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Island History

A glimpse back through time

Martha’s Vineyard is a glacial moraine, created around 10,000 years ago, near the end of the Quaternary glacial epochs, when the Laurentide ice sheet deposited the boulders, gravel, and sand that it carried along on its slow journey southward from Canada. As the ice sheet receded, the southernmost deposits became the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. The oceans began to rise with the melting ice, thus forming Nantucket Sound and the peninsula to the north known as Cape Cod.

As the climate warmed, Native Americans began to migrate to the island, settling here more than 5,000 years ago. Martha’s Vineyard was originally known by the Wampanoag Indians in their language as Noepe, or “land amid the streams.”

In March 1602, English explorer and privateer Bartholomew Gosnold set off in his vessel Concord across the Atlantic to arrive months later along the coast of Maine. As he traveled farther south he came upon Cape Cod and, on May 22 of that year, he arrived at Martha’s Vineyard. He found the island quite large, well wooded, and with a profusion of wild grapes; thus, he called it Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter Martha, who had passed away in infancy.

A non-Wampanoag settlement started in Edgartown, with people making a living through farming and fishing. Later, as the whaling industry flourished during the early 19th century, more than 100 whaling captains called the island their home. You can still see many of the stately properties built during this prosperous time along North Water Street in Edgartown. Note the “widow’s walk” atop many of the homes, and imagine, as folklore has it, the captains’ wives staring out to sea, awaiting the return of their loved ones.

And where are all the grapes? Well, they’re out there, but growing wildly in countless back yards, fields and woods throughout the island. The last actual vineyard on Martha’s Vineyard ceased operations in 2008.