Martha's Vineyard is an island off the southeast coast of Massachusetts, extending about 25 miles with a greatest width of about seven miles. At one time, Martha's Vineyard played an important role in the whaling industry, but it is now primarily a vacation destination. Its year-round population of 15,000 lives in six towns: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury (Vineyard Haven), West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head).
Before the arrival of Europeans, the island was occupied by the Wampanoag tribe of Indians. Wampanoags are still numerous in Aquinnah, which was Gay Head until the spring of 1998.
An Englishman, Bartholomew Gosnold, arrived in 1602. Gosnold named the island “Martha’s Vineyard," probably after his daughter, and because he found wild grapes on the island.
Thomas Mayhew Sr., a miller from Watertown, obtained the right to settle on the island from two English noblemen who held overlapping claims. In 1642, his son Thomas Jr. moved to the present site of Edgartown with a few settlers, followed soon after by his father. The elder Mayhew established himself as governor of the island while the younger became a teacher and missionary to the Indians.
When the settlers arrived, there were about 3,000 Indians living in four main tribes on the Island, but they had no resistance to diseases brought by the English, and soon only the Aquinnahs remained, living at the western end of the Island. For many generations after the coming of the whites, the total population hovered around 2,000.
Shortly after 1800, sailors from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket began extended whaling voyages to distant parts of the world. Nantucket grew famous for providing the ships, while Martha's Vineyard provided the captains, crews, and shore services that supported whaling.
When expeditions returned laden with oil from their distant voyages, they found Nantucket’s harbor too shallow to accommodate the vessels, so Edgartown grew rich by offloading them. Great mansions were built with the wealth generated by whaling.
The Vineyard Gazette began publication during the whaling era. Edgar Marchant put together his first four-page sheet on May 14, 1846. The Gazette is still published and still has the press he used, along with other mementos in a small museum at the newspaper office on South Summer Street in Edgartown.
With the development of the petroleum industry, starting in Pennsylvania in 1859, whale oil for lamps was confronted with competition from kerosene. The whaling industry declined and then vanished. Islanders continued to make their livings with fishing and farming, as well as piloting sailing ships passing through the treacherous waters on the route between Boston and New York City. But it was not as lucrative as before.
Fortunately, Martha's Vineyard was entering a new phase. A religious revival meeting of islanders in 1835 proved so popular that it was repeated the following year with some mainlanders in attendance. Word began to spread that the island was a lovely place to spend some time, and people began to come for enjoyment and not just for theology. As late as 1863, there were no permanent residences where the revival meetings were held, but within another decade, cottages had sprung up to form what would become Oak Bluffs.
In 1969, Senator Edward Kennedy was involved in an accident at Chappaquiddick that effectively ended his national political ambitions. The movie Jaws was filmed on Martha's Vineyard in 1974. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis purchased land on the island in 1978, and her son John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash off Aquinnah in 1999.
The first hospital on Martha's Vineyard was established in 1763 by Dr. Samuel Gelston of Nantucket. The present hospital, Martha's Vineyard Hospital, opened in the 1920s.
The old firehouse in Oak Bluffs now houses the Martha's Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts. The Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust acts to preserve and restore historic aspects of the island. Acquired by the Preservation Trust in 1986, the Flying Horses Carousel is the nation's oldest operating platform carousel and a National Historic Landmark. Another Trust property, the Old Whaling Church, built in Edgartown in 1843, is regarded as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in New England. The Martha's Island Historical Society is the custodian of three lighthouses, Gay Head, Edgartown, and East Chop, which are kept in functioning condition.