Edgartown Harbor gets Underground Railroad designation

Elaine Weintraub researched and applied for the national listing.

Edgartown Harbor is now a nationally recognized site on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. — Brian Dowd

The National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network has officially accepted Edgartown Harbor as one of its 12 new listings this fall.

Edgartown Harbor’s acceptance into the program is based on the research of Elaine Weintraub, executive director of the African American Heritage Trail, and the story of Esther, an escaped slave. Weintraub 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.

In July of 1743, 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.

In a deposition given by the sailors, Esther’s fate after she escaped is unknown.

Speaking to The Times by phone Thursday, Weintraub said the news of Edgartown Harbor being accepted is exciting. “Esther waited long enough to have her story told,” Weintraub said.

Weintraub is meeting with Edgartown selectmen on Monday. Selectmen will decide how they want to represent the new designation, whether with a logo on the town website, a plaque at the harbor, or something else.

The Network to Freedom honors, preserves, and promotes the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight. There are more than 650 sites across 40 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands that are recognized by the program. Twice a year the Network to Freedom accepts new sites, facilities, and programs connected to the Underground Railroad.

With Edgartown Harbor receiving its national designation, Weintraub is researching other sites on the Island that could be listed as well. She said there are cases involving the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the story of John Saunders, an enslaved man who was smuggled to the Island.

“It would be nice to have recognition in general because people who risked their lives to save others, it’s a kind of wonderful story … not one we hear every day,” Weintraub said.