While not native to the Island, goats have been here for an awfully long time. They are first mentioned in island records in the 1660s, only a few years after cattle, hogs, horses, sheep, and domesticated fowl appeared.
When Governor Mayhew signed an agreement with the sachem Pahkepunnassoo for the rights to Chappaquiddick in 1663, Mayhew’s payment consisted of “one Good Goat Ram yearly or as much in Good pay as [a] Good Goat Ram should be worth.” Simon Athearn, too, bought land in Tisbury about 1700 from Keteanummin, sachem of Takemmy, for “twenty pounds of sheep’s wool, one hat, two sheep, four goats, and four kidds, and one fat wether goat, one cheese, and one peck of Indian corn.” In 1726, the Falmouth ferryman set the ticket fee for one goat’s passage from Woods Hole to Holmes Hole at four pence, his lowest fare.
But goat husbandry was quickly eclipsed by other livestock — sheep, mostly, but also cattle and swine. Rev. James Freeman in his 1807 “Description of Duke’s County” noted that “Many goats were formerly kept on the island; but they were of little profit to their owners, and have been greatly injurious to the present generation, by preventing the growth of trees on that vast plain of bitter oaks, which lies between Edgartown and Tisbury. These mischievous animals are still to be found in the same places, but their number is unknown.”
A Massachusetts colonial law was passed in 1774 prohibiting colonists’ livestock, especially goats, from roaming at large on island of Chappaquiddick for part of the year, as they were eating the unfenced corn crops of the resident Wampanoag. Tisbury passed similar town laws in 1774, 1796, 1799, and 1844, to “prevent goats from runing at larg on the Commons in tisbury.” The state legislature finally passed an act in 1851, declaring, “All goats found going at large on the island of Martha’s Vineyard… shall be deemed in law and taken to be animals of a wild nature, and the same may be treated by any person accordingly.” To protect young trees, goats found in the wild could now be legally shot by hunters.
In the 1838 travelogue “Sketches of Martha’s Vineyard,” in a passage titled “A Patriarch,” writer Samuel Devens wrote of a memorable encounter during his adventures through Tisbury and Chilmark on the way to Gay Head: “The goat race, like the Indian, is fast disappearing before the tide of civilization. Among the few that are left, when threading my way through the forests of bitter oak towards Gayhead, I saw one whose like I am sure I never shall see again. To describe him would be impossible. A patriarch of many generations,— with a hair-coat of the glossiest black and purest white! The sight of it was enough to keep off the chill of the most searching north-easter. And then what an imposing creature! As big every whit as a Shetland poney. What noble proportions! What a bold and martial front, with threatening and sturdy turrets above, and a huge sweeping length of matted gray beard below, such as would cheer the heart of the ‘straitest sect’ of Jew or Turk! Such a veteran would have been the pride of a menagerie. Alone he would have drawn more visiters than the big ox, or the mock sea-serpent. You could not but pay him reverence. Mammoth as he was, he had grown up from infancy on leaves and twigs and buds.”
Storied poet and artist Nancy Luce of West Tisbury owned a pet milch goat before she became involved with her beloved chickens. Its death about 1840 was recorded in her family bible. It’s been said her mourning for her pet was “extravagant,” and may have led to solace among her famous hens. Amongst her writings and drawings held by Brown University are a number of tiny painted paper goat cutouts Luce delicately made and preserved.
By the late 1800s, goats had mainly become associated with children’s amusements, and as rides at children’s parades and carnivals. For those who could afford one, goat carts, carriages, and wagons could be harnessed to a properly-trained goat for children to drive, later becoming a clichéd prop used by travelling photographers. Even President Harrison famously kept a goat cart at the White House, pulled by his pet billy goat, “His Whiskers,” for his grandchildren to drive. Based on the photos we have today, Oak Bluffs was evidently once rife with goat carts.
Things have never been rosier for Vineyard goats today. We have goatscaping, goat yoga, and goat milk soaps. Rather than driving goat carriages, island children are joining the 4-H Goat Club. Our trees are doing just fine. But the wild Patriarch, alas, has faded into legend.