A Brief History Of The Elizabeth Islands

With the threat of advancing hurricane winds bearing down on Shipyard Park, Seth Mendell’s September 4 lecture on the history of the Elizabeth Islands was moved from that scenic perch to the Mattapoisett Historical Society Museum.

As the audience grew, many sat in the narrow balcony that flanks the tiny gallery. All were transported to another space in time when ships and commerce, trading partners, and pirates roamed the open waters between New Bedford, Boston, Cuttyhunk, Martha’s Vineyard, and exotic places far beyond.

It was a fortuitous move from the outdoor venue as Mendell was able to use the enormous Ashley map that graces the facing interior wall behind the pulpit. Armed with his mighty laser pointer, he spoke to the packed house while aiming the pointer at references along the map.

And he began at the very beginning…

Mendell took the group back in time to the very formation of the island chain. Their creation, although directly related to glacial movement, was from the gravel and soils that were entombed inside the frozen water. While the glaciers pushed and pulled the earth from beneath, they also deposited many megatons of material as they melted away.

The islands make up the town of Gosnold and are comprised of seven major islands: Nonamesset, Uncantena, Naushon, Pasque, Nasawena, Penikese, and Cuttyhunk. There are another 15 lesser ones for a total of 22 in all.

“It’s hard to say where the first people came from,” Mendell said as he began to populate the now fully formed islands. He said the Wampanoag Indians inhabited the islands, as had an earlier people who left behind topographical evidence.

“The first white man to land there was Barthomele Gosnold in June 1602,” Mendell said. “He landed on Cuttyhunk as he sailed the area for his Queen, Queen Elizabeth.” Thus the islands were named after the English queen. “He named Martha’s Vineyard after his daughter it is believed,” he added.

Mendell said Gosnold had planned to set up a colony as the British were wont to do wherever they landed, but, “He ran out of supplies, so after about three or four weeks they loaded up the ship with sassafras roots and cedar logs and hightailed it back to England.”

From that point, Mendell talked about the great Pilgrim migration between 1620 and 1630 when approximately 75,000 Europeans sailed here with 15,000 alone landing in the Bay Colony – Boston.

King James the First, who ruled after Elizabeth, “didn’t want to be bothered with the islands,” Mendell said. “He gave them to the Council of New England.” They, in turn, promptly sold them off to a Thomas Mayhew. Mayhew had also been negotiating with the Wampanoags from whom he purchased Naushon in 1654.

The islands changed hands a number of times, but in 1730 it was sold to James Bowdoin and his family who owned it for 113 years. While at one time the islands were valued for the timber, once denuded from over harvesting, sheep were raised for wool. Bowdoin employed as many as twenty tenant farm families to tend the sheep. “Tarpaulin Cove had become a center of activity,” Mendell said.

Pirates added to the richness and fun of Mendell’s brief history. Due to the amount of commercial shipping taking place throughout Buzzards Bay and surrounding waters, merchant ships were ripe for the picking. Thus, such scalawags as Thomas Pound, Thomas Hawkins, and William Kidd grabbed all they could.

This caused the merchants who were being robbed to petition for help from Boston. The powers that be deployed armed British ships to the island chain in 1669 led by a Captain Pierce. “A pitched battle ensued, and the pirates were captured and sent to Newport where they were hung,” Mendell said.

As time went on, business and local populations grew. Farmers mixed with sailors and one account from those days memorialized it this way: “In the evening, there was much frolicking about…” Mendell said with a chuckle.

Prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, many lighthouses were built along the shores of Buzzards Bay, Mendell said, due to the vast amount of maritime activity taking place.

During the war itself, Mrs. Bowdoin asked for help from the council in Boston. She wrote, “They have abused inhabitants, stolen ships, and taken sheep and wool…” Before the war ended, the British would burn both New Bedford and Falmouth to the ground, Mendell said.

The Forbes family has owned the islands since the mid-1800s. A family trust still owns the property today. The 1998 census reports that there are 359 Forbes heirs.

The first Forbes to live on the islands was John Murray Forbes. He called the place “an unspoiled jewel” and set about making improvement such as better drainage, stone walls to hold the sheep in certain locations, and the planting of thousands of trees to aid in erosion control. After a while, he would buy out all remaining Bowdoin heirs.

As a side note, Mendell said he always tried to follow the money when exploring the history of famous people. As for the Forbes family, their income came from trading between New England and Alaskan native tribes where seal and sea otter pelts were obtained and then taken to China and traded for tea and silk. Of the Chinese he said, “They loved those pelts.” Of the Forbeses he said, “They made a killing on tea and silk.”

When the government wanted to set up a penal colony on Nashawena in 1904, Malcolm Forbes bought that island to keep it from becoming “something they didn’t want,” Mendell said. The Forbes family had been good stewards of the island, said Mendell, preventing their beauty from being sullied by commercial development.


By Marilou Newell

One Response to “A Brief History Of The Elizabeth Islands”

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  1. Bruce Ross says:

    I spent much time in 1950′, during my teenage years around and on those islands, especially Tarpaulin Cove, swimming, picnic,s and exploring looking for a WWII plane we had heard crashed in the interior of Nashion near a pond. Never found it, although we camped on the island for a few days looking. Many pleasant memories, highlighted by James Cagney sailing by us and waving, think he had a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard. Bruce Ross, Captain, retired.

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