Edgartown’s beginnings

This year marks the 350th anniversary of ‘Great Harbor.’


Here’s the thing about the Edgartown 350th anniversary celebration. Edgartown, originally called Great Harbor, had been around for some 30 years before it got its formal charter and name.

The history of the land goes back even further. Bow Van Riper, research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and a walking encyclopedia of all things Vineyard, explains the story of how Edgartown came to be.

There is a debate whether the first English Europeans came in the 1630s or 1640s. But in the first half of the 1600s, they showed up in what is now Edgartown, and established a settlement. By 1642, their leader, Thomas Mayhew Sr., and his settlers had set up a church, houses, and divided up the land acquired from the Wampanoag, who had been living here continuously for some 10,000 years and were the true first people of the Island they called Noepe.

Mayhew continued his reign, essentially running things for roughly 30 years, and was left alone by the colonial government of New York, which is what Martha’s Vineyard was part of at the time.

Come the spring of 1671, Thomas Mayhew Sr. receives a letter from the colonial governor of New York requesting his presence at a meeting. Van Riper says, “Mayhew is thinking, ‘I’ve been called into the head office.’ Thomas Mayhew and his grandson Matthew Mayhew, who is his right-hand person and chief administrator, travel to meet the governor.” Fortunately, Mayhew is in for a pleasant surprise.

Van Riper continues, “Basically, the colonial governor wants to formalize Mayhew’s authority over the Island and establish some ground rules for how he will run the Island: ‘We’re going to give you a royal charter for the town you are calling Great Harbor, and the one in the center of the Island, which you call Tisbury, named after Mayhew’s home in England.’” Great Harbor becomes incorporated as Edgartown, named after the Duke of York, who is the heir apparent to the throne and has a young son named Edgar, in the hopes of it being a political advantage when it came time to ask the duke for something. Unfortunately, young Edgar dies, and perhaps that is why there is no place else named Edgartown.

Van Riper explains that in addition to the charters for these two towns, the colonial governor of New York bestows a special bonus on Mayhew, giving him the ceremonial title of governor for life — essentially lord of the manor.

“What the 1671 charter does, which comes about some 30 years after Edgartown has been around, is simultaneously create among the people in Edgartown and Tisbury the expectation that there is power sharing, and that their needs and wants are going to be taken seriously,” Van Riper explains. “At the same time, it creates among the Mayhew family, especially Mayhew Sr., that they are the governor’s chosen people. The charter sets Mayhew’s authority over the Island firmly in place for another 20 years, and codifies his status as the voice of the person who speaks for the colonial government on the Vineyard.”

Apparently, this sets up a conflict two years later, when Simon Athearn and some residents of Tisbury get fed up with Mayhew acting like the all-powerful ruler of the Island. Therefore, when the Dutch throw the English out of New York, Athearn and company turn to the governor of Massachusetts and ask to become part of its colony, where things are still on an even keel for the moment. King Philip’s War is brewing in Massachusetts … but that’s another story.

Bringing things up to date, Edgartown has tentative plans for celebrating the bureaucratic clarification of who is in charge with a grand picnic on Sept. 12, from 1 to 5 pm, that includes, among other things, a live band, food, beer garden, photo booth, T shirts, and face painting. At the moment, everything is on hold because of the uptick in COVID cases. According to James Hagerty, town administrator, he will be briefing the Edgartown select board about the plans on Monday, August 30, and then they will wait until the board of health meets later in the week before making a final decision.

Fingers crossed it becomes safe enough to celebrate the incorporation of Edgartown. After all, 350 years is a quite impressive feat.