This Was Then: Plagues on the Island

We’ve been through more than the coronavirus.

The Christiantown burying ground on Indian Hill, West Tisbury. Traditionally, the dead were interred in a sitting position facing east, with the stones placed just above their heads. Perhaps 300 graves are located here; at least another 150 natives are buried in a similar hill in Chilmark. Many were victims of the infectious plagues brought by European colonists.

The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 infected some half-billion people around the world, killing tens of millions globally and tens of thousands in Massachusetts alone. Vineyard schools closed twice for a total of 11 weeks, and the Capawock was shuttered from moviegoers, as folks sought fresh air away from enclosed crowds.

The 1918 death toll from the Spanish flu on Martha’s Vineyard was officially 12, according to the state reports, but a quick look at the original town records yields at least 19 deaths on the Island from the influenza outbreak that deadly winter. If you count some of the suspicious cases — the surplus of young Islanders dying from pneumonia, for instance — the actual total was likely between 20 and 30 Vineyard deaths due to the Spanish flu. The statewide mortality peak from the deadly virus was in October of 1918, but the Vineyard had its biggest surge of cases in December and January, more than two months later.

But this was far from the Vineyard’s worst epidemic. There were a series of horrific plagues during the 1600s and 1700s which took the lives of hundreds of Island victims — almost entirely Wampanoag.

Nobody is certain what the population of the Vineyard was before the Europeans arrived. Many estimate between 1,500 and 3,000, but some historical estimates top 5,000 Wampanoag residents on Martha’s Vineyard at the time of first contact with settlers. Author Edward Kendall, in the second volume of his 1807 book series “Travels through the Northern Parts of the United States,” wrote, “The ancient Indian population of Martha’s Vineyard is supposed to have been equal in numbers to the present white one,” which he states at that time as 4,000. He continues, “Among the vestiges dug up, are stone-mortars, for grinding corn, and what are called immense deposits of clam-shells, which latter are chiefly found near the village of Edgartown.”

European epidemics tore through the native mainland communities shortly before the Pilgrims arrived. Between 1616 and 1618, it is estimated that some 75 percent of the native population of coastal New England was killed by an infectious disease. Nobody has determined which pathogen — explanations from smallpox to chickenpox to leptospirosis (a bacterial infection) have been theorized. The Pilgrims arrived in 1620 to find whole regions newly and completely empty of inhabitants. One 1935 history notes, “skulls and bones lay above ground near or within the ruins of former habitations. The violence and rapidity of the mortality were such that the living had been unable to bury the dead.” In 1643, an anonymous author, later attributed to be puritan Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth, declared, “The good hand of God favoured our beginnings . . . in sweeping away great multitudes of the Natives by the small Pox, a little before we went thither, that he might make room for us there.” At least 50 of New England’s first settler villages, including Plymouth, were founded upon native communities emptied by disease. A second epidemic, probably smallpox, struck the coast in 1633.

But the Vineyard was evidently spared from the ravages of these European plagues, at least temporarily. It wasn’t until shortly after the first English settled on the already well-populated Island in 1642 that the dying began. In 1643, and again in 1646, a contagious disease swept the Island, killing an estimated half of the Vineyard’s population. “In the Year 1645, there was a general Sickness all over the Island,” wrote historian Daniel Neal in 1720. “A great sickness prevailed among the Indians on Martha’s Vineyard—few escaped,” wrote lexicographer Noah Webster in a 1799 report. The source of the epidemic has never been determined; some referred to it as “yellow fever,” although an epidemic on the mainland in 1647 was said to be influenza. Missionaries, beginning with Thomas Mayhew Jr., used the epidemic as a tool to convert the Wampanoags to Christianity.

Another epidemic swept the Vineyard in 1690. Described as a “sore fever,” it killed at least 100 native Islanders, reducing the Wampanoag population to less than 1,000 for the first time, now mostly restricted to Aquinnah, Chappaquiddick, and Christiantown.

In 1738, a sick sailor bound for Boston put ashore at Holmes Hole. He was quickly turned around and quarantined upon his vessel, but it triggered a severe smallpox outbreak on the Island. The epidemic killed Island physician Dr. Matthews and several other colonists, but it hit the Wampanoag community especially hard. By 1740 their numbers were reduced to some 500-600.

In 1763, yet another epidemic struck both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — perhaps smallpox, but it has also been attributed in various theories to typhus, yellow fever or “bilious plague.” “The disease began with high fever and ended in typhus, in about five days,” wrote Webster. “It appeared to be infectious among the Indians only; for no whites were attacked, altho they associated freely with the diseased. Persons of a mixed blood were attacked, but recovered. Not one died, except of full Indian blood.” Thirty-nine Vineyard Wampanoags died, mostly younger people on Chappaquiddick, but two-thirds of the Native American population of Nantucket died, sealing the fate of their long-term survival as a people; the last Nantucket Wampanoag died in 1855. In 1987, the bodies of some 200 victims of “the Indian Sickness” were accidentally discovered on Nantucket during construction of a housing development.

By 1807, the Vineyard’s native population had been reduced to about 240. The 1807 booklet, “A Description of Duke’s County” describes the population mainly confined to Gay Head, but it also enumerates native families in Chappaquiddick, Christiantown, Chilmark, West Chop, and Farm Neck, living in both framed houses and “wigwams” (wetus). “Near Sangekantacket, adjoining the lagune, at a place called Farm Neck, there was formerly a large town of Indians; and twenty persons of a mixed race still remain, who live in six houses, are divided into six famiiies, and retain near two hundred acres of land.” As of 2001, about 150 Wampanoags live in Aquinnah.

But the settler population was by no means immune, either. The most feared contagion during the Colonial period was undoubtedly smallpox. “There was no proper way to check its ravages,” wrote historian Charles Banks. “Probably every other adult person was pock-marked, so prevalent did it become.”

Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth, writing in 1662 several years after visiting our Island, wrote this verse about the ills of New England:

“Now colds and coughs; Rhewms, and sore-throats,
Do more and more abound:
Now Agues sore & Feavers strong
In every place are found. 
How many houses have we seen
Last Autumn, and this spring,
Wherein the healthful were too few
To help the languishing.”

Now go wash your hands.