This Was Then: Pig tales

A short history of Vineyard swine.


Martha’s Vineyard is not known for its swine, but hogs have historically been a critically important Island livestock; only sheep and cattle were more numerous in centuries past.

The first written record of pigs on Martha’s Vineyard was in 1652, before even records of horses or sheep, and just a handful of years after the first Europeans settled here. It was in 1652 that John Folger was elected “hog reeve” of Edgartown, suggesting that pigs were already numerous enough here to be problematic. For as hog reeve, Folger, one of the first wave of English settlers on the Island and great-grandfather of Benjamin Franklin, was placed in charge of appraising the damages done by stray swine. (It’s even possible that swine may have arrived before the white settlers; as early as the 1630s, folks like Roger Williams of Rhode Island used pigs for payment in transactions with the coastal natives in places like Block Island, and some speculate that Williams may have visited the Vineyard as well.)

In 1676, Jacob Perkins, an early Quaker settler of Holmes Hole, was forced to leave the Island after a court suit pitted him against the powerful Mayhew family of Edgartown, in a case involving a stolen pig.

By the end of the 17th century, Tisbury was having its own problem with loose pigs. At the 1696 Tisbury town meeting, it was voted “that thare shall no swine run on the Commons of this town from the first day of Aprill … untill the last day of Jun.” It was then agreed that the owner of an errant hog would be fined five-and-a-half shillings. After six days, if nobody claimed the pig, it would be auctioned off by the selectmen and the proceeds would go to the town. The first Hog Reeves on record in Tisbury (about 1720) were Solomon Athearn and Ebenezer Rogers, and the town voted two new men into the positions each year for more than two centuries thereafter. These town officials were usually referred to as “Hog Reeves” or “Hogreaves,” but sometimes as “Swine Constable” (1779), “Swine Driver” (1780s), or “Swine Pounder” (1788). Tisbury voted again on pig matters regularly over the years, like the 1845 pronouncement that “Swine Shall not run at large.”

In 1778, British general. Charles Grey, landed on the Island during the Revolution to demand the Vineyard’s livestock to feed their hungry troops. Some 10,000 sheep and 300 oxen were surrendered by Islanders in the devastating raid, but also the entirety, reportedly, of the Island’s hogs. Residents from all parts of the Island were forced to drive their livestock to Holmes Hole and load them onto the 40 waiting British ships, or face death at the hands of the 4,000 redcoats stationed there.

During the raid, a squad of British soldiers reportedly marched into the home of a Mrs. Luce (or, according to other reports, a Mrs. Patience Dunham) on Lambert Cove, a widow living with her grandson, Josey. According to historian Charles Banks (which he sourced to Harper’s Magazine in a story that was widely repeated elsewhere), the soldiers ignored all her prayerful tears of protest. “They took possession of all her live stock, sheep, pigs, cow. As they were about to move off, a sergeant, who had an eye for delicacies, spied a sleek and well-fed grunter concealed behind the old woman’s petticoats. Immediately half a dozen grenadiers advanced to capture the coveted quadruped, but the good dame’s prayerful tone was changed to one of rebellious defiance. Seizing a heavy broom-stick she flourished it in the face of the enemy in a manner terrible to behold. ‘Away with ye, cursed seed of the oppressor! despoilers of the widow and the fatherless! Take what ye have of mine and begone! But this is Josey’s pig, and not a hair of him shall ye touch!’ A struggle ensued, but the broomstick proved a good weapon, piggie stuck to his cover, and after several attempts to execute flank movements, the squad retreated, leaving Josey’s pig with its lawful proprietors.”

But the pigs soon returned. A tally of Vineyard’s livestock in 1807 arrived at a total of 800 swine. “The diet of the inhabitants is simple and not expensive,” wrote the enumerator. “Salt beef and pork is their food a great part of the year.” By the early-to-mid 1800s, a rising demand for salt pork — a staple aboard whaling ships — enticed a few farmers to raise swine commercially. An 1840 tally brought the Vineyard’s hog population to 867— perhaps its peak.

In 1843, several off-Island newspapers described the variety of pigs of West Tisbury: “There is a breed of swine here of great value. I cannot learn where it came from, but it is evidently a cross of the Berkshire, with a very thin skin. It grows in a great size, is exceedingly good tempered and docile, and fats easily .… As they are less inclined to locomotion than any hogs I ever saw, they are poor contributors to the muck heap.” By the early 1900s, it was reported that the most common breed of pigs on the Island was the Chester White (an all-white variety), followed by the Berkshire (a black-and-white breed).

The pig population began to slowly sink thereafter: from 719 in 1845 (valued at just over $10 each) to only 375 in 1860. Pigs were no longer raised commercially, but rather to be eaten at home.

Pig tales are woven throughout the Island’s history. Three thousand people reportedly gathered for a greased pig race on Ocean Avenue during the Cottage City Carnival of 1887. There was an 1888 reference to a “piggery” on Petaluma Park in Oak Bluffs, and the eccentric Dr. Charles Lane was remembered to have kept a pigsty in the center of downtown Vineyard Haven in the early 1900s.

An off-Island newspaper reported in 1890, “An ingenious farmer in West Tisbury, Mass., has nailed up on his own premises a large finger-board pointing to his neighbors on the opposite side of the lane, and bearing in very large letters the word ‘Pigs,’ and with the words ‘for sale’ underneath in very small letters.”

Clyde McKenzie of Edgartown wrote in a 1997 Intelligencer article, about the pigs on early 20th-century Vineyard farms: “Nearly all Island farms, large or small, had at least one pig which was raised to about 200 to 250 pounds. Pigs not kept in the barn’ manure cellar were confined in backyard pens which usually were mud holes. Almost every Portuguese family had a pig or two. The pigs ate kitchen waste collected from hotels, plus that of the family.” By 1920, there were 605 pigs counted on the Island, valued at an average of $26 apiece.

McKenzie notes that 20th-century farmers usually hired professionals to butcher and dress their hogs, like Bill “Gyp the Blood” Salvador in Edgartown. He continues, “Full-grown pigs were usually slaughtered in the fall, providing a family with a good supply of meat, including fat, lard, fresh pork, fatback, salt pork for chowders, ham steaks, chops, and sausage. The intestines were used for sausage casings; the stomach (hog maw or haggis) was a favorite of the Scotch and Irish. The cheek (jowl) was another favorite, sliced and fried. The pig’s ears and tail were also eaten. A favorite Portuguese dish was blood pudding, a spicy sausage.”

Here’s a recipe for Scalloped Ham by Clara Mayhew Cole of West Tisbury, as printed in the 1924 “Island Cook Book”: “Chop one cup ham. Boil a thick slice of bread in one cup milk until soft. Add one beaten egg and season with salt and pepper. Add one tablespoon melted butter and bake twenty minutes.”

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 in 2018.