Traveling ancient ocean pathways


Rushing water surrounds Pasque Island. At one end of this mile-wide, mile and three-quarters long dumpling of sand, marsh, and rock, the tidal currents stream north and south through Quicks Hole, the main thoroughfare for New Bedford-based draggers and scallopers bound for the fishing grounds, or home again.

At the other end, the eastern end, the boiling flow twists through Robinson’s Hole, a demanding passage for small boat operators, but a good place to fish.

Along the south shore, it’s Vineyard Sound hurrying by the cobbled shore toward the big turn at West Chop and on to Pollock Rip, or pushing westward against the wind toward the treacherous Sow and Pigs reef.

On the north, in tumbling Buzzards Bay, the current is moderate, no more than 1.5 knots at its briskest, but not to be ignored by thoughtful navigators.

Amidst all this coming and going, Pasque persists, a part of Gosnold, the seventh Dukes County town. Undemanding and offering much to its few visitors, Pasque is private, uninviting to the mariner, and little known beyond its mostly unwelcoming shores.

Europeans had been frequent visitors to Cuttyhunk, the seat of Gosnold government, and to the nearby islands after Sir Bartholomew Gosnold landed there in 1602. Eleven years later, Shakespeare seems to have written “The Tempest,” whose landscape, some scholars believe, drew upon Gosnold’s reports of his investigations of Cuttyhunk and the other Elizabeth Islands. And that would include tiny Pasque, although, alas, despite its many charms, Pasque claims no bosky dells with literary pretensions.

Europeans claimed Pasque from the Wampanoags, its earliest seasonal residents, in the first few decades of the 17th century. The written history of the island’s use by white men is sparse. One well-known incident, often repeated in obscure histories, tells of an occasion when the Indians, uncommonly, had the best of their English rivals. Vineyard Capt. William Weeks’ small sloop went ashore on Pasque from her anchorage in Quicks Hole on November 22, 1667. The sloop’s crew took shelter in an Indian hut. When the Indian occupants of the quarters arrived, they declared the sloop and all her cargo, as well as the personal effects of the captain and crew, to have been forfeited by the Englishmen.

Some debate ensued, as you might imagine, but the Indians had their way, carrying off everything but the clothes on the sailors’ backs and a bit of food. Clothes, Indian corn, barrels of pork and hides, tobacco, cotton, meal, turnips, onions, pots, children’s shoes, Goody Doggett’s cloak (don’t ask me), and sundry other cargoes were among the Indians’ booty.

When the white folks’ usurpation had been firmly established, after another 200 years had passed, some business types bought the island from the Tucker family, its Dartmouth, Massachusetts owners. (A desperately persistent effort to get folks to call Pasque Tucker’s Island never had any real legs.)

The businessmen established a striped bass fishing club, the Pasque Island Club, beside the lovely, twisting, shallow inlet that opens upon Robinson’s Hole from the west. The club lasted nearly 70 years, till overfishing, not just by the clubmen but mainly by food-fishing Vineyarders, depleted the stocks of bass and took the fun out of it.

One evening recently, nearly 400 years after the first European visitors arrived, a Vineyard Haven sloop came to anchor under the bluffs on the northeast corner of Pasque. The lively crew of youngsters, three girls and three boys, none older than 13, did not hesitate to invade.

They had spent the afternoon beating up the bay against a stiffish westerly that now appeared intent on surviving the sunset. The anchorage was not a particularly comfortable place to lie. The day’s wind-driven rollers, not ready to subside despite the late hour, had the sloop pulling on her anchor rode, and yawing from side to side. It was fall, no other vessels were anchored here, and there were no small craft visible on the bay. The scene was beautiful but remote.

Undaunted, the crew, which knew the anchorage as Pirate’s Cove, scrambled nimbly over the side into the skiff, determined to see what was what.

At this spot on Pasque’s rocky shore, deep water right up to the beach allows even a vessel of moderate draft to approach closely. The invaders made their way to the top of the bluffs, where they could look down upon their anchored vessel and then off to the west across the bay at the setting sun.

In the tradition of warlike ancestors, they threw stones at one another, and they looked for treasure — sea glass trinkets to display and trade. They encountered no hostile natives, and they returned swiftly to the sloop when the horn blew announcing their simple supper.

This column is adapted from one published on June 7, 2007.