Some of you smarty-pants reading this column are already aware that our Island wasn’t always an island. Somewhere between the Big Bang 14 billion years ago (“The whole universe was in a hot dense state . . . “ sorry, can’t get the jingle from the Big Bang Theory out of my head), and ten thousand years before the explorer Verrazzano sailed through Narragansett Bay in 1524, the future Vineyard was a bump in an icy landscape, the whole mass of this area buried under a mile-thick ice cap! The ocean was seventy-five miles away! Do you know what we’re sayin’? Jackie O’s acreage would have been worth squat!
But, as we know, the climate was slowly warming, so slowly, in fact, that those of us afflicted with ADHD would have shuddered at how long it was taking (plus we would have shuddered from the cold itself.)
Glaciers had ripped through this region to create a vast plain where mammals of ungainly heft roamed, including caribou, moose, perhaps a woolly mammoth and a mastodon or two. Keep your fingers away from the google link, I’ve already looked up mastodon for you: “A large proboscidean mammal species of the extinct genus Mammut.” That clears up everything, doesn’t it? Wikipedia describes at length how mastodons differ from elephants, but artists’ renderings from bone assemblage make them look exactly like elephants. I think, had you been a Wampanoag hunter back in the old Vineyard days, pre-10,000 B.C., but knowing what we know now, you might have spotted a mastodon and said, “Look, Spike [or perhaps a more plausible name]! An elephant!”
Summers were not warm and no one would have thought of shouting, “Surf’s up!” The Southern ice cap was only a few hundred miles north, and the Arctic Express that whooshed over the ocean made popsicles of the human hunters’ toes, even in the summer when bringing down one of those mastodon beasties would feed twelve families.
The ice went on melting (just as it’s doing now), creating moraines (you can google that one yourself; I can never remember what they are), boulders, valleys, thick beds of gravel, and an area mid-island for a future truly hideously ugly roundabout. Finally, six thousand years ago, the ocean rose up and flooded the marshy delta between this island and the continent that, in another 4,224 years, would be called the U.S.A.
Things were much nicer 6,000 years ago - you could almost say Edenic. Deer, elk, and other small mammals took the place of those over-bearing brutes. Trees and plants abounded and, unlike conditions in the actual Eden, if a wild apple tree grew, you could eat the fruit without getting in trouble.
The several thousand Wampanoags who lived here had it made: The fishing was awesome, and they even managed to bag a whale from time to time just by standing on the beach and having it wash up to them! Plus they did some farming – maize, squash and beans; all stuff that’s still highly recommended today by the locavore set.
So now we come to the part when The Man arrives and spoils everything! Only in this case, The Man doesn’t spoil everything, and a happy ending of NO Man results, bearing in mind that happy endings do eventually have their expiration dates. Still, for our purposes, here’s the good result:
In 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, had read the captain’s logs of Verrazzano from 1524, describing the islands of the Narragansett Bay as Heaven on Earth! (And the Indians were friendly!)
So Gosnold docked just off Cape Poge on the northeast shore of Chappaquiddick. He must’ve had some bad sausage for breakfast that morning, because he didn’t think the Poge area was good enough, although he allowed that it was “a place most pleasant.” This is a guy who’d probably describe Yosemite as “nice.”
His aim was to set up a trading post and make heaps of money. With his crew of thirty-two men (twelve were mariners, the rest held the DNA that would make up future Goldman Sachs descendants), he sailed on to Cutty Hunk. Cutty freakin’ Hunk! The little island that would never attract more than a few dozen year-round residents!
Gosnold supervised the building of a big brash fort and trading post but the captain couldn’t find enough recruits to stay through the winter, so the place was abandoned.
Martha’s Vineyard natives enjoyed a full twenty years further before a fresh batch of white guys sailed over from the Plymouth Plantation, bringing bibles, unfriendly blankets, and tons of attitude about property rights.
But that’s another story. Let’s return to our twenty-year happy ending that began in the autumn of 1602, when the Cutty Hunk fort sat idle, and the Wampanoags could go back to wandering this island at will, without encountering a single No Trespassing sign. And the fish and berries and nuts and occasional beached whale were all theirs to enjoy!
One thing that stayed after Gosnold departed: He was fond of naming places. He immortalized Cape Cod after the fish that flourished in this area, and he named the Island after his baby daughter, Martha, scribbling Marthae’s Vineyard on his map (that was the thing with these white people; they couldn’t spell, even the names of their own kids.)
But we are indeed lucky that the Cape was named first, or we would have been saddled with Cod Island.