Independent spirit

Thomas Dresser’s newest book delves into the Island’s connection with the Revolutionary War.


It’s easy to think of us as an island apart from the world, yet as we know, world events do impact the Island. This is as true today as it was during the War of Independence, as we learn in Thomas Dresser’s newest history book, “Martha’s Vineyard in the American Revolution,” which comes out on Nov. 29.

Dresser sets the stage by telling us that in the beginning, Vineyarders considered themselves English citizens, transplanted to the New World. They governed themselves according to English customs and laws, he writes. Revolution and independence were not on their mind. They revered whoever wore the crown, 3,000 miles away. However, several Vineyarders sought to thwart British rule. Some men attacked merchant ships; others ignored the tax on tea, or openly insulted the arrogance of British sea captains.

And Dresser expertly tells the tale of these Vineyarders. While aware of the rebellious acts in Boston, those here were wary and primarily sought to remain neutral. The Island was, as Dresser points out, vulnerable to the looming threat of powerful British warships patrolling the waters. Likewise, the population was small to begin with — a 20th the size of the city of Boston — and most of its men made their living at sea, thus were unable to protect their home and families.

However, the Vineyard and the Revolution did intersect in some fascinating ways. We learn that one of the early sparks of the Revolution came from Chilmark-born Jonathan Mayhew, whose sermons in Boston sparked Stamp Act riots. Dresser writes, “Jonathan Mayhew is credited with coining the phrase ‘No taxation without representation.’ Whether or not he made it up is immaterial. Certainly he used the phrase, and popularized it, to inspire and involve a great many colonists, angered by Parliament’s failure to respect the rights of the colonists, as well as their wants and needs.”

While few may know of Jonathan Mayhew’s Island tie, many of us know the story about the Liberty Pole, which became a symbol of independence in a different way. In 1775, a gathering of citizens in Holmes Hole raised a Liberty Pole, which had been a ship’s mast, as a rebellious, symbolic act against the British. “To add to their defiance, locals symbolically poured tea leaves into the hole where the mast was set,” Dresser writes. Three years later, Royal Navy Capt. John Ford sailed into the harbor, and arranged to purchase the pole to replace the mast on his ship, the HMS Unicorn. While some of the townfolks] were disgruntled, it was three young women who that night drilled holes in the pole, filled them with gunpowder, and blew it up. Dresser lays out how this story, which has been argued over in terms of its validity for decades, is indeed true. But you’ll have to read the book to discover why.

Dresser also delves deeply into the details of British Admiral Charles Grey’s invasion of the Vineyard in September 1778, in which he depleted the Island by commandeering 1,574 sheep, 315 cattle, 388 firearms, 25 swords, and £1,000 in funds. But despite the devastating attack, Dresser tells us of individual acts of defiance, including the amusing story of an old woman hiding a pig underneath her petticoats and flourishing a weapon to successfully fight off the redcoats.

On a more serious note, he goes on to describe the tireless efforts of Vineyarder Beriah Norton, who endlessly sought reparations for the raid from the British after the Revolution.

Dresser treats us to a lot more fascinating intersections between the War of Independence and the Vineyard, including that the first naval attack of the war occurred in Vineyard Sound in March 1776, with shots fired from the whaleboat of an intrepid Vineyarder, Benjamin Smith. And at the end, we learn how Capt. Nathan Daggett (brother to one of the young women who blew up the Liberty Pole) was instrumental to the end of the war. You’ll enjoy learning how as you read through.

“Martha’s Vineyard was safest when it was ignored by both Boston’s colonial government and London’s Parliament,” Dresser wants us to know. “Neutrality was a balancing act in the early years of the War; the Vineyard succeeded until 1778, when Grey’s Raid turned locals into Patriots.” And the evocative illustrations and photographs sprinkled throughout “Martha’s Vineyard in the American Revolution” make it a must-read for anyone interested in how the birth of the nation and our Island intersect.

“Martha’s Vineyard in the American Revolution” by Thomas Dresser. Available Nov. 29 at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and Phillips Hardware. A book launch is planned on Nov. 30 at Edgartown Books. You can place your order directly at Book talks at local sites are listed on