The Athearn-Mayhew Feud

The clashing of these Vineyard titans started more than three centuries ago. We look into the source of the ill will – and whether any remains today.

Jim Athearn and Jack Mayhew talk frankly about the history of their families and the strife between them, which never quite escalated to a Hatfield-McCoy level of feuding.
Nina Bramhall

No man is an island, but Thomas Mayhew Sr. certainly did his utmost to become the living symbol of the Vineyard, and his efforts were not in vain. Anyone who knows a smidgen of Island history can tell you the Mayhews were the first white settlers here (although this has been disputed). Many can further tell you it was a determined Thomas Mayhew who (with his son) converted Wampanoags to Christianity, and that he was the first “governor” of Martha’s Vineyard. Originally a mercer (that’s a fellow who sells cloth) from Tisbury, England, he was the first of many, many Mayhews to play a role in Island politics. To fans of a strong, centralized government, he was a fearless, peerless, tearless politician.

Not quite so famous a name is Simon Athearn’s. He was years younger and began his time on the Vineyard many steps lower on the social ladder, coming here as a servant to the Butler family. The first evidence of his audacity was marrying his employer’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Mary. He rapidly fathered nine children with her, and divided the rest of his energies between amassing property and protesting Mayhewism.

The venerable historian Charles Banks, in The History of Martha’s Vineyard (1911), begins his biographical sketch of Simon Athearn thus: “Nothing less than a separate chapter would enable the author to give an adequate portrayal of the strenuous life and fruitful career of this unique character among the early settlers of the Vineyard....Amid the settings of a most peaceful and bucolic life he managed to stir up more contrary breezes than any man of his time, and was a continual thorn in the flesh of the ruling family on the island.”

Poor Athearn spent a good part of his life railing against the tyranny of the Mayhews. However, today we limit ourselves to what a Hollywood studio executive would call the “inciting incident” and its immediate, mildly ludicrous aftermath.

First, a little background information for those of you not up on your seventeenth-century history. Briefly:

1625: The Dutch take Manhattan from the Native Americans. They name it New Amsterdam.

1664: The English take Manhattan from the Dutch. They rename it New York.

1673 in August: The Dutch take back Manhattan.

1674 in November: The English take back Manhattan.

That fifteen-month blip of the Dutch reclaiming Manhattan would have little significance to anyone on Martha’s Vineyard were it not for the brewing feud between Thomas Mayhew and Simon Athearn. (Though “feud” is not quite the word, as that implies a mutual level of hostility, and Mayhew probably considered Athearn, decades his junior, no more than a pest.)

In the 1660s and ’70s, there was a little confusion regarding from which colony Martha’s Vineyard was governed: New York or Massachusetts. Thomas Mayhew, the original Yankee autocrat, preferred New York, which was farther away and therefore less likely to meddle in the benign monarchy he was trying to establish on the Vineyard. So he was pleased when he was officially informed in 1670 by Governor Francis Lovelace of New York that the Vineyard answered to Manhattan. At the governor’s suggestion, Mayhew went in person to New York. The trip began almost as a feudalistic show of homage, but Mayhew quickly turned it to his advantage. He so charmed Lovelace that when he returned to Martha’s Vineyard, Mayhew was – by official decree – Governor for Life and Lord of Tisbury Manor. As Charles Banks tells us, in response to this: “The spirit of Simon Athearn rose within him....He felt that there was no place in the Massachusetts system for governors for life.”

To be honest, it wasn’t purely Athearn’s democratic spirit rebelling. It was also his purse. As Lord of the Manor, Mayhew had the right to charge Athearn and others rent for land that they owned and already paid taxes on. The agitation and political proactivity of Athearn (and others) made the Island’s secessionist movement some three hundred years later look severely anemic. Most officeholders on the Island were Mayhews; most members of the judicial system, likewise. Because officers did not pay taxes, and the Lord of the Manor got to decide how taxes were spent, the effect was that non-Mayhews paid all the taxes and Mayhews (especially Thomas Mayhew) decided where all the tax money went. There was no incentive for the tax money to be spent on non-Mayhews’ welfare.

Simon Athearn was enraged by Mayhew’s assumption of titles and attendant privileges, but he had no means, or even right, to complain – until 1673 when the Dutch retook Manhattan and reestablished New Amsterdam. Thomas Mayhew’s Governor-for-Life-etcetera gig was legally founded in the power of the governor of New York. Suddenly, there was no governor of New York – because there was no longer a New York!

That meant Mayhew was no longer governor – at least, according to Simon Athearn and about half the European population of the Vineyard.

Mayhew himself, though, remained Zeus-like, supremely indifferent to his supposed loss of power. He carried on as though he were still in charge, and in effect, he was.

Simon Athearn and Thomas Burchard, the other leader of the “rebels,” found themselves in what must have been an infuriating Catch-22: The only person to whom they could petition for relief from their grievances was the exact person who caused their grievances. Following is a dramatized, but barely fictionalized, discussion between Athearn and Mayhew circa 1673:

Athearn: We’re petitioning to have Martha’s Vineyard made a part of Massachusetts rather than New York, seeing as how New York doesn’t really exist. We hope you’ll join with us.

Mayhew: I think things are fine the way they are.

Athearn: But Massachusetts is closer to us, and more efficiently run, and more democratic.

Mayhew: Three excellent reasons why I want nothing to do with them.

Athearn: Oh. Um. Okay. Well, we also have this other petition, which abolishes the role of Governor for Life, and says we’ll hold elections for a governor next year. So will you sign this one?

Mayhew: You’ve got to be kidding.

Athearn and the others, determined to bring about change, tried a new tack. They sent their petition directly to the governor of Massachusetts, asking that he make the Vineyard part of his colony. This would effectively dislodge Mayhew from his pedestal.

Governor John Leverett, however flattered he must have been to be so courted by unwashed, ragged rebels from an under-populated island, turned them down. “[It would be] His Majesty’s pleasure, whether [or not] to establish your own government or to settle you under some other...colony’s,” he cautioned them (in far worse English than that; I have taken the liberty to modernize his secretary’s spelling). In other words, only His Majesty the King of England could save them from His Majesty the Mayhew of Tisbury.

There is no record of Simon Athearn and his cohorts taking the logical next step of writing to the king. Instead, they warmed to their roles as rebels by forming a rebel government. It was entirely ineffective and does not seem to have done much of anything beyond protesting the validity of Mayhew’s governance.

This proved to be an unfortunate party platform for them: In November of 1674, per the above history lesson, the British retook Manhattan. Once again New York legally existed. As did the New York governor – and the validity of all the New York governor’s proclamations. Which meant Thomas Mayhew was officially, once again, Governor for Life.

Governor Mayhew accused the rebels of various crimes. Their status was determined, per the rule of law, by the chief magistrate of the courts – who happened to be Governor Mayhew. Some rebels were fined, and some fled the Island. Simon Athearn got the harshest treatment: He was arrested and faced deportation to New York for trial.

At this point, the impetuous Athearn did something uncharacteristically cowardly: He ratted out his compatriot Thomas Burchard in a plea-bargain arrangement. In exchange for naming Burchard as the head of the rebel conspiracy, Athearn escaped deportation to New York, gave the court (that is, Mayhew) a few head of cattle, and was allowed to go free. Burchard, strangely enough, was apparently never charged with any crime or even fined for malfeasance.

Mayhew went on to establish himself as the inarguable founding father of Martha’s Vineyard. Athearn went on to cause Mayhew and his immediate descendants decades of annoyance.

Perhaps even centuries of annoyance. Recent research has revealed that more than three hundred years after the so-called Dutch Rebellion, the Mayhews and Athearns still maintain a wary eye on each other. I was recently able to broker a peace talk between a member of each of the warring families – Jim Athearn of Edgartown and Jack Mayhew of West Tisbury. I persuaded them to discuss the feud, and the indelible, tragic impression it has left upon two of the oldest families on the Island. Following are selections from the extremely tense truce talks. I have edited out the moments of physical violence and actual bloodletting, to respect the fact that this is a family-friendly periodical. Clearly, there is still a great deal of healing to be done:

Jim Athearn: I chose Jack as the best man for my wedding, not just because we were best friends all along and spent a lot of time hanging out for years but also because the historical sense was apt. And my great-grandmother Eunice Mayhew married Elijah Athearn when he got back from the Civil War.

Was that the first time an Athearn and a Mayhew had married?

Jim: I doubt it.

Jack Mayhew: There was a very small pool of people.

Jim: See, I’d like to characterize the Mayhews as rigid blue bloods who were carrying on the English aristocracy, while Simon Athearn was the forebear of the American spirit and democracy and individual rights...but I really think he was just an irritating character, and Mayhew was looking out for his own self, and they came into collision.

Jack: Of course, Mayhew came over as fairly well-to-do and Simon came over as an indentured servant.

Jim: See, I’m not so sure about Mayhew being well-to-do.

Jack: Well, but he didn’t come over as an indentured servant.

Jim: Actually I don’t know if I’ve ever seen enough documentation to say Simon Athearn was an indentured servant. We just know he came over in the employ of Nicholas Butler. As for Thomas Mayhew, I heard he got run out of Watertown, under a cloud of malfeasance.

Jack: But that was before he came to the Vineyard. [Once he got to the Vineyard] he pretty much got himself appointed to be sort of in charge of everything.

So he was the first career politician?

Jack: Yes, and very much against democracy.

How does it feel to be descended from someone like that?

Jack: I’ve never really thought that much about it, but I can say that [my eldest daughter] Caroline is not pleased with the legacy of her ancestors. She seems to be heading in a direction to change some of that. Caroline is at law school and she’s studying Native American rights and indigenous rights, with a master’s in Native American studies. Who knows, maybe the family will be redeemed.

Does your sense of your family’s history come from growing up hearing about it?

Jim: Yes, I pretty much grew up with this stuff, and I think there was some joshing from my father because he’d always say, well, y’know, there’s this feud with the Mayhews.

Jack: I heard about it mostly from Johnny [Jim’s brother]. He always used to refer to us as “ribble rabble,” which is a quote from the notes that Simon [Athearn] left. So we were aware of it as teenagers and joked about it, but I certainly didn’t know much about it. Unlike Jim’s dad, my dad never really talked about it. My mom talked about the history of the Mayhews on the Vineyard more than my dad did.

Jim: I think from a wider perspective, speaking of the Mayhews on Martha’s Vineyard: The European and aboriginal cultures clashed a lot, and they handled that a lot better here than in some other colonies. Of course [here] they had the missionary thing, which some also consider patronizing and arrogant –

Jack: Yes, that’s what Caroline’s upset about –

Jim: On the other hand, it was also very heartfelt at the time, and it wasn’t so much about bludgeoning the people into being Englishmen – I mean Thomas Mayhew Jr. catalogued the whole language –

Jack: Right, Algonquin. It’s also a little side note too that two of the so-called praying Indians attended Harvard University – and of the six Native Americans who attended, they were the only two who graduated. Unfortunately, one of them died pretty quickly of consumption and the other one died at sea in a wreck off Nantucket. Art [Arthur Railton, in his book The History of Martha’s Vineyard (Commonwealth Editions, 2006)] comments on what a difference the history might have been if they had both come back to the Vineyard and survived.

What is it like to have this particular figure be the person you are descended from?

Jim: I think as a child I just was kind of intrigued that we went back that far, and then as it deepened over the years, I began to realize that most families don’t have that kind of background in just one place. And by now, of course, it’s positively bizarre.

Jack: I find it kind of ironic now that he owns more land than I do.