This Was Then: From islands to Island

Harry Legg and Frank Lopes.

Harry Legg, rear, and Frank Lopes of Vineyard Haven, working on a roof, perhaps 1930. Legg’s family was from the British island of Saint Helena; Lopes’ family was from the Portuguese island of Fayal. — Courtesy Chris Baer

It shouldn’t be a surprise that an island would attract islanders. Many of the families who settled on the Vineyard in the late 1800s and early 1900s were from three Portuguese-speaking archipelagos in the North Atlantic — the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, and the Madeiras — each a small island chain located hundreds of miles off the coast of Portugal and North Africa.

But there was another small island, this one in the South Atlantic, with an outsize impact on the Vineyard. Twelve hundred miles off the coast of Angola lies the remote, volcanic island of Saint Helena. A British territory, this tropical island is half the size of Martha’s Vineyard, and holds less than a quarter of our population. But in the 1800s, this English-speaking island was a favorite stopping place for Vineyard whalers. Crews would ship whale oil home from this port, then visit the empty tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, who was famously exiled here until his death in 1821. 

This was where William Napoleon Legg was born in 1840, the grandson of a Helenian pubkeeper. He served as a teenager on board several New Bedford whalers before immigrating to the U.S. with his widowed mother and siblings about 1859. They immediately settled in Holmes Hole. In 1864, he volunteered for the U.S. Army, and joined the 58th Massachusetts Regiment to fight in the raging war in the South. An unnaturalized alien, Legg collected a $25 recruitment bounty paid by the town of Charlestown (a common occurrence at a time when towns were expected to meet a recruitment quota).

Legg served until the end of the Civil War, mostly as a guard for supply trains and depots. He returned to the Vineyard and resumed his career at sea. His son, Harry Legg, was born on the coast of South Africa during a brief excursion to the British colony of Durban, where his Helenian in-laws were living. But the family soon returned to their home on upper Main Street, Vineyard Haven, in a house between what is now Owen Little Way and Hatch Road, then known as Frog Alley. He spent his last years working as the janitor of the Nobnocket Club on the Vineyard Haven waterfront.

Harry Legg became a house carpenter and contractor, building houses for Herbert N. Hinckley of Vineyard Haven. His great-grandchildren and their descendants, like Jesse Steere III and his family, still live on the Island today.

Saint Helena was the birthplace of many other Islanders, as well. Even storied Wampanoag leader Napoleon Bonaparte Madison’s name has Helenian origins. (His mother was friendly with Evelina Cook of Gay Head, a Saint Helenian native who revered Napoleon.)

In front of Harry Legg in this photograph is young Frank Lopes. There were at least three men named “Frank Lopes” living in Vineyard Haven when this photo was taken, but this man has been identified as Frank Peter Lopes (1905-1987). Like Legg, Lopes was the son of island immigrants — his parents, Antone Silveira (“Tony”) Lopes and Rosa Vargas were both natives of the island of Faial in the Azores: Ilha do Faial, of what is now the Região Autónoma dos Açores; a North Pacific island roughly two-thirds the size of the Vineyard, both in size and population.

Lopes was not a roofer. Both he and his father were professional gardeners, and for many years Frank was the manager of the First National grocery store in Vineyard Haven, located where Vineyard Vines is today (formerly the Bunch of Grapes).

Immigrating around the turn of the 20th century, Antone and Rosa bought a house on Look Street in 1925, where Frank would raise his four children, and where Antone, Frank, and Frank’s wife Rose are remembered for selling flowers from their extensive gardens. 

“My grandparents went back to Faiyal when my father was 4 or 5,” recalls Frank’s daughter, Bernice Lopes of Vineyard Haven. “They came back when he was about 7. My father was able to speak, read, and write in Portuguese. He would read and write letters for some of their Portuguese friends. My parents went back twice. One time with my Uncle Connie and Aunt Viola. Both times they were able to visit cousins.
“My dad was a well-liked person. He loved his family, loved working in his garden, he grew many different flowers and sold them in the front of our house. My mother took over after he passed away. I think his favorite flower that he grew were glades.

“He was working at the First National when they were married, not sure if he started before. He retired from the First National, and always had hobbies. He gardened, fixed radios, even wrote a story about himself and a pet cow named Nellie. My grandfather had the cow, and it was in a barn behind Morrice Florist. The property was owned by my grandfather, and is now owned by the florist.”

“I don’t know why he was on the roof with Mr. Legg,” Bernice adds. “Not sure if it was a side job, or he was helping Mr. Legg.”

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.