The Gay Head Wampanoag Indians lived on Martha’s Vineyard for thousands of years, and for the last 400 they never gave up trying to keep their land and remain a sovereign tribe.
Early on they figured out how to best the English colonists at their own legal games. In the end, despite many, many setbacks, they succeeded in taking back their land.
About 3,000 Wampanoag Indians lived on the island they called Noepe when the first permanent English settler arrived in 1641. His name was Thomas Mayhew, and he intended to convert the natives to Christianity. Mayhew led his Congregationalist congregation from Watertown, Mass., to the island. Somehow along the way it became known by the name of a smaller island nearby – Martha’s Vineyard.
Mayhew and his followers set about wresting the land from the Indians. The conversion of the Indians to Christianity would result in a feudal system presided over by Mayhew and his descendants for generations.
The Indians for centuries disputed deeds, took claimants to court and worked the political system. They even staged an occupation protest in the 18th-century.
A Beautiful and Brilliant Object
The Indians’ home of Aquinnah became known to the English as Gay Head, after the cliffs that rose 100 feet above the ocean. They are made of clay, red, yellow, blue, indigo, black and white. Wrote historian John Warner Barber in 1841, “to those who are on board a vessel sailing near to shore, especially after a rain, and when the sun shines on it, it is a beautiful and brilliant object, hence the name Gay Head.”
It was Mayhew’s son Thomas who first succeeded in converting the Indians. He had been educated to become a missionary, how is not clear. Mayhew Jr. and another missionary, John Eliot, obtained funding for their work from the British Isles through ‘The New England Company for the Propagation of the Gospel,’ which was incorporated in 1649.
Mayhew Jr. and Eliot converted the Indians by promising freedom from disease, protection from warfare and eternal salvation. They turned Aquinnah into a praying town, one of 14 Christian Indian communities established by the Puritans in the 17th century.
To create Christian institutions, Mayhew Jr. opened schools to train teachers and preachers. Benjamin Franklin’s great-grandfather Peter Folger was one of Mayhew’s teachers. They taught Indian children English and indoctrinated them with English beliefs. By co-opting the Indian leaders to support these new churches, schools and courts, they could strictly enforce Christian morality.
Word then spread throughout North America and Europe about the Praying Indians of Martha’s Vineyard who said grace before meals.
Mayhew Jr. didn’t succeed entirely in his mission. The Wampanoag Indians hung on to many of their traditions and beliefs. Later, white evangelists were horrified by the Wampanoag Indians’ democratic and enthusiastic services. They were especially appalled that the women had an equal voice to the men.
Then Thomas Mayhew, Jr., drowned at the age of 35 on a voyage to England in 1657. By many accounts, he sincerely wished to help the Indians. But his father had more interest in establishing – and heading — a feudal colony, using religion as a tool of social control.
“The essence of political rule was religion,” wrote historian Thomas Dresser. Mayhew Sr. became the legislative and spiritual leader of Martha’s Vineyard. He formally accepted the sachems as leaders, but privately, no doubt, believed he ran things.
In 1671, King Charles II appointed Thomas Mayhew, Sr., ‘Lifetime Governor of the Vineyard Indians with authority to buy their property.’ Mayhew and his English settlers went to work manipulating the Indians into selling their land. Generations of Mayhew missionaries would run Indian affairs on Martha’s Vineyard as the English settlements grew. The Province of Massachusetts enforced the Indians’ second-class status by appointing Guardians to run their affairs. The English also supervised their churches.
In 1687, one of the Indians’ Christian leaders sold Gay Head and the Elizabeth Islands to Thomas Donegan, governor of New York. Donegan then leased the land to new English colonists, infuriating the Indians.
The English had perhaps taught the Indians too well. The Indians took them to court and challenged the deed. They lost their case, but they persisted. The Wampanoags constantly petitioned the provincial government with complaints about the guardians and claims to their property. Sometimes they won.
Thomas Mayhew, Jr.,’s promise that Christianity would protect the Indians from disease was quickly broken. Smallpox thinned the Wampanoag population and land dealings reduced their territories. By 1747, their numbers fell to 112. Only three native communities remained on Martha’s Vineyard: Aquinnah (or Gay Head), Chilmark and Christiantown.
The fortunes of the Wampanoags improved slightly in the mid-18th century as their population increased. It rose to 165 in 1765 to 203 in 1786 and 276 in 1790.
They also began to succeed in protecting their land from the predations of the white settlers. Zachariah Howwaswee, a Wampanoag minister, fought tenaciously for 20 years to invalidate a deed for land two Indians sold illegally to the English.
Howwaswee was a community activist and an inspirational leader who understood the English legal system.
In the mid-18th century, two Wampanoags, Elisha and Israel Amos, were buying up Indian land with money borrowed from the English. They then sold or leased that land to English colonists, which was against existing law and Wampanoag tradition. Zachariah fought them in court for 20 years – and won. Teaching the Indians the ways of the English courts had finally backfired on the colonists. It would happen again.
Zachariah Howwaswee, Jr., picked up where his father left off. In 1775, the English guardians gave a Mayhew descendant, Zachariah Mayhew, several hundred acres of Wampanoag land in payment for his supervision of the Christian churches. Mayhew leased the land to colonists and farmed some of it himself in 1779.
The Indians were furious about the theft. Howwaswee, like his father, did something about it. Howwaswee, Jr., was a minister who preached in the Wampanoag language in the Congregational Church. He came up with a clever, two-part plan to take back the land – and once again, it involved the courts.
Occupying Indian Lands
Howwaswee promised several “busy lawyers” who lived on the island that they could have leasing rights to the land if they helped the Indians fight Zachariah Mayhew in court. And then he began to occupy the land.
The Gay Headers ripped down his mile-long fence. Mayhew rebuilt it. They tore it down again. When Mayhew’s tenant tried to drive his cattle to the grazing lands, the Indians wouldn’t let him. They drove off cows that were already there. Then they built an Indian house on the property and an Indian family moved in. They posted a sign saying no outsider could keep so much as a pig on the land or to have any kind of enclosure on it. They banned Mayhew’s tenants from setting foot in Aquinnah.
Howwaswee also pressured Mayhew to leave through another tactic. He engaged some lawyers, promising them leases if they won back the property.
In 1789 Mayhew abandoned his claim. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled in Howwaswee’s favor. Mayhew was banned from preaching or even visiting their community.
The story, though, didn’t end happily for the Wampanoags. Howwaswee moved into the house built on the land and appropriated one-third of it for himself. He and another Mayhew, Simon, grabbed most of the grazing rights to the rest. Fifty-two Wampanoags petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for relief, and prevailed. The men were removed from the land.
By the 1800s there were only three native communities, Aquinnah, Christiantown and Chappaquiddick. As the most populous and best organized, the Aquinnah Wampanoags had the best shot at keeping their land and their identity.
Setting a Precedent
The Howwaswees set a precedent that would be followed into the 20th century. The Wampanoags would use the levers of the established government to win back their lands and their tribal sovereignty. Though their numbers again declined in the 19th century, they clung to their identity.
Then in 1972, the tribe formed the Wampanoag Tribal Council of Gay Head, Inc. The Indians intended the council to promote self-determination and to ensure preservation and continuation of Wampanoag history and culture. They also intended to achieve federal recognition for the tribe, and to seek the return of tribal lands to the Wampanoag people.
On April 10, 1987, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head became a federally acknowledged tribe. That year, the federal government settled the Wampanoags’ claims to 485 acres of tribal lands. That included 160 acres of private land and 325 acres of common land, including Gay Head Cliffs, Herring Creek and Lobsterville.
The tribe currently seeks to transform its community center into a casino on its land.
This story was updated in 2022. Image of Herring Creek By William Waterway – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18457262