This Was Then: Jane Wamsley

Not everyone wanted the town of Gay Head.


In 1859, two writers for Harper’s Magazine visited Gay Head on a day trip “to see something of the Indians.” One of them was the well-known illustrator “Porte Crayon” (David Strother), who would sketch many of their encounters that day, eventually producing woodcuts which would appear in the September 1860 issue of the magazine.

After an initial stop at the lighthouse, this New York City duo went to visit Wampanoag elder “Hetty Ames” (Mehitable Ames), even sneaking inside her house to look around, as she was not home. (When they returned later in the day, her door was locked.) They knocked next on the door of a second dwelling, demanding a glass of water. Then they befriended “Roos” (Isaac Rose) on the road, inquired about dinner, and were politely invited into his home for a meal. Afterward, they visited the schoolhouse and interrupted their lessons, later describing their encounter with the children and their teacher (“a good-looking mulatto girl”) with racist and demeaning jokes. Then they visited “Deacon Simon” (Simon Johnson), whom they would also describe in their travelog with condescending humor, punctuated with starkly racist declarations.

Finally, the deacon took them to the home of “Jane Wormsley” (Jane Wamsley), “an aged woman of the tribe, who, in her younger days, had been a Baptist preacher,” they wrote. “[We] were disappointed in our hope of getting some information in regard to the history and traditions of her race. All recollection of their former life seems to have been entirely obliterated. The old woman had a grandchild with her; and during our visit, a couple of her neighbors came in, a pair of handsome, well-made young women, whose husbands were at sea, and who treated us to the first ringing peal of merry laughter that we had heard on Gay Head.”

But Wamsley, a 60-year-old widow, knew her history and traditions. Over the next few years, she would fight to try and preserve them.

The Wamsley family appears in Chappaquiddick records from pre-Revolutionary times, and in Aquinnah from the turn of the 19th century. Legendary Gay Head herbalist Patience Gershom (1778-?) was said to be a Wamsley by birth. Mary Vanderhoop recorded some of the curious stories about Mrs. Gershom in a series of 1904 articles for a New Bedford paper, as did Mohegan anthropologist and pharmacologist Dr. Gladys Tantaquidgeon two decades later. Considered to be the “last witch to die at Gay Head,” Gershom was believed to consort with devils, and to have the arcane ability to transform into “a great black bear with red eyes.” One girl claimed to witness Gershom talking to “tar babies” suspended from a string in her home; the girl said that they danced as she spoke to them. On her deathbed, it was said, Mrs. Gershom held off the Devil with a whip. After her passing, they gathered Gershom’s herbs and threw them into the fire, where they reportedly exploded violently.

There was more than one 19th century Wampanoag woman named “Jane Wamsley” in Aquinnah, so it’s difficult to make firm conclusions from the sparse written records. But the Jane Wamsley in Strother’s illustration was evidently born about 1798, the daughter of Sarah Francis of Chilmark (“farther not none”). She is believed to be the sister, half-sister, sister-in-law, or wife of Hebron Wamsley Sr. — “Uncle Hebron” — a tall, one-eyed carpenter and undertaker who was known for his red coffins. Like Mrs. Gershom, Hebron was evidently an authority on medicinal roots and herbs. He sometimes served as the clerk of proprietors’ meetings, and his name appears on many of the petitions sent to the governor on behalf of the tribe. He also oversaw the moving of the Gay Head Church in 1835.

Jane, Hebron, and his nephew Hebron Jr. lived in a cluster of homes off the Old South Road, on what was known as Hebron’s Road, which led to Hebron’s Pond. (The pond is evidently still extant on the Land Bank’s Toad Rock Preserve, but the name lives on in modern Hebron’s Way off Moshup Trail.) Jane was also believed to be a half-sister of Jonathan Francis, who lived near Spider Hill on Squibnocket Pond.

Jane was said to be “gifted with eloquence, and moved with strong desire for the welfare of souls,” according to Edward Burgess, author of the 1926 history “The Old State Road.” She was one of Aquinnah’s two school teachers during the 1820s; there were 37 students under their tutelage, according to a report made about 1826. Wamsley was described as a “strict disciplinarian,” although a former student told Burgess, “She took quite a notion to me, when I was a boy, though I was quite as mischievous as any; but first time I went a-whaling, when I was 14 years of age, she came to the house, and said, ‘He must have a feather-pillow, to take with him, and I’ve made it, and brought it.’”

As the Harper’s writers noted, Jane Wamsley also became a popular Baptist preacher, a traditionally male position. She evidently ran the church — a plain wooden building about a mile east of the lighthouse, with a congregation of perhaps a few dozen members —– from about 1818 until perhaps 1830, when, according to Burgess, she was “stopped by the stricter white brethren from beyond ‘the other side of Gay Head,’” evidently due to her gender. (In 1832, Joseph (“Blind Joe”) Amos, a sightless, green-spectacled, accordion-playing Wampanoag preacher from Mashpee, took over the leadership of the church.)

At the time the Harper’s duo visited in 1860, Aquinnah’s native-born Wampanoag were neither citizens of the U.S. (that wouldn’t happen until 1924) nor citizens of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. They were wards of the state, treated as foreigners in their own land, and not even counted in the censuses. (While the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, provides “equal protection of the laws” to “all persons,” and nullifies the abhorrent Dred Scott Supreme Court ruling denying citizenship to Americans of African descent, there is an explicit exception made to “Indians not taxed,” which at the time included, for example, all Wampanoag residents of Gay Head, Chappaquiddick, and Christiantown.)

The Wampanoag of Aquinnah had a long history of resisting the impositions of the commonwealth. As native noncitizens, they lacked the ability to vote, to write binding contracts, to sue, to obtain mortgages, or to sell land, and were instead assigned non-native legal guardians to manage their affairs. The Guardians of Gay Head (men such as James Athearn and Simon Mayhew Jr. in 1791) had the power to sell off Wampanoag lands as they saw fit, and had a long reputation of causing “great Injuries and Oppressions” and for making self-serving deals. In 1811, nearly 60 members of the tribe (including Hebron Walmsley, Patience Walmsley, and Jane [Walmsley] Cooper) signed a letter of protest to the governor, complaining of these “men whose property would be enlarged if we should be deprived of ours,” and asking the state to suspend the guardians. They followed up with a second letter in 1814, arguing that they were “under a state of bondage in consequence of having guardians appointed over them,” and asking again to repeal the guardianship law: “It is an expense to us without the least profit whatever.” Finally, in 1814, the guardians resigned, and were not replaced. (Chappaquiddick and Christiantown, however, continued to have guardians for decades afterward.)

In April 1862, amidst a national movement to eliminate native tribes and assimilate their members, Massachusetts passed a law that allowed Native Americans “not connected with any plantation” to become citizens of the commonwealth. A Wampanoag living in Chilmark, for example, could now pay a poll tax and apply for Massachusetts citizenship with the Chilmark town clerk. But seven locations around the state were specifically exempted from the law, including Chappaquiddick, Christiantown, and the now self-governing political district of Gay Head.

By 1869, the state pushed further, offering enfranchisement — mandatory citizenship for all — but also the complete termination of the Wampanoag tribe as a legal entity. Up until this time, every tribe in Massachusetts had been united against these proposals, but in 1869, cracks were beginning to form between those tribal members seeking voting and property rights, and tribal members like Jane Wamsley, who were proponents of preserving the tribe and maintaining the status quo, or “Remains.”

Residents of African ancestry, especially former slaves from the South, tended to be pro-enfranchisement. So were many immigrants, like the Portuguese-speaking settlers from Cape Verde and the Azores, who were increasingly beginning to settle on the Island and marry into Island families. So too were a few Gay Head men of “bad character” (as noted by one state official), who likely had underhanded plans to separate the Wampanoags from their land. Enfranchisement, ironically, would also end the rights of Wampanoag women like Jane Wamsley to vote in the affairs of her own community.

In late May 1869, “the chieftains of the tribe” — outspoken tribal elder Jane Wamsley among them – were visited by state officials to hear their opinions on citizenship. Jane Wamsley and Deacon Johnson were steadfast in their desire to be “let alone”, to remain in their present “condition” as a tribe, and to waive the benefits and consequences of Massachusetts citizenship. But others, including Jane’s half-brother Jonathan Francis, favored enfranchisement. It didn’t matter much; the commonwealth had largely already made up its mind. Less than a month later, ignoring many of the tribe’s concerns, “An Act to Enfranchise the Indians of the Commonwealth” was passed. “All Indians and people of color, heretofore known and called Indians” living in Massachusetts were made citizens, without exception, and their tribes officially terminated as political and legal entities. Their common land was divided up and privatized.

But in terminating the Wampanoag tribe, their tribal district was also eliminated, and so the residents were left without a town. Wampanoag representatives reportedly told state officials that “prejudice of color and caste” meant they would not be accepted by their neighboring town; Chilmark had no interest in annexing Gay Head, nor Gay Head in being “swallowed by Chilmark.” So in April 1870, as a direct consequence of the Enfranchisement Act, Gay Head was incorporated as a town. The Wampanoags were given the right to vote (well, the men, anyway), but they were stripped of much of their self-governance.

That fall, the new citizens of Gay Head got their first opportunity to vote, in the 1870 elections. It didn’t go well. “The vote in the Gay Head District will not be counted,” reported the Fall River Daily Evening News on Nov. 12, “on account of illegality in the organization of the town. It is stated that the town clerk is a foreigner, who has never been naturalized, and that neither a state nor county tax has been paid during the last two years.”

Jane Wamsley “lived all alone a long time, until her home burned down,” reported Burgess. She died in Gay Head in 1878 at the age of about 80.

The Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah (Gay Head) won official recognition from the U.S. government in 1987.

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.