The Island has hosted many foreign visitors over the years, but there are some who have arrived on our shores purely by accident.
The Canadian schooner Basile, for instance, was sailing from Haiti to the Turks and Caicos when its captain died of a sudden heart attack. Mate Thibodeau abandoned the trip and headed directly back to Nova Scotia. All the way up the coast they encountered thick fog. Sailing north at night on a fresh westerly wind, the mate lost his reckoning; the schooner was wrecked on Chilmark’s south beach. The collision drove the vessel so far onto the beach that the crew were able to jump ashore without even getting their feet wet. They stuck around for a few days before getting a lift home from the British consul in Boston. While the wreck was eventually sold at auction for $28, parts of the wooden schooner were unearthed at Quenames as late as the 1990s.
Less than a year later, tragedy was narrowly averted when the French steamer Roma, bound for Providence, grounded on a rocky shoal off Nomans Land during a February gale, with 427 passengers aboard, mostly Portuguese and Azorean, and 100 crew. Chilmark residents could hear the steamer’s whistle, but could see nothing in the blinding snowstorm. Roma’s wireless operator made an S.O.S. call, but as he knew only French, would-be rescuers had to scramble to translate. “The lives of all are in grave danger,” reported the national press, fearing that the ship might break up before the passengers could be evacuated. After nine tense hours, the wind unexpectedly changed direction and the vessel was finally freed.
But by far the most tragic story of accidental immigration is the 1731 tale of the ship Love and Unity, which left Rotterdam via Falmouth, England, bound for Philadelphia. Aboard were 156 passengers, all German-speaking, middle-class Palatines seeking to escape religious and political oppression and to pursue a better life in Pennsylvania.
Under reasonable weather conditions the crossing should have taken 8-12 weeks, but the Love and Unity would spend the next six months at sea. They encountered a calm, and then a bad storm, and after eight weeks the captain, Jacob Lobb, curtailed the rations of water and bread. After 16 weeks, no more bread was distributed — only about four ounces of grouts (a coarse meal of grain) and one quart of water per person. “The Hunger was so great,” wrote five of the passengers in a letter afterwards, “we have [to] eat Rats and Mice, so that one Rat cost eight pence, and two shillings; and a Mouse three pence and four pence, and a Quart of Water four pence, that some of us let others have for their Children’s sake.” Seven starving passengers died in a single night, their bodies thrown overboard. Despite the passengers’ pleas for haste, the ship travelled only during the daytime; at night the crew tied the helm and loosened the sails. “We were kicked, beat, and used” by the sailors, wrote the passengers. “Misery was so great.”
Eleven-year-old Johann Jungmann watched his stepmother, three brothers, and his sister starve to death. “Rats and mice were our only food,” he later recalled. “It was shocking and heart rendering scene to see all these poor people … to find them in the morning stiff and cold on their beds, partly eaten by rats, and then to see them thrown into the ocean.”
In December a sloop approached, and the pilot directed them to the remote port of Holmes Hole on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. But instead of entering the harbor, the captain ordered the vessel anchored offshore. “He kept us there in the Ship still five or six days, and we must pay dear for every thing, so that one Loaf of Indian Corn Bread cost 8 Schillings,” wrote the passengers. “In that time starved yet fifteen Persons more.” Jungmann later recalled, “The captain thought that all the passengers had many valuable with them. Hence he did not want to land us, but left us to starve to death.”
Finally, the remaining passengers revolted, seizing the captain and his mate and locking them in a cabin. The sloop soon returned, and ferried the survivors to Holmes Hole. Of the 156 passengers who boarded the ship, only 48 — less than a third of them — had survived to reach the American shore. “I was in such a miserable condition that I could not stand erect, but almost crawled on hands and feet,” recalled Jungmann.
Holmes Hole (today Vineyard Haven) could hardly be called a village in the winter of 1731-2. About seven widely spaced houses had been built between West Chop and the head of the Lagoon. There were no stores, no churches, no doctors. The population consisted of only a few dozen English settlers — perhaps fewer in number, even, than the 48 emaciated, German-speaking Palatines who now debarked from the Love and Unity begging for their help.
“In the first three Days after their Arrival,” reported the Pennsylvania Gazette, “fifteen more died, who had been reduced so low by Famine, that ‘twas impossible to recover them.” Fortunately, “many who were famished and near death, began to revive, but none were yet strong enough to travel.”
Five of the Palatine leaders wrote a letter to Rev. Michael Weiss in Philadelphia, desperate for help. “Wicked Murderer of Souls, Capt. Labb, has thought to starve us all,” they wrote. “There are but few Houses [in Holmes Hole], so that we can have no Accommodation, because of the narrowness of the Place. The good People of this Island did whatever they could to refresh us with Bread, Meat and other Victuals. The Sailors carried away most of our Moveables, and all our Chests broke open and spoliated.”
Captain Lobb and his mate were released after five days. (They had eaten the captain’s dog to survive.) He demanded that the Palatines pay for their passage, not only for the living, but for the dead as well. He gave them three weeks to pay up.
The Governors of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts intervened. Capt. Lobb was arrested and charged by the Palatines with the murders of two children (including one infant) who had died while the vessel was anchored offshore, as well as for the cruel treatment of his passengers, so many of whom had perished.
But by March, the Vineyarders’ welcome had worn out. Edgartown authorities threatened to “imprison and sell the Palatines.” But sympathies in Boston were aroused, and £200 was raised in donations and sent to the Island for the relief of the survivors.
Captain Lobb’s trial was held in Barnstable in March 1732. The jury deliberated six hours, and found the captain not guilty of all charges. The extraordinary length of the trip, they concluded, was to be blamed upon “contrary winds and calms.”
Lobb, meanwhile, felt his character had been defamed. He countersued, and had his accusers — the five who signed the letter to Rev. Weiss — fined and imprisoned. The Palatine leaders spent the summer of 1732 in Dukes County jail awaiting trial. The two judges overseeing the case were first cousins Payne Mayhew and Zaccheus Mayhew of Chilmark, but the attorney representing the Palatines appealed to the Provincial Council, arguing that the Judges Mayhew were biased toward Capt. Lobb. The Council agreed, and special judges were appointed.
We don’t know what became of the suit, nor of the jailed defendants. The other surviving 34 Palatine passengers were finally delivered to Philadelphia, including young Jungmann, arriving almost exactly one year after they had left Rotterdam. As far as we know, none of the Palatines remained on the Vineyard.
But there was at least one German immigrant who came here by accident, a century later, and settled. John Hoft (1818-1894), namesake of the Hoft Farm Preserve off Lambert’s Cove Road, ”came from Germany on a ship that was wrecked on Pasque Island,” according to Dionis Coffin Riggs’ book, “People to Remember.” ”The crew was transported to the Vineyard, where Hoft stayed and made his home at Lambert’s Cove.” Hoft raised prize-winning cranberries and planted an apple orchard. “No one on the Island, before or since, has grown apples to equal those from the Hoft orchards,” wrote Riggs.
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, was released June 2018.