Old Martha’s Vineyard deed sold

Real estate transactions have a way of rising to the top on Martha’s Vineyard, whether the multimillion dollar exchanges of today or a simple gift between family members in the 17th century.

An example of the latter surfaced in New York last month, when the manuscript of a 1686 deed for a meadow in modern-day Oak Bluffs sold for $4,800 at Swann Auction Galleries. The earliest recorded deed in the Dukes County Registry of Deeds is dated 1641.

The gallery’s physical description of the original document reads, “Single sheet, 8 1/2 by 7 1/4 inches; quite worn, with heavy folds, short tears, and 4 areas of paper loss with partial loss to several words, but generally legible and stable.” Simple enough, but what about the back story of the deed? Where has it been in the 324 years since it was recorded?

First of all, where exactly was the meadow? Its location is described as being on the north side of Ohkoshkepe Neck — the section of Oak Bluffs between East Chop and a line between the head of the Lagoon and Majors Cove. It was between Quaniama (most likely the beach that separated Lagoon Pond with Vineyard Haven outer harbor) and the western end of Assannootakit Pond (today known as Brush Pond), “the small salt pond emptying into the Lagoon at Eastville,” as described by Charles Banks, author of the three-volume classic, “History of Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 1911. This would place it somewhere near the hospital. If so, it couldn’t have been a very large parcel.

The land in question was granted by Puttuspaquin, the brother of the sachem of the Wampanoag settlement at “Sachocantakit,” modern-day Sengekontacket. The grantees were Esther and Alice Daggett, daughters of Puttuspaquin’s sister Sessetom and Joseph Daggett, son of John Daggett. Confusing? A look back a few years adds some clarity.

In October 1641, only 39 years after Bartholomew Gosnold “discovered” Martha’s Vineyard, Thomas Mayhew of Watertown was given “full power and authority…to plant and inhabit…Martins Vinyard with all privileges and Rights thereunto belonging to enjoy the premises to himself heirs and associates forever….”

At that time, Martha’s Vineyard was unclaimed by European settlers, despite its proximity to the Massachusetts Bay colony. In fact, the two documents that Mayhew procured to grant him rights to the Island were signed by representatives of settlements in Maine and New Amsterdam (New York). Mayhew’s intentions were unclear, according to historians, and it’s possible that he may have been interested in starting a new colony. “Neither grant mentioned ownership or purchase, only the right to inhabit,” wrote Arthur Railton in the Dukes County Intelligencer. “Ownership, apparently, remained with the Indians until purchased by English settlers.” Mr. Railton is the author of “The History of Martha’s Vineyard,” published in 2006.

By mid-March, 1642, Mayhew granted settlement rights to John Daggett, a neighbor in Watertown who had become interested in Martha’s Vineyard. John Daggett was born in England around 1602 and arrived in New England in 1630. The first reference to him on Martha’s Vineyard is in 1651. He prospered on the Island for several years, but he quarreled with Thomas Mayhew eventually, and in the mid 1660s he moved to Plymouth. He had five children, three boys and two girls. Thomas (born 1630) and Joseph (1647) kept the Daggett line going on the Island, although the latter took his line in an unusual direction by marrying the sister of Puttuspaquin.

“[Joseph's] marriage to Alice Sessetom,” wrote Banks, “daughter of the Sachem of Sanchacantaket, is one of the romances of our history and serves to mark him as one who ignored the conventionalities of society in choosing an Indian princess for his bride. It certainly placed him in an anomalous social position and although his father gave him an equal share by will…, there was little affiliation between the descendants of the two Island branches for many years.”

According to Rick Stattler, the director of Printed and Manuscript Americana at Swann Auction Galleries, the union of Joseph Daggett and Alice Sessetom “was the only recognized marriage between settlers and Wampanoags on Martha’s Vineyard in the colonial period.” They had three children — Joseph, Esther (or Hester), and Alice. Esther married Edward Cottle, with whom she had two children, while Alice, who never married, bore three children — Henry Luce, Samuel Look, and Patience Allen. Daggett, Cottle, Luce, Look, and Allen — all prominent Island names down through the 300-plus years since then.

Esther and Alice Daggett became the owners of the meadow transferred to them in the 1686 deed. The meadow was eventually passed down or transferred to some other party, presumably, but who were they and where did they take the deed, which surfaced most recently in the 1970s somewhere in the western part of the United States?

“It’s almost impossible to track the descendants,” Mr. Stattler said. “The descendants of the small settlements along the East Coast have spread out all across the continent, and it’s amazing how many people you could trace back to a document like this.” Amazing and effectively impossible: If each of the sisters had three children, for example, and they had three children, who had three children and so on and so on for 10 or more generations, there would be hundreds of thousands of people alive today with a direct link to one of the sisters who were granted the land in 1686. Still, it’s intriguing to imagine the whereabouts of the deed since then.

“The consignor was a collector who was buying for local dealers and antique shops, and he didn’t actually remember where specifically he picked it up, but he’s pretty sure that he bought it on one of his buying adventures out west,” Mr. Stattler said of the man who purchased the deed some 40 years ago and brought it to Swann last year. The consignor wished to remain anonymous, but probably he knew little about the deed’s provenance.

The purchaser, on the other hand, is no secret — Joseph Rubinfine, a dealer of American historical autographs in Cocoa, Florida. “The item in question was of interest to a customer so, as I occasionally do, I bought it for him at the auction, bidding by phone in this instance,” Mr. Rubenfine wrote in an email, adding that the buyer is averse to publicity. “Such 17th century documents involving Native Americans are not all that unusual in our market although it has been a few years since I have handled one, and I do not recall ever having one from Martha’s Vineyard.” If the buyer was more interested in autographs than the deed itself, which signature was more valuable to him, the mark of Puttuspaquin or the script of Thomas Mayhew?

From its origins to its future, intriguing questions about the deed remain, even multiply. But there’s no question about the importance of the recorded version as a source document for historians, nor about the original’s value to collectors of early Americana as a romantic artifact. The future of the latter is impossible to predict, of course, but it’s unlikely that it will disappear for another 300 years. And who knows? It might even find its way back home some day, perhaps to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum where it would become the property of all of us, in a way.