In January 1886, the New York Times reported that a ship’s afterhouse, newly painted, 12 by 20 feet in size, was found washed ashore near Roaring Brook. Aboard were two human skeletons tied together with rope. They were thought to be victims of the wreck of the steamer City of Columbus two years earlier, on the rocks of Devil’s Bridge off Gay Head.
In March 1939, a skeleton of an older man was found on the beach at West Tisbury. His golden-clasped bridgework suggested a man of means, but he was never identified. Authorities suspected he was a victim of the tragic hurricane of ’38.
In July 1958, a New Bedford fisherman snagged his net on a Navy fighter plane, heavily encrusted with marine growth, submerged in 15 feet of water in Menemsha Bight. The skeleton of a pilot was found strapped in the cockpit. Never identified, it was believed to be a plane lost in World War II. (Tom Dresser, co-author of “Martha’s Vineyard in World War II,” conveys an eyewitness account of a Navy plane crashing into Dogfish Bar around 1942, and speculates that it could be the same aircraft. “Many Navy personnel searched for the plane, as apparently the pilot had secret info aboard.”)
In 1995, a West Tisbury contractor unearthed 40 unmarked skeletal remains in neat rows off Sylvan Avenue in Vineyard Haven. The site is believed to be the original, unmarked graveyard of the old Marine Hospital, run by Dr. William Leach in the 1860s and 1870s. The unidentified men were off-Island mariners, young men who arrived in our ports gravely ill with typhoid or malaria.
Of course, many skeletal discoveries are Wampanoag in origin, predating European colonization. In October 1858, for example, four Wampanoag skeletons were found buried together in Edgartown by workmen excavating a sidewalk.
C.G. Hine, in his 1907 book “The History of Cedar Neck,” writes about a skeleton found on Hines Point:
“Some 15 years ago George Hillman dug up the skeleton of an Indian giant in almost perfect preservation; the bones indicated a man easily six feet and a half, possibly seven feet, high. Doctor Butler, himself a large man, said that the femur bone was a full two inches longer than his. A singular feature was a complete double row of teeth on both upper and lower jaws. After all the bones were removed, the place was carefully dug over, but no implements were found.”
Multiple hyperdontia — the condition of having a second row of teeth — is rare but not unheard-of by modern dentists. Nor was this the first record of extra-tall Vineyard natives. John Brereton, in his 1602 account of Gosnold’s voyage to the Vineyard, reported that the Wampanoag were “of stature much higher than we.” English explorer Martin Pring made a similar observation while reporting on the coast near Plymouth the following year, writing, “The men are of stature somewhat taller than our ordinary people, strong, swift, well proportioned.”
Earlier this month, a piece of human skull was again found on Hines Point, by contractors planting a tree.
Human remains did not always hold the respect they are due today, and Wampanoag remains, in particular, were often shamelessly trivialized. Methodist Pastor John King, professor of microscopy and marine flora at the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute, curated a small museum at the Campgrounds in the 1890s featuring Native American skulls. In Vineyard Haven, The Rev. D.W. Stevens ran a reading room and chapel for sailors on the bluffs of the harbor near Hatch Road; it included a small maritime museum housing curiosities from around the world, including some skulls.
If you accidently uncover human remains in Massachusetts, it is your legal duty to notify the police. If the medical examiner determines the bones to be human and more than 100 years old, the state archaeologist will investigate. Today, the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs monitors all investigations of Native American burials to insure that the remains are treated respectfully.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, will be released June 1.