Edgartown may get Underground Railroad recognition

The mysterious escape of Esther aboard a ship in Edgartown may be added to the national register.

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The Edgartown harbor may become a designated site of the Underground Railroad. — Brian Dowd

In the early 1850s, a group of sailors took an “Indian woman” named Esther from Boston. Set to bring Esther to “her master” in North Carolina, the sailors took port in Edgartown Harbor one night, but not before binding Esther’s feet to a crowbar, tying her hands behind her back, and locking her in the cargo hold. The next morning, as the sailors slept aboard the boat, Esther mysteriously escaped on the ship’s longboat.

This story of escape, captured in a deposition given by the sailors, may lay the foundation for Edgartown Harbor to be recognized as a location on the Underground Railroad.

At a meeting Monday, the board of selectmen unanimously approved sending a letter of support for the application filled out by Elaine Weintraub, executive director of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.

Weintraub has documented Esther’s story in her book “Lighting the Trail.” She found the sailor’s deposition in the June 2, 1854, edition of the Vineyard Gazette, and believes it is enough documentary evidence to establish Edgartown Harbor as a nationally recognized site of the Underground Railroad.

Weintraub’s application will be sent to the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a National Parks Service program that honors, preserves, and promotes more than 600 sites across the country that helped facilitate the rescue of escaping enslaved people. If approved, Edgartown Harbor would become the first location on Martha’s Vineyard to be a part of the program.

“Despite the testimony given by the sailors who were in charge of her, that they had fastened her down with a crowbar, she escaped overnight, and was obviously helped to do that,” Weintraub said. “It seems like a really good time to do this.”

Selectman Arthur Smadbeck agreed. “I think it’s terrific,” he said. “I didn’t realize we were [part of that] history.”

In other business, selectmen approved a $15,000 donation from the Edgartown affordable housing committee and trust to assist in the need for emergency relief funding, due to the coronavirus pandemic, for Edgartown residents renting their homes. The funds come from the affordable housing committee’s general fund, not from town funds or CPC funds.