This Was Then: The Courthouse

Photos of long-ago Martha’s Vineyard.

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Courtesy of Chris Baer.

The Dukes County Courthouse, built in 1858 from local brick, is by no means our first courthouse. The first trial on record on Martha’s Vineyard was likely held in the home of Governor Mayhew in 1677–78, when a fine was imposed for an “unseemly Act in the governers house.” A much more serious trial took place in 1689, when a Wampanoag man named Pammatoock was charged for “killing Sarah an Indian maid at tisbury” more than two decades earlier. He was found guilty and ordered to be “executed … until he is dead dead dead.” It was the first known execution on the Island, and probably took place in Edgartown.

Our first dedicated courthouse was built in 1721, but the choice of Edgartown as the county seat was immediately challenged. Chilmark lawyer Major Pain(e) Mayhew — who is often referred to, perhaps fittingly, as Major Pain — was the first to attempt to force the move of our county seat to Chilmark or Tisbury. He failed, but the battle had only begun. In 1721 a second courthouse was built in Tisbury, and for more than 40 years our county maintained not one, but two Island courthouses.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.