Shipwrecks and slavery

Tom Dresser’s newest book reveals the ‘Hidden History of Martha’s Vineyard’

Tom Dresser's latest book explores everything from graveyards to slavery on the Island. —Courtesy The History Press

Tom Dresser, reformed bus driver and relentless Island historian, has published his eighth history book on our place. Believe me, you want this on your coffee table or in the guest bedroom this summer. Warning: Read it yourself, before Aunt Emma, visiting from Topeka, tells you how the beetlebung tree really got its name.

Now, maybe there are people who know more about Island history than Mr. Dresser does, but no one I’ve read has put together so much little-known information about stuff we thought we knew, delivered in a folksy, happily consumable fashion. Mr. Dresser has arranged this work under five themes: “Vineyard Nomenclature”; “The Underground Railroad”; “Vineyard Shipwrecks”; “Island Structures”; and “Vineyard Graveyards.” Let’s whet your whistle.

In the “Nomenclature” (names we call things and places) section, Mr. Dresser artfully packages a barrage of facts about how the beetlebung got its name, that Aquinnah lacked electricity until the 1940s (and tells us who helped them get lights), and that Bartholomew Gosnold named the Island, not after his daughter as local lore generally has it, but after his mother-in-law, who financed his expedition.

The “Underground Railroad” section was the most gripping Island tale for me in “Hidden History,” because of the richly detailed stories of escaping slaves. Most of the freedom seekers were crew on ships or stowaways. They escaped from ships docked in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven, and were hidden and protected by some residents while they were being tracked down by other Island residents.

Mr. Dresser builds out his story of the Underground Railroad to explain how it worked, and where slaves had the best chance for freedom beyond Vineyard shores. He also tells you where the hidden rooms provided by antislavery Island citizens were, and in some cases still are, in Island homes and on farms.

We know all there is to know about Island shipwrecks, right? Well, not so much, I learned. The wreck of the City of Columbus in 1884 gets most of the ink around here, but Mr. Dresser tells us about three other events that occurred here, including the scuttling of the John Dwight, a rum-running wooden freighter, and the sinking of the Port Hunter, a cargo ship that collided with a tugboat and sank off East Chop. Vineyarders rescued the crew and then salvaged the cargo, effecting a short-lived economic boom on-Island.

The shipwreck stories demonstrate what Mr. Dresser has done in this book. He has scrubbed the records of historians, correspondence from the period, and newspaper articles from the Vineyard Gazette and this newspaper, among others, into a retelling that puts a human face on the event. Who knew artisan and sculptor Barney Weitz’s grandfather was hired by the War Department to salvage the Port Hunter, or that Jimmy Morgan’s fishing boat got hung up on the wreck of the John Dwight?

There is more detail in the “Island Structures” section, which includes short pieces on Island hotels, landmarks, and churches. A prime example is the recounting of a 2001 fire that ruined the now spiffy Mansion House hotel in Vineyard Haven. Owner Susie Goldstein talks about a fire bigger than volunteer firefighters had ever faced, and that some of them were wearing tuxedos from a gala they were attending when the call went out. I can see that scene, despite the obvious difficulty of imagining Islanders in tuxedos under any circumstances.

The clincher for me was the section “Vineyard Graveyards.” My personal preference is to whistle past graveyards; the less seen the better. But Mr. Dresser introduces us to the world of tombstone fashion, if you will, in which the design and details have changed over the centuries. And since we’ve been burying people here for almost 400 years, there’s a good sample of graveyard art.

For example, early gravestones were adorned with skulls, often with wings attached. Sounds a hair ghoulish, but the righteous Pilgrim types wanted to remind onlookers that mortality is fleeting, and they had better clean up their acts before the Grim Reaper came calling. In the 1700s, gravestones took on a kinder, gentler style, first featuring winged cherubs. Later granite flowers bloomed, followed by sun and ray designs, and so on.

Mr. Dresser has written long and deeply about specific Island subjects. His latest book is an often whimsical, fast-paced look at the things we see here every day, and “Hidden History” affords us an opportunity to relish them more completely.