historical literature
posted June 2006

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Visit to the Elizabeth Islands.
North American Review 5 (15): 313-324 (Sept 1817)
unstated author

Visit to the Elizabeth Islands.

[A party of gentlemen lately visited the old colony and the Elizabeth islands. The following letter, giving an account of their journey, may amuse some of our readers.]

    Dear------,                             Boston, 2 Aug. 1817.

    I premised to relate to you the incidents of my ride; and it is my first occupation to address you, 'to tell of all I felt and all I saw,' or rather of all that I remember; for I did not see and feel so little in a week, as to promise that I will recollect it all in a day.

    Monday the 21st of July we left Boston for New Bedford. Near the road side in Abington we observed a remarkable tree, one of the ancient boundaries of the Plymouth Colony, whose inhabitants, after an union of more than a century with Massachusetts Bay, are still proud of their former independence, and of the superiour antiquity of their settlement. We were told that the road, on which we travelled, passed through the most fertile part of the Colony. The vegetation was certainly more forward than in the immediate vicinity of Boston. The rye was abundant, and in many fields ripe for harvest. In some, the reapers were actually employed. The Indian corn was backward and unpromising. The sides of the road were, during the first part of our ride, covered with roses in full bloom, and through the whole of it decorated with the red lily. In the town of Middleborough, thirty eight miles from Boston, we stopped a few moments on the banks of Assawampset pond, a lake six miles in length and three in breadth, whose deep coves, and bold and extensive promontories, present many beautiful scenes, agreeably diversified by wildness and cultivation. It is very shallow and its bottom consists of bog iron ore, which has been an article of commerce ever since its discovery in 1747. The lake is owned in 70 undivided shares by the assignees of the original settlers of the town. Any person may dig the ore, which is sold on the banks of the lake at from four to seven dollars per ton, according to its quality. The purchaser pays the further sum of one dollar per ton to the proprietors, and the ore is then smelted, and cast into hollow ware in this and the neighbouring towns. The quantity now dug here is much less than formerly, hardly exceeding one hundred tons a year. We rode


two miles along the western bank of this lake, and before we quitted it, saw on our right Long Pond, which in one place approaches so near it as to leave only a passage for the road between them.

    On Assawampset was committed the murder of Sausaman, the immediate occasion of the war between our ancestors and King Philip, professedly a war of extermination, in which the two parties, struggling for existence, displayed a foresight and sagacity in planning their military enterprises, and a rapidity, fearlessness, and perseverance in executing them, which render that age one of the most interesting periods of our history; though the occasional acts of perfidy and atrocity committed on both sides make it one of the least honourable.

    Now step forward again about a hundred and forty years from those scenes of blood, enter with us the peaceful dwellings of the Quakers of New Bedford, and say if humanity has not gained by the exchange. This town of New Bedford, where we arrived on Monday evening, and were detained by rain during the whole of Tuesday, is finely situated on a gentle acclivity, rising from the western bank of the Acushnet, and commands a perfect view of the town of Fairhaven and the hamlet of Oxford, which occupy lower and more level ground on the other side of the river. It contains about two thousand five hundred inhabitants, a large portion of them Friends. The remainder is divided into two societies of baptists and two of congregationalists. It contains also an academy for the instruction of both sexes, possessing a library of eight hundred volumes, the gift of Samuel Elam Esq. and a philosophical apparatus ;—a charity school for the education of eighty two children, supported and superintended by young ladies;—a museum belonging to a society of gentlemen ; and a social library. Many of the inhabitants are engaged in the whale fishery, and they wisely retain among themselves the profits of manufacturing, as well as of collecting the spermaceti. The plunder of the whales, pursued and destroyed in the Pacifick ocean, never quits their hands till it has gone through the whole process, which fits it for use, and is prepared to illuminate the ball room.

    At seven o'clock on Wednesday morning we left New Bedford in a sloop, descended 'that stately sound,' Buzzard's bay, and anchored near the westernmost of the Elizabeth islands,


the first spot in New England occupied by Europeans, and the only one inhabited by them in the glorious days of Queen Bess.

    In 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold and thirty one others left England in a small bark to seek their fortunes in America. Believing that the common route by the Canary islands was unnecessarily circuitous, Gosnold steered directly west, and on the fourteenth of May, after a passage of seven weeks, came within sight of the coast of Massachusetts bay. He did not land here, but sailing along the shore toward the south, passed Cape Cod, to which he gave the name it now bears, from the number of cod fish, that he caught there. Standing out to sea to avoid the Pollock rip, he overshot in the night the eastern entrance of the Vineyard sound, and afterwards, returning toward the land, coasted along the southern shore of the island now called Martha's Vineyard, supposing it a part of the main. To Noman's Land he gave the name of Martha's Vineyard, which has been since transferred, by some strange accident, to the larger island in its vicinity. After doubling a high ledge of rocks running a mile into the sea, he anchored in a cove of the island near them ; naming it Elizabeth island in honour of the Queen. This island, possessing a very fertile soil, was then covered with trees and uninhabited. In the western part of it they found a pond of fresh water two miles in circumference, separated from the sea on one side by a narrow beach ; and in this pond a 'rocky islet,' of about one acre, on which they determined to fix their residence. A part of the company remained there three weeks, occupied in throwing up a fort, digging and stoning a cellar, and building a dwelling house; while the rest explored the neighbouring continent and procured a cargo of sassafras and skins. It was intended that twenty of their number should remain in their new habitation, and that the others should return to England to sell their cargo, and procure the means of establishing a permanent colony. Some difficulties however were occasioned by a dispute about the mode of dividing the profits of the voyage; and soon afterwards the discovery that they had not provisions enough to victual both the fort and the vessel, and an attack on one of their boats by the natives, who had previously appeared friendly to them, completely discouraged them, and induced them to abandon the enterprise, and set sail for England on the eighteenth of


June, three weeks after their first occupation of the island. Dr. Belknap takes some pains to justify them for relinquishing their project so soon, by dwelling on the imprudence of remaining without the means of defence or of subsistence; but it seems to me that they need no justification. They were under no obligation to remain; they had voluntarily undertaken an expedition for profit, and had a right to abandon it as soon as they were weary of the enterprise.

    The name of Elizabeth was afterwards given to the whole group of islands in Buzzard's Bay, and it seems to have been doubted which of them was occupied by Gosnold, till Dr. Belknap, visiting them in 1797, found the most westerly to agree perfectly with the description given of their residence by the adventurers ; and even thought that he discovered the remains of their cellar. Some young gentlemen of New Bedford had since visited the spot without finding these remains; and it was one object of our journey to ascertain whether any such existed. Having landed on the eastern shore of the Island, and walked across it, we found at the other extremity a long, triangular pond, almost in the shape of a powder-horn, with its base near the western side of the Island, and its point directed toward the north. Its banks on the west and south are high; on the north it is separated from the sea by a curving beach not thirty yards wide, across which we dragged our boat and launched it into the fresh water of the pond. I call it fresh only because it is not salt, for it is too brackish even for the palate of a Bostonian. In the western end of the pond is a high islet, surrounded, by a rocky margin and covered with a very rich soil, in which were growing the Wild goosberry, the grape, elder, mallows, primrose, eglantine, yarrow, sumach, wild parsnip, beach plum, wild cherry, wild pea, Solomon's seal, the convolvulus, thoroughwort, and red clover. The stump of a red cedar stood near the shore, and we brought home a piece of it as a remembrance of our expedition. On the northern bank of the islet about ten yards from the water, we found a small excavation overgrown with bushes and grass, on one side of which were three large stones in a row at the distance of three feet from each other, having under them other stones of the same size lying in the same direction. Between these were smaller stones, which appeared by their form and smoothness to have been taken from the beach. In another


slight excavation twenty eight yards south of the former near the centre and highest part of the islet, were similar stones, but very few in number, and not disposed in any apparent order. On digging in other parts of the islet, we found none of the same kind. We conjectured that the first excavation was all that remained of Gosnold's cellar, and the latter a part of the trench dug for the purpose of forming the fort. There can be no doubt that this was the place of his residence, for there is no other pond containing an islet in any one of the Elizabeth Islands. Every feature of the scene reminded us of the narrative of its discoverers. The trees indeed have fallen and left no trace of their existence, except the term Copicut, shady, the appellation of a lofty promontory, extending from the centre of the island toward the north ; but the soil is still fertile, the beach, the lake, the islet are unaltered, and are rendered by their natural beauties, no less than by the recollections, with which they are associated, well worthy of the attention of a poet; and the gigantick rocks near the western coast of the island, against which the waves dash with the foam, and the fury, and the deafening noise of a cataract, would form as grand a picture in an epick poem, as Acroceraunia or Charybdis. But their names------. These  rocks are the sow and pigs;—the blooming islet is Quawck Island; the beautiful lake and the island, which contains it, are styled Poocutohhunkunnoh island and pond, which is sometimes elegantly abbreviated into Cuttyhunk. What words for the lips of the muses !—The delicate ears of some of our party could not endure them, and we therefore gave to the pond and islet the name of their discoverer, Gosnold, and softened down the Indian appellation of the principal island into Cuttoona, which you and other poets are expected always to employ hereafter, except in those cases, where it may be necessary for the sake of the rhyme, to make use of Quawck, Poocutohhunkunnoh, and Cuttyhunk.

    We dined on Gosnold's Islet. On the beach which separates his pond from the ocean, we found the murex caniculatus, a shell confounded by the inhabitants of this part of the Commonwealth with the murex carica, under the common name of perriwinkle, which properly belongs to neither. The island of Cuttoona contains about 516 acres, and has two houses on its eastern end, occupied by three families, who hire the island for 250 dollars per annum, and keep on it 16 cows and


500 sheep. We re-embarked in the afternoon, and with a fair wind and favourable tide,coasted along the northern shore of Nashawenna, and passed through Quicks' hole, between that island and Pasque Island to Tarpaulin Cove, a fine harbour on the south side of Nashaun, where we slept. A lighthouse 32 feet high, built of granite found in the island, is just greeted on the point of land forming the southwestern side of the harbour.

    The next day, Thursday, we set sail for Gay Head, the northwestern extremity of Martha's Vineyard. It was called by Gosnold Dover Cliff, and owes its present name to the singular beauty of its appearance, when seen from the shore. In that direction it presents to the eye a perpendicular cliff 150 feet high, principally composed of white and blue clay, in which are irregularly interspersed vast beds of red and yellow ochre, and of a black substance, which has been thought to indicate the existence of coal in its vicinity. Excavations have been made to the depth of 30 feet, in the hope of obtaining that valuable mineral, without success. The ochres are of a very bad quality. The white day is the only useful material found here, and is sold by the Indians deliverable on board vessels for three dollars and a half, and in the cliff for one dollar per ton. The black part of the cliff seems to consist of decayed vegetable matter, and abounds with pyrites and with long, slender crystals of gypsum, called by the inhabitants Maushop's needles. On the edge of the cliff is the Devil's Den, a vast and deep basin, one side of which appears to have been washed away by the sea. Its form has induced some persons to consider it as the crater of an extinct volcano, but we saw no volcanick appearances near it. It was once the dwelling of Maushop. According to the tradition of the Indians, when their ancestors first came from the west to this island, they found it occupied by Maushop, a benevolent but capricious being, of gigantick frame and supernatural power. His daily food was broiled whales, and he threw many of them on the coast for the support of his Indian neighbours. At last, weary of the world, he sent his sons and daughter to play at ball, and while they were engaged in their sport, drew his toe across the beach, on which they were, and separated it from the island. The returning tide rising over it, the brothers crowded round their sister, careless of their own danger ; and while sinking themselves, were


only anxious to keep her head above the waves. Maushop commended their fraternal affection, bade them always love and protect their sister, and preserved their lives by converting them into whale killers, a sort of grampus, whose descendants still delight to sport about the ancient dwelling of their great progenitor. The giant then hurled his wife Saconet into the air, and plunging himself beneath the waves, disappeared forever. Saconet fell on the promontory of Rhode Island, which now bears her name, and long lived there, exacting tribute from all passengers. At length she was converted into stone, still however retaining her former shape, till the white men, mistaking her probably for an idol, lopped off both her arms; but her mutilated form remains to this day on the spot where she fell, and affords tasting and unimpeachable evidence of the truth of the tradition.

    The West end of Martha's Vineyard containing 3000 acres of the best land in the island, and including Gay Head, is reserved for the Indians established at this place and their descendants. The whole number of proprietors is said to be 250; only 150 reside here at present. The land is undivided ; but each man cultivates as much as he pleases, and no one intrudes on the spot, which another has appropriated by his labour. They have not the power of alienating their lands, being considered as perpetual children, and their property committed to the care of guardians appointed by the government of Massachusetts. These guardians let a part of the territory to whites, and appropriate the income to the support of the Indians. Intermarriages between the members of this tribe and negroes are so common, that there now exist very few of pure Indian descent. One of these few we had the pleasure of seeing, when, tempted by curiosity, we had entered her miserable dwelling. It did not require a very powerful imagination to convert her into another Meg Merrilies. Her countenance bore the traces of extreme age, but her form, though slender, was erect, her voice firm, and her remarks shrewd and pertinent. The muscles of her face possessed a calmness and immobility, which seemed to prove that nothing agitated her feelings, while the quickness of her eye denoted that nothing escaped her observation. This cast of countenance, and the character it expresses, are not however peculiarities of the individual; they distinguish the whole race.


    The Indians of Gay Head have lately sent a memorial to the General Court, stating their grievances, and a committee has been appointed to examine into the ground of their complaints. Idleness is undoubtedly the great evil that afflicts them. Can it be remedied ? We should not be discouraged because the efforts hitherto made for the improvement of their characters have been ineffectual; for it is not certain that they have been properly directed. Schools have been occasionally established among them to teach them reading and writing, arts of which they know not the value. Missionaries are constantly employed to preach the gospel to them. But beings so indifferent to their fate that they will not make provision even for to day, cannot be expected to take much pains to prepare for futurity. They need some strong and direct excitement to rouse them from their torpor. It has been proposed to give them the power of alienating their property, which would soon be squandered. They would then be compelled to toil for a subsistence: and habits of industry once acquired might last longer than the necessity, in which they originated. Nor would there be any cruelty in thus permitting them to waste their property, if it were certain that the experiment would succeed. Could they obtain industrious habits in exchange for their lands, it would be a profitable bargain to them, as well as to the community. But it may be said, and I fear too truly, that the present generation, palsied by inveterate indolence and ignorant of any occupation capable of affording them immediate subsistence, would sink in despondency, and find it easier to die than to labour. Is there however no hope for their children ? Might they not be collected in one seminary, where they should be taught the mechanick arts, and incited to exertion by emulation, the hope of reward, and the fear of punishment; and when their education should be completed, instead of being left here to be corrupted by their predecessors, sent forth to make their own way in the worlds The Indians are not incapable of serving themselves and the publick. Many of them are employed in the whaling vessels of New Bedford, and are distinguished by their activity and expertness. Such a project would indeed be expensive, but might ultimately prove less so than the present mode of providing for their support. We ought not to despise them because they are ignorant and degraded ; for perhaps they are


ignorant and degraded only because they have already been so much despised. There is no school now at Gay Head.

    We returned to pass another night at Tarpaulin cove, where we found excellent accommodations. Early on Friday morning our party set forward in a waggon, on horseback, and on foot for the northeastern end of Nashaun. This island is seven and a half miles long; and one and three quarters broad. It contains about two thousand sheep, and is in high repute for the excellence of its butter and cheese. While all the Elizabeth islands west of it have been stripped of their woods, the trees here, consisting of beech, pine, oak, and hickory, have been carefully preserved, and afford shelter to a hundred deer, one of which bounded across our path at a little distance before us. Our conductor was a lively and intelligent young farmer, who has the superintendence of the island, and resides at its northern extremity. We were quite pleased with the neatness and simplicity of his house ; but imagine my surprise, on taking up a book, to find that it was the Fables of Lafontaine, which opened of itself at that exquisite, inimitable tale 'Les deux pigeons.' This was something romantick, and we began to look about us for a goddess in disguise. But on inquiry we found the sober fact to be, that our young farmer was a Frenchman, who had left his country at the age of fourteen, and acquired our language so perfectly, that even when acquainted with his origin, we could not detect the slightest foreign accent. After dinner we left Nashaun delighted with every thing that we had seen there. The Elizabeth Islands are part of Chilmark, a town on Martha's Vineyard ;—their names are Cuttyhunk, Penaquese, Gull, Nashawenna, Pesque, Nashaun, Onkatomka, Nannamisset, the two Ram islands, and the three Wepeckets. They are generally stocked with sheep, the average weight of whose fleeces is full three pounds. Those brought from the main are far less likely to live here than those born on the islands themselves.

    In the boat, which conveyed us from Nashaun to Falmouth, we observed the words "O navis quć tibi creditum &c.' written by the pencil of our friend Dr. B-----, who had been on Nashaun four days before us, and knew that we should follow him. As our party consisted of seven, I considered myself entitled to a seventh part of the compliment, and was proud of my portion ; but would have resigned it willingly


for the pleasure of his company. We sailed by Onkatomka, where one thousand five hundred bushels of salt are annually made by evaporation from sea water. The overseer receives, as a compensation for the whole labour, one fifth part of the produce. At Falmouth forty thousand bushels are made, valued at fifty cents a bushel. From the water remaining after this process they make Glauber's salts, worth two cents a pound, at an expense not exceeding that previously incurred by extracting the common salt. The fuel requisite for this purpose costs nothing more than the labour of cutting it. From Falmouth an excellent road led us to Sandwich, which we reached on Friday evening.

    Saturday morning, after catching a mess of trout for dinner, we visited the ruined cellar of the sachem of Monumet, the neighbourhood of which was the scene of an interesting adventure in the life of Captain Standish. We also looked at the ground, through which it has been proposed to gut a canal seven miles long, connecting Buzzard's bay with that of Barnstable. It is said that their waters do not stand at the same level; but this inconvenience would be remedied by a lock. More serious objections are, that the navigation of Buzzard's bay is neither easy nor safe; that the force of the tides and the nature of the soil, which is pure sand, would obstruct the canal, and that in winter, when most needed, because the passage round Cape Cod is then most dangerous, it would be rendered impassable by ice. On the other hand, the advantages to be derived by our capital from such a passage are great and obvious. Even should it admit vessels of the smallest size only, it would induce those, who occupy the shores of the sound, to direct their commerce entirely to Boston, where they would find manners, and a mode of transacting business more similar to their own, than those of New York. It is by facilitating the means of intercourse between Boston and other parts of the state, that the former is to be rendered the great mart of our manufactures; not by establishing extensive manufactories within the limits of the town ; they are always pernicious in populous places ; nor have we any reason to expect an exemption from their evils, since the same causes, that produce so much mischief elsewhere, will operate here. In such establishments crowds of both sexes are collected from all parts of the country, suddenly exposed to many new temptations, removed from their


early habits and associations; freed from the salutary restraints imposed on them by the constant presence of those, whose opinions they have been accustomed to respect ; severed from all their natural connexions ; torn from their native soil, from the spot where they had taken root and flourished ; and thrown together to corrupt in a heap, under the heated atmosphere of the town.

    Sunday we remained at Sandwich, and on Monday morning left it on a very sandy road for Plymouth. In the course of our ride we saw two large rocks, called Sacrifice rocks, from a custom, still prevalent among the Indians, of throwing sticks of wood or branches of trees on them whenever they pass. Nobody seems to know the date or motive of this practice. Near the road, seven miles south of Plymouth, is Clam Pudding pond, on whose borders the judges of the colony, when they made their pedestrian circuits in old times, were accustomed to stop, and draw forth from their wallets their homely meal, consisting of roasted clams and hard Indian pudding, the luxuries of that age of simplicity. At Plymouth we made it our first business to visit 'Forefathers' rock,' the landing place of the pilgrims of 1620, a more accessible, but far more interesting spot than Gosnold's islet. The men, who landed here, did not abandon their enterprise, though they had want and perils to contend with, as well as their predecessors. But they came with a different character and different motives; they had been inured to adversity, excited and invigorated by persecution ; they knew that the hopes of their friends in Holland depended on their perseverance ; and they had made a contract with the Virginia company in England, by which they were pledged to remain here. The unexpected difficulties which they encountered, the want of food, the severity of the climate, the disease which destroyed nearly half their number in the first winter, would have discouraged most men, and perhaps have justified them in returning to Europe, notwithstanding their obligations to remain. But these were not the men to urge the plea of necessity. In their estimation it was necessary to do their duty, but it was not necessary to live. And they have their reward. The evils endured by them, great as they were, are a cheap price for the blessings that they have purchased for their children. We are enjoying the recompense of their sufferings, and gathering the fruits of their labour.


      The last interesting event, that I remember, was our sitting in Governour Carver's chair in the barber's shop at Plymouth.

    Such are the incidents and reflections, which have pleased your friend ; but the greatest of my pleasures was the society of my companions; and it was not the least of them to return.