Tag Archives: Martha’s Vineyard

Documenting multiple-partner marriages in America

In an earlier post, I mentioned the existence of multiple-partner marriages in America; commenter Ellen challenged me to find reputable sources to back up this assertion. Somewhere in my personal library I do have at least one book that documents the practice of multiple-partner marriages among lower-class white in colonial New England; but I cannot find that book right now; my books are still in a certain amount of chaos from moving.

Google Books came to my rescue. A quick search of Google Books turned up several reputable sources that back up my assertion. If this sort of thing interests you, I’ve included lengthy quotations from the relevant books below the fold — then you can go read those books yourself online. Continue reading

Day Hike

Katama – Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, 8+ miles

When I got up and stuck my head out the window yesterday, it promised to be a perfect summer day — dry, warm but not too hot, breezy, perfectly clear. I spent most of the morning talking with my aunt and uncle (I’ve been staying with them for the past three days), and then told them I was going to take a good long walk. Uncle Bob gave me a map, showed me some possible routes, and I set off about 11:30.

It really was turning out to be a perfect summer day, the kind of day that energizes you. Except that on my second day of vacation, I wasn’t feeling very energetic. The grind of work had worn me down more than I had admitted to myself. For the first hour, I walked without paying attention to much except the bike trail in front of me. I did notice some invasive exotic plants: several big stands of Japanese Knotweed, and lots of Spotted Knapweed in full bloom along the bike trail. I also noticed huge poison ivy plants, some of which were bushes three and four feet high.

When I got to the business district of Edgartown, 3 miles and 50 minutes later, I bought a newspaper and went in to the Main St. Diner, which was the least pretentious restaurant I could find. The waitress, who looked to be in her late teens, brought me a menu, and looked at my newspaper. “The New York Times,” she said approvingly. “I read that paper.” I told her that I thought it was a pretty good paper, and thought to myself that that was a curious thing for a waitress to say.

After I finished lunch, I wandered around Edgartown, looking at the houses, and looking at the people. I had some pretty good people-watching. You could tell when a tour bus stopped in town, because suddenly the narrow sidewalks were full of people who all looked somehow the same and who all wore name badges around their necks. You could tell the upper class summer people because even I could tell that their clothes were far more expensive than mine. (That evening, Uncle Bob said he bet there weren’t any actual residents of Edgartown walking around that day, and I suspect he’s correct. The yards and driveways of all the houses were just about empty.)

I finally wound up down at the main pier in Edgartown Harbor, reading my newspaper, and now and looking up to watch the two little ferries go to and fro between Chappaquidick Island and the pier. Then it was time to start walking again. Instead of walking straight back via Katama Road, I headed off along Clevelandtown Road, and continued walking along some side streets, winding around towards Katama Airport.

It was not an inspiring walk. The few modest houses left on Martha’s Vineyard are disappearing one by one, either bulldozed so that a mansionette (or sometimes a real mansion) can be put up in the same spot, or renovated beyond all recognition. It’s not unusual to see a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot house going up. It’s no longer enough to have a dirt driveway, or one of crushed shell — the latest fad appears to be driveways paved with peastone, and lined with expensive paving blocks or curbstones. The more pretentious houses boast emerald green lawns with full irrigation systems, huge three car garages, and waist-high stone walls made from stones that have obviously been brought in from off-island. I saw one elaborate stone wall that included an enclosure about twenty feet square for the vegetable garden, with some tomato plants barely poking their crowns above the stone.

I could have been walking through and upper class or upper-middle class neighborhood in any one of dozens of wealthy towns around Boston or north of New York City. Was I in Weston, Darien, or Westchester County? I couldn’t be sure, except for the huge poison ivy plants along the side of the road. I would have thought that if you go away for the summer, you’d want to go some place that doesn’t look like home. Maybe if you see the poison ivy, you know that you’re on Martha’s Vineyard.

At last I made it to Katama Airport, a small airport with grass airstrips and no air traffic control. Both the airport and the adjacent farm are on town-owned conservation land. Mid-afternoon is when raptors like to hunt, so I walked down the dirt road between the farm and the airport looking at the sky. Sure enough, in the distance I saw a hawk gliding low over the tops of the grass and scrub. It was a female Northern Harrier hunting. She dropped down onto something a couple of times, but I never saw her catch anything. Once, a group of Red-winged Blackbirds mobbed her, pestering her until she flew away from their territories. Once she roosted for a minute or two on top of a tall bush, and then flew on again, her head going this way and that as she searched the ground below her for prey. I stood watching her for maybe half an hour, and all other thoughts left my mind.


Sublimity consists, in part, of direct confrontation with unknowable mysteries of life and death. There are places in downtown New Bedford where you can stand at a window or in the open and look down on surrounding rooftops. The flat roof surfaces are always littered with shell fragments left by gulls, mostly Herring Gulls, dropping shellfish in order to break them open so they can eat the soft bits inside. The peaked roofs often show a coating of whitewash, gull guano, spreading down the peaks from where the gulls like to perch, facing into the sun. Midafternoon I was standing in a place where I could see down on half a dozen different rooftops. The sun broke through the clouds, and there was blue sky above, although the fog and low clouds wouldn’t let me see the mouth of the harbor, or even the steeples of Fairhaven across the harbor. With my binoculars I looked down on one Herring Gull, who was sitting on a pile of brown dead leaves and stalks, a pile which also included bits of green including a couple of dandelion leaves and bits of white trash or litter. It all looked too carefully piled up to be anything but a nest.

The Herring Gull casually stood up in the sun, stretched its wings out a little, and wandered off a few steps to where it was hidden from my view. The pile of leaves and litter had been hollowed out in the middle, and down inside I could see two olive-green eggs spotted with brown.

Since we moved here last August, I have been pretty sure that there’s a Herring Gull nesting colony on the rooftops of downtown New Bedford. With all the Herring Gulls in the neighborhood all year long this should not be surprising. A hundred years ago it would have been surprising; in Birds of Massachusetts, Richard Veit and Wayne Petersen write:

Before 1900, Herring Gulls were not known to breed south of eastern Maine. In the summer of 1912, the first nesting in Massachusetts was recorded by Allan Keniston on the south side of Edgartown Great Pond, Martha’s Vineyard, and, between 1919 and 1920, 20 pairs were found breeding on an ephemeral sandbar called Skiffs Island off the southern end of Chappaquidick Island. At the time, the prospects seemed so remote that Herring Gulls could ever establish themselves in Massachusetts in the face of the expanding human population that Forbush was prompted to state, “It is improbable that the Herring Gull can maintain itself anywhere on the coast of southern New England.” Defying Forbush’s prediction, the Herring gull underwent one of the most remarkable population expansions of any New England bird. The growth of the population between 1930 and 1970 was almost exponential until about 1965, when it leveled off. The slackening in the rate of increase may have been due to the refinement of garbage disposal, sewage treatment, and fish-processing practices because space for nesting sites does not seem to be a limiting factor. [p. 219; references removed for readability]

The fish processing plant off Route 6 on Fish Island regularly attracts Herring Gulls and other gulls, when the plant pumps blood and byproducts into the harbor; I’m sure they also frequent the other fish processing plants nearby. Gulls also sometimes flock after incoming fishing vessels, and they obviously eat shellfish that they find. Food sources may well be the limiting factor for the Herring Gull population in our neighborhood, since there are plenty of suitable rooftops on which to nest. As I stood watching this afternoon, I found only one other definite nest, and one possible nest, although I saw plenty of gulls in adult plumage who did not appear to be nesting. I stood looking down at those olive-green eggs for five or so minutes, and never saw the adult return to the nest.