Reprinted from the 2004 Visitors Guide courtesy
of the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. www.mvy.com
Many year-round residents of Aquinnah are descendants of the
Wampanoag Indians, who showed the colonial settlers how to kill
whales, plant corn and find clay for the early brickyards. Much
later, these Aquinnah Indians were in great demand as boatsteerers
in the whaling fleets. It was the boatsteerer who cast the iron
into the whale. The Aquinnah Indians were judged to be the most
skillful and courageous boatsteerers of that era.
The courage of the early residents of Aquinnah demonstrated itself
in the many instances when they took to the seas in deadly weather
to aid survivors of famous wrecks that took place off the Aquinnah
Cliffs. As further testament to their valor, a plaque on the
schoolhouse commemorates the fact that Aquinnah sent more men,
in proportion to its size, to fight in World War I than did any
other town in New England.
The brilliant colors of the mile-long expanse of the Aquinnah
Cliffs astonished early explorers and have continued to be a
source of intense interest to scientists and visitors alike.
Here layers of sands, gravels, and clays of various hues tell
a hundred-million-year-old story of a land first covered with
forests, then flooded and laid bare, than covered with new growth,
time and again. The seas, glaciers, and land itself have contorted
these once-level layers into waving bands of color that stream
above the sea.
Erosion continues as it has for centuries, turning the seas
red and revealing fossil secrets. From the fossils revealed by
erosion we know of the great sharks that swam over what is now
Chilmark, of the clams and crabs-so like those of today-that
inhabited ancient seas. Pieces of lignite from the Cretaceous
period are found on the beach looking like nothing so much as
the remnants of recent campfires. Fossil bones of camels and
wild horses, as well at those of ancient whales, have been found
at the cliffs. Aquinnah Cliffs are a national landmark; yet they
are seriously threatened by carelessness. To protect the Cliffs,
climbing and the removal of clay are both prohibited by law.
Because of the extremely dangerous rocky ledge offshore, the
seas around Aquinnah have always been a place of great peril
to the mariner. One of the first revolving lighthouses in the
country was erected atop the Cliffs in 1799. It had wooded works
which became swollen in damp or cold weather, when the lighthouse
keeper and his wife would be obliged to stant all night and turn
the light by hand. The current red-brick electrified Gay Head
Light now stands in its place.