Martha’s Vineyard … Martin’s Vineyard … well, which is it, anyway?
Actually, historians have never been able to agree on what our original English name was, nor our namesake. To start with, was it “Martha’s” or “Martin’s”?
In 1602, English explorer Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold came ashore on what we now call Nomans Land. In his published account, chronicler John Brereton wrote:
“At length we were come amongst many faire Islands … but comming to an anker under one of them, which was about three or foure leagues from the maine, captaine Gosnold, my selfe, and some others, went ashore, & going round about it, we found it to be foure English miles in compasse, without house or inhabitant, saving a little old house made of boughes, covered with barke, an olde piece of a weare of the Indians, to catch fish, and one or two places, where they had made fires.”
In the margin, Brereton added, “The first Island called Marthaes vineyard.” (In a later account he added, “The rest [of the Island was] overgrowne with trees, which so well as the bushes, were so overgrowne with Vines, we could scarce pass them.” So although grapes are mentioned nowhere in any of Gosnold’s accounts, perhaps “Vineyard” still has a relatively clear provenance.)
Gosnold was not the first European to visit our island. Italian explorer Sebastian Cabot sailed past nearly a century earlier, as did Giovanni da Verrazzano shortly afterward; both made rough maps of our coastline, and for all we know may have even landed here. Verrazzano named an island southwest of Cape Cod “Luisa,” which has been tentatively attributed to modern Block Island, but some historians speculate that “Luisa,” named after the mother of the King of France, could have been our Vineyard.
When Gosnold first landed in New England (somewhere north of Cape Cod; possibly Cape Ann) in 1602, he was greeted by a group of native men in a “Basque-shallop with mast and sail.” Their native leader wore shoes and stockings, waistcoat, breeches, hat and band, with his eyebrows painted white, and spoke and understood some English. Sailing south around the Cape to our islands and ultimately camping for about a month on “Elizabeth’s Isle” (likely modern Cuttyhunk), Gosnold’s men had several more encounters with English-speaking natives. “They pronounce our language with great facility,” wrote Brereton, “for one of them one day sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smiling to him these words: How now (sirrah) are you so saucy with my tobacco? …[He] spoke so plain and distinctly, as if he had been a long scholar in the language.”
There were two chroniclers aboard — Gabriel Archer being the second — and both wrote popular accounts of Gosnold’s voyage, which later inspired other English explorers to seek adventures in America. Their accounts are similar. They describe the island-hopping Wampanoag inhabitants as confident, well-organized, eager to trade, and happy to assist the Englishmen in cutting sassafras, worth a small fortune in England. They “offered themselves unto us in great familiarity,” wrote Archer.
But was “Martha’s” or “Martin’s” the name Gosnold intended? Historian Charles Banks in his classic book “History of Martha’s Vineyard” points out that in some 85 percent of 17th century written references to our Island, it’s spelled “Martin’s Vineyard” rather than “Martha’s Vineyard.” Even Thomas Mayhew Sr., who acquired the title to the Island and established the first English settlement here, called it Martin’s Vineyard. Our first book of Island deeds is titled “Upon Martin’s or Martha’s Vineyard,” although most 17th century legal documents dodged the issue by abbreviating it “Mart. Vineyard.” “The name ‘Martin’s’ was used up to about 1700,” writes Banks, “even by the residents of the Vineyard, by local historians and cartographers, by public officials throughout New England and New York.”
But who could “Martin” have been? It’s believed that Gosnold was accompanied on this voyage by a Capt. John Martin, better known for his later associations with Gosnold in Jamestown Colony. Gosnold named other minor locales after his traveling companions (like “Point Gilbert” for Bartholomew Gilbert, and “Tucker’s Terror” after another fellow traveler), so it would be no surprise if he named the Vineyard after his shipmate Captain Martin, who was after all the son of the former lord mayor of London.
It wasn’t until the 18th century — after Gosnold and Brereton were long dead — that “Martha’s” became the more popular choice for the name. But there are some solid theories as to who “Martha” could have been. Gosnold had an infant daughter named Martha who had died (probably a few years before his voyage); however, historians are skeptical that an explorer of that era would name an island after a deceased child. A better candidate is Gosnold’s influential mother-in-law, Martha Golding, who helped find the financial backing for his 1602 voyage. But then why a full century of “Martin’s Vineyard” first?
Captain Martin is best known as one of the founding settlers and original leaders of Virginia Colony at Jamestown in 1607, together with Gosnold. He was scrappy, ambitious, and a survivor, but he was not well-liked. He was seen as privileged, combative, and a complainer. He was quarrelsome, uncooperative, “embroiled in controversies,” and even refused to pay taxes. The planters complained about him to the London Company, writing, “Captain Martin hath refused to submitt himselfe to the lawes.”
So was it the dead baby, the contentious captain, or the rich mother-in-law? We could have worse name options. Three years after Gosnold visited our waters, French explorer Samuel de Champlain spotted our island and named it “La Soupçonneuse” (“The Suspicious One”) because “in the distance we had several times thought it was not an island.” The name entered French culture as “l’Ile Douteuse” (Doubtful Island).
Maybe Gosnold should have asked the inhabitants of that little old house made of boughs. The Wampanoag “Noëpe” might have been the best choice after all.