This Was Then: The remarkable life of Sarah Norton Wilbur

On Sally Wilbur, her son James, and her other son James.


Sarah “Sally” (Norton) Wilbur (1792–1875) likely died within a mile of where she was born, in the lands just west of Major’s Cove, in what is today part of Oak Bluffs. Her lonely grave, marked by a weathered headstone and footstone, lies within an old stone enclosure, in an overgrown, privately owned woodland across from the power lines near Dodgers Hole, just feet from busy Edgartown Road. Many have stopped to visit the burial site, but few know about the remarkable life of Sally Norton Wilbur. 

Sally’s grandfather was Major Peter Norton (1718–1792), a storied sheriff, deacon, and county militia officer for whom Major’s Cove is named. Her father, Eliakim Norton, was one of the major’s 13 children, born in the middle of the 18th century on the southern shores of Sengekontacket Pond.

The decades after the American Revolution were difficult ones on Martha’s Vineyard. The local economy had collapsed, whaling was at a lull, political feuds were roiling, and the threat of another war with England arriving upon the shores of our Island was taken seriously. So a great exodus began to the frontier lands of Maine — at that time, still part of Massachusetts.

In 1790, two of Sally’s uncles, together with three other Islanders, purchased nearly 1,600 acres of land in western Maine for 45 pounds sterling. They named it “New Vineyard.” The next year, five of Sally’s Norton uncles and their families moved to the wilds of Maine. A few years passed, and then Sally, her parents, and her eight surviving siblings packed their bags and followed them to Maine. It was a broad migration; Island families of Daggett, Merry, Manter, Butler, and Luce settled in the towns of New Vineyard, Farmington, Strong, Industry, Avons, Phillips, and beyond. Sally’s father, Eliakim, built Farmington’s meetinghouse in 1803.

So Sally grew up in Norridgewock, just east of New Vineyard, and at the age of 21 she married a farmer from the coast named James Wilbur. He was described by one writer who met him as “a quiet, peaceable man, not brilliant, but of fair ability, a man of integrity, industriousness, and thrifty.” Another described him as “a giant of a man.” The couple settled in a very remote area in the headwaters of the Sandy River, off a lumberman’s road in a nameless frontier district referred to only as the “Letter E Plantation.” (The Appalachian Trail passes through this area today.) Here they raised five daughters, and then a son whom they named James Jr., or “Jim.”

On Sept. 8, 1827, when Sally was 8 months pregnant with her seventh child, and Jim was not quite 3 years old, the little boy went missing while playing outside. All that could be found was his red frock. The neighbors were fetched, and for days they fruitlessly searched the surrounding wilderness. Suspicion fell upon a local fur trapper with a bad reputation named David Robbins, whom one called “the synonym of depravity and wickedness, yea of very fiendishness.” But upon searching his home, they found no evidence to charge him. (Robbins would be jailed the following year for killing a hunter and his teenage son, before escaping and disappearing.)

Nearly 20 years passed. Many would comment on the Wilburs’ heartbreaking search. “The father wandered up and down the earth, whenever he heard of a strange child, or the rumor of one being found,” read one contemporary report. “The mother wept for the lost one, and would not be comforted.” “Mr. Wilbur and his wife grew prematurely old in their search, attended by so many disappointments,” wrote another. “Often have I seen them riding out together, and a more disconsolate, heartbroken couple I never saw.” The family eventually moved 65 miles south, outside the town of Bethel, “because the sight of the place whence the child wandered was so painful … that after his loss, she could not reside there longer.”

They had five more children in Bethel, all daughters but the last: another boy, born in 1833, whom they again named James Wilbur Jr. after his father and lost brother. Two of their older daughters returned to the Island and married Vineyard men. Their two youngest daughters, Persia and Hannah, now teenagers, moved to the city of Saco, Maine, to work at the factories. 

It was these two youngest sisters who in 1846 heard about a group of Androscoggin tribal members from Québec (often referred to as “Saint Francis Indians”) who had camped near Saco to sell baskets, and had a young man among them with distinctly European features. Visiting their camp, they discovered that “White Jim,” as he was known, strikingly resembled their father. While he spoke only broken English, they were soon able to confirm that he was indeed their lost brother. As the story was told, the “white renegade” Robbins had abducted the toddler, intending to cut him up for bait for his sable traps, when he encountered the group of Androscoggin, who convinced him to trade the boy for three beaver skins instead. So Jim grew up with the tribe, traveling with them as far as Labrador, and marrying a woman from their group known as “Mary Frances.” 

While Jim’s reunion with his parents was, by all accounts, a heartwarmingly joyful one, Jim ultimately spurned their invitation to fully rejoin the family, as his Androscoggin wife was said to be strongly against settling down near Jim’s birth family. Nevertheless, Jim eventually left his tribe. His wife left him (reportedly remarrying a Wampanoag in Gay Head), and he took a job at a textile mill in Saco, and then as a night watchman. He married a white woman and started a new family. 

The Wilburs and all of their surviving grown children, except Jim, moved back to Martha’s Vineyard by the early 1850s, many of them settling in the Norton family lands stretching from Major’s Cove to the Lagoon. There are probably many reasons for the Wilbur family’s return to the Island. Several of Sally’s daughters had already married Island men (James Luce, Elisha Smith, and John Smith) and returned. Sally may have inherited land and money from her Norton family. Perhaps Sally’s despair about her perceived loss of Jim a second time motivated her to leave the Maine wilderness for a less isolated life on Martha’s Vineyard. 

In 1853, James Wilbur Sr. complained to the town about the inconvenience of a new road cut through his property — this would become the modern Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road.

James “Jim” remained in Saco, and began to call himself “Joseph,” while his younger brother, James Jr., moved to the iIsland with his parents and siblings. But when the Civil War broke out, both Jameses enlisted. 

In the end, the Wilbur family would sacrifice more than perhaps any other island family in the defense of the Union and the defeat of slavery. Sally had two sons and four grandsons in uniform during the Civil War; four of them would die in it. 

Her elder son James enlisted in the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment in 1861, and served in the 2nd Maine Cavalry in 1864.

Her younger son James, then a 28-year-old mariner living in Vineyard Haven with his wife Ruth, enlisted in the fall of 1861. He served in the same infantry company — Company I — as his nephews Ben Luce and Elisha Smith, both grandsons of Sally Wilbur. Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket lost more men from Company I than any other infantry unit in the Union Army, and the impact of these losses would impact generations of families from both islands.

After surviving the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia and the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, the younger James contracted typhoid, one of the deadliest diseases of the war, spread in the unsanitary military camps through food and drink. He was buried the day after he died, after serving only 13 months in uniform, in what is now the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. 

Elisha Mayhew Smith, son of Sally’s daughter Elizabeth Wilbur Smith, was 16 when he enlisted. He died in Baltimore shortly after being shot in the leg during the Battle of Gettysburg after performing an act of heroism, and is buried near the head of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs.

Two of Sally’s other grandsons were captured separately by Confederate forces in 1864, and died within two weeks of each other in the same Confederate prison in North Carolina. The first to die was Henry Clay Wilbur (1841–1864), the son of Sally’s unmarried daughter, Mary Wilbur. Eliakim Smith (1840–1864) was the older son of Sally’s daughter Elizabeth, and an older brother of Elisha. Both men died of disease after suffering under the nightmarish conditions in the prison. Both were probably buried in a mass unmarked grave in one of 18 trenches which are today part of the Salisbury National Cemetery in North Carolina. Their names are included on the Edgartown Civil War Memorial in Cannonball Park. 

The elder James returned to Saco after the war, laboring at a mill for the rest of his days, before finally entering a “soldiers’ home” for the aged in Togus. He kept in touch with his parents on the Vineyard, but whether he ever visited his Island family afterward isn’t known.

Sally died at the age of 82, and was buried, as per her wishes, on the roadside ridge of her family farm, which at that time had a distant view of the church spires of Edgartown. Today, her solitary grave can still be found by those who stop and visit. 

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. 

Justin Baer is a federal government retiree living in Maryland and a graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.


  1. What a great piece of history, Chris! I’ve visited both graveyards you mention and didn’t know anything beyond the Civil War service of Elisha. Thanks for a moving and well-written piece!

  2. Very interesting story. i am not of that errs but surely enjoyed all of it. my great grandparents surely would remember., i would think. Love reading about the Vineyard.Had to be hard living back in those days. i guess we have been spoiled somewhat,NOW. thank you Joanne Peters Roberts.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this article. I had no idea about the emigration from MV to Western Maine. Interesting that the family settled for a while in Bethel, Maine – my maiden name and where my parents honeymooned in the 1940s.

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