An Early Goodbye

This memorial stands in a broad clearing off Edgartown–West Tisbury Road, just east of the airport. Cars and trucks zip by it, most drivers and passengers only vaguely aware it’s even there. For those with a little curiosity and a moment to spare, the shrine is approached by a semi-circular gravel drive alongside the main road.

Known by a lyrical name – the Place on the Wayside – this tablet, set in granite in 1901 and rededicated in 2008 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, marks the earliest event recalled by a monument on the Island. It should probably be grander and more often visited, given the significance of it to the sociological and religious history of the whole nation: The first Native Americans converted to Christianity in all of New England were the Wampanoags of Martha’s Vineyard, and the Place on the Wayside marks the ground where in 1657 – without knowing it at the time – these so-called “praying Indians” bade a final farewell to the white man who had inspired or persuaded hundreds of them to trade their gods for his.

His name was Thomas Mayhew Jr. and he is remembered now as the first missionary in the Northeast and first pastor on the Island, though he was never actually ordained. He was the dutiful son of a restive father, Thomas Mayhew Sr., an entrepreneur who had left England for the New World in 1631. For some years the Mayhews lived in Watertown, but Thomas Sr. chafed under the rule of the colonial authorities in Boston. Looking for an outpost where he could live and govern without interference, in 1642 Thomas Sr. purchased the right to settle on Martha’s Vineyard from aristocrats who held the title back in England.

The father sent his twenty-two-year-old son, Thomas Jr., down to the Island with roughly thirty other adventurers to set up the settlement now known as Edgartown. When Mayhew Sr. joined these pioneers a year or so later, he established an independent, autocratic, and generally self-serving Vineyard government, while at the same time his milder and more didactic son began to proselytize the Wampanoags, who had been Islanders long before them.

The Indians of Martha’s Vineyard outnumbered the Europeans by at least fifteen to one when the Mayhew settlement began, so it’s clear why the colonists would want the natives to understand and accept “what a kind and mighty God the English served, and how the Indians might happily come into his Favor and Protection,” as one mainland observer put it in those early days.

But it’s also clear, as David J. Silverman writes in his landmark study of the relations between the Indians and the English on the Island, Faith and Boundaries (Cambridge University Press, 2005), the Wampanoags swiftly recognized how hard it would be to rid themselves of the well-armed whites, even if that were their wish. And so over time, willingly but adroitly, they adopted “many of the social and cultural behaviors of the colonists who pressed upon them.” This included their Puritan faith.

In the autumn of 1657, Thomas Jr. was traveling back to his native England to settle a family estate and raise money for his mission, which by then was well-known and highly regarded there. Whatever they felt about the white man and his religion at first, his departure seems to have stirred the Christianized Vineyard Wampanoags. After conducting a farewell service for believers among the western tribes of the Island, Thomas led a growing procession of the faithful eastward toward Edgartown, offering them a final prayer, blessing, and goodbye somewhere near what is now the Place on the Wayside. With a brother-in-law and a Wampanoag preacher named Miohqsoo, he set sail from Boston a few weeks later. His ship was never heard from again. Thomas left behind a wife and three young children.

For many years after, Island Wampanoags considered the Place on the Wayside to be hallowed ground, “associated in their thoughts with their lost shepherd,” writes Charles Edward Banks in his three-volume History of Martha’s Vineyard (Dukes County Historical Society, 1911). “It is a part of the legendary lore of this spot, that no Indian passed by it without casting a stone into a heap that, by their custom, had thus grown like a cairn, in remembrance of him, to be a great monument to this sad event in their lives.” The memorial and rocks along the drive recall, and make permanent, the old cairn of stones.

“The attachment must have been genuine” between Thomas and his flock, Banks concludes, “for we are told by an authority that ‘for many Years after his departure, he was seldom named without Tears.’”

One in a series of articles by Tom Dunlop on people and events from the Vineyard’s past that have been memorialized around the Island. Sources for this story include Victoria Haeselbarth of the Island chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the libraries of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and Vineyard Gazette.

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