was triggered by Jeremiah Pease, who in 1835 convinced the Edgartown Methodists to hold a camp meeting in an oak grove he had selected in today’s Oak Bluffs, then part of Edgartown. The camp event became an annual meeting, attracting at first hundreds, then thousands of Mainlanders. Once these visitors discovered the lovely vistas, sandy beaches and general tranquility of the island, word spread and soon off-Islanders were building and buying summer houses on the island. Gradually, the old Captains’ houses of Edgartown were bought by wealthy summer visitors; many of whom were committed to preserving the village’s historic flavor.