‘The I-95 of the East Coast waterways’

A history of Island local trade commodities.


From the 1700s to the 1900s, Martha’s Vineyard wasn’t a trading hub for goods but a checkpoint for foreign and domestic customs, giving shelter from storms to merchant ships.

According to Bow Van Riper, the research librarian for the M.V. Museum, ships coming from north of Boston or south of New York passed Martha’s Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands, and Cape Cod.

“It’s the I-95 of the East Coast waterways, and all the coastal shipping trade between Havana and Halifax moves through Vineyard Sound,” Van Riper said. “It’s the second or third busiest waterway in the world for most of the 19th century.”

During an interview with The MV Times, Van Riper stated the whaling industry on Martha’s Vineyard began in the 1770s. The captain and crew would bring the whale oil and the baleen back to sell on the Island until the late 19th century.

Island commodities traded outside of whaling were cranberries, sheep’s wool for clothing, fish like herring and cod, and clay for paint and bricks. The people living on the Island sold these commodities to their neighbors using word of mouth, and exported their goods on schooners and catboats for short trips to Woods Hole, New Bedford, and Manhattan on a small scale.

According to the MV Museum Quarterly, from the mid-1700s until 1900 the Island was nearly clear-cut, with the land used to pasture 20,000 sheep, and the Vineyard had to rely on lumber imported from Maine, Vermont, and Western Massachusetts.

In 1837, sheep were a valuable commodity for Chilmark, with 6,470 sheep producing wool valued at $5,180. Tisbury had around 2,655 sheep in 1837. In the late 1800s, imports of wool from abroad came in at lower prices and better quality, putting Vineyard sheep farmers out of business.

According to Van Riper, the Vineyard was self-sufficient in wool production and some food production, but Islanders would sometimes go off-Island searching for greater variety in their diet. Cotton or linen came from off-Island, along with wheat flour. Other items, like sugar, coffee, and tea, had to be imported.

“It’s not like there are big, oceangoing ships pulling up at Vineyard wharves and taking Vineyard wool to Boston or New York,” Van Riper said.

Between 1820 and 1870, the whaling industry was a significant contributor to the Vineyard economy. The loose whaling money helped build Edgartown’s Old Whaling Church in 1843, the Baptist Church, the captain’s houses across the Island, and the Congregational Church in 1845 that is now the Town Hall in Tisbury. Islanders could also purchase a small share in whaling ships, so they could get a fraction of the ship’s profit.

The decline in whaling in New England came through a combination of the Civil War, the loss of whale species to sustain the market, the loss of whale ships in the Bering Sea in 1871, and according to the American Oil & Gas Historical Society, the first commercial oil well in Pennsylvania in 1859, which launched the petroleum industry.

In 1889, Net Mattakesett Herring Creek Co. was established with lots drawn for stockholders and divided into 30-foot sections, according to the M.V. Museum Quarterly. Halibut schooners from Boston and Gloucester sailed into Edgartown to buy large quantities of herring for bait. When the fishing industry was rising in 1849, 442 barrels of pickled fish were exported from Edgartown. The following year, it was 994 barrels.

“As far as manufacturing goes, it’s a much smaller segment in the market,” Van Riper said.

According to the M.V. Museum Quarterly, a factory in Chilmark called the Mount Prospect Paint Mill was established around 1847 or 1848.

Ownership of the Paint Mill changed hands several times throughout the 19th century. When the Paint Mill was in operation, the mill would send out a small work crew to dig for colored clay along the north shore and grind it down into a pigment, to be loaded into dry barrels and shipped off on a schooner called Frolic.

The rates per ton of wet red and yellow clay were 90 cents and $1, while dry clay went for $2 for both red and yellow. The red and yellow pigments would be mixed with linseed oil to create the liquid paint.

The clay from the north shore was processed for brickwork beginning in the late 1840s. There were several brickworks along the north shore in the 1830s and 1840s. William Mitchel established his brickworks on Roaring Brook in 1845, and by 1850 the brick factory was owned by Smith and Barrows, turning out 600,000 bricks per year, with most being exported to the mainland, according to the MV Museum Quarterly.

The brickwork establishments opened and shuttered until the 1900s; the reasons range from limited wood fuel for the brick kilns to exhausted cliff clay deposits.

According to Van Riper, the farthest Vineyard-made products ever got were those from Seven Gates Farm, in the late 19th and early 20th century. Seven Gates butter was the first product to break out of the Southern New England coastal quarter.

Nathaniel Shaler owned Seven Gates Farm, with a state-of-the-art dairy operation. According to Van Riper, dairy products were usually sold locally at the time, but Seven Gates took it to the next level.

The people working at Seven Gates had connections on the mainland to develop marketing for butter, because butter is easier to ship than milk. People would order the Seven Gates butter from Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., due to the salesmanship of the Seven Gates workers.

The Vineyard never had an Island brand when it came to exporting products to the mainland. According to the MV Museum Quarterly, as a result of whaling prosperity for half a century led to more productive uses of the Island’s natural resources and widespread investments both on and off-Island.

Looking back at the industries the Island relied upon is even more interesting considering the tourism industry so important today.