The Return of the Sons of Martha’s Vineyard

The Sons of Martha's Vineyard returned home on the Monohansett on July 3,1888. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

July fourth, 1888, marked one of Martha’s Vineyard’s most unusual Independence Days. On this date 125 years ago, more than 100 former Vineyarders from all walks of life and from far-flung corners of the country made their first united pilgrimage back to their Island birthplace. What had begun as a small club in Boston became an Island sensation when the “Sons of Martha’s Vineyard” steamed into Vineyard Haven together on board the S.S. Monohansett. Mr. C.G.M. Dunham, chairman of the club, inaugurated the celebration on the shores of Lake Tashmoo:

“On this glorious, this world renowned anniversary of American Independence you have come hither from your several places of abode to gladden your hearts and ours by a happy reunion; to refresh your memories with joyous scenes of youth; to revivify the charming imaginations of the past; to re-enforce, by another taste of the delights of early days, your courage to go forth again and do battle manfully and successfully with the harsh, the unsympathizing world.”

The festivities included a parade, speeches, fireworks and, appropriately, a “grand picnic.” Together with 1,000 of their old friends and neighbors, the Sons celebrated both the nation’s birth and the rebirth of old friendships. Most speeches focused on the unique pride Islanders shared for their home, and many others recounted the adventuresome spirit of Vineyarders around the world. The day was dedicated not only to American patriotism, but to the communal patriotism they felt towards their home island. As W.A. Morse asked in his speech, “is this not a fitting day for our return, a day itself symbolic of patriotism…?”

The Sons of Martha’s Vineyard was founded in 1887 with the goal of “fostering social enjoyment and better acquaintance” for men separated from their birthplace. The isolation of the Island led many to look for greater opportunities elsewhere. Some left to pursue their professions, such as their president, attorney Leander Butler. Many other men left instead to found a new home.

As the reunion speakers attested, the town of “New Vineyard” in Maine was full of Island natives who hoped to start afresh. The leaders of the Sons were, for the most part, successful lawyers, but the majority of the men on the “pilgrimage” were common laborers. Sailors, carpenters, clothiers, captains, and businessmen were all represented at the gathering in Tisbury in 1888. Though most founding members of the Sons of Martha’s Vineyard lived in the Boston area, many men who joined the pilgrimage came from across the country. All the states of New England were represented at the reunion as well as New York City. Some came from as far as California.

Though this small club originally boasted only 60 members, the reception at Tashmoo seated over a thousand. Upon their arrival in Tisbury at sundown on July 3, the pilgrims were greeted by the entire town of Tisbury, thousands, holding lanterns to welcome their wandering Sons home. July fourth began with a parade down Main Street and continued in a caravan of buggies, horses, and marching bands until they reached David Smith’s Grove on Lake Tashmoo.

Charles Luce opened his speech with this small truth: “it affords me no little pleasure to say that the Vineyard people love their old home with an affection that is exceptional. In my limited travels, I have never witnessed so strong a love for home as our people show.”

This love for their Island home was often expressed as “patriotism,” literally a love of one’s father-land. For many of the speech-makers the spirit of the national holiday was revealed in the strong tie to their birthplace. Rather than the abstract idea of Independence Day, the Sons of Martha’s Vineyard made their return a return to their family, and a childhood spent on Martha’s Vineyard.

For many on this holiday the day will be spent in reunion with their friends and family seemingly reliving the spirit of the 1888 pilgrimage. Today, as it was 125 years ago, many who are born here must leave Martha’s Vineyard in search of their future elsewhere. Though the return of the Sons was over a century ago, it is still easy to find common cause with their love of home. While the Island cannot possibly meet every possible need, or accommodate every occupation, it will always hold a special place within those who hail from the Vineyard’s shores. For those merely visiting our island, Mr. Dunham’s far-seeing words speak better than any:

“And if the swelling wave of summer immigration shall extend beyond the town of Tisbury to the picturesque hills of Chilmark, and to the glorious cliffs of Gay Head, and flood even the staid and ancient village of Edgartown, let us not repine; but let us generously and philanthropically welcome the stranger to our land, willing to share with him the blessings and pleasures of our ocean home, from Katama to Gay Head, and from Pohoganot to West Chop.”

Tye Stien, a research and writing intern at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, graduated from Skidmore College in the spring.

Visit for more information about upcoming programming and exhibits. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is dedicated to furthering an interest in, experience of, and appreciation for the history and culture of the Island and its environs. The Museum is open year round. Summer hours are Monday-Saturday 10am to 5pm, and Sunday 12-5pm. Admission is free to Members; admission for non-Members is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children 6 to 15 and free for children under the age of 6.