From the July 2, 1976 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

The history of Martha’s Vineyard during the American Revolution does not always offer patently reassuring images. But it offers other images that confirm our beliefs because it shows the independent character of the Island and its people.

On Oct. 19, 1774, citizens of Tisbury met in the courthouse to discuss the formation of a revolutionary committee, as recommended by the newly founded Continental Congress. Three weeks later, the county congress adopted a series of resolutions which called for a rejection of the “Arbitrary and Despotick Government” of King George III.

A committee for safety began to organize the Island defense in 1775, and petitioned the General Court in September for the authority to enlist men. According to Charles Edward Banks, author of The History of Martha’s Vineyard, the small population of the Island — 2,881 in 1776 — was matched by an equally small revolutionary spirit, and a letter written by the chairman of the committee on safety revealed that most Islanders chosen for duty had refused to take their oath of office:

“The real state of things here, Sir, as I apprehend is this,” the letter ran. “There are some here who are really not well affected to the present Government, nor to the measures now pursued in Defence of our civil liberties, and these ill affected Persons, endeavor to embarrass the establishing of Civil Government in this County.”

A question arose several months after this letter was written as to whether the Vineyard had been supplying the British with provisions, but the General Court ultimately cleared the Island of these charges. That out of the way, the Island continued to petition for troops and arms to help its defense. By July 1, 1776, there were about 500 men stationed on the Island, half local militia, half from off-Island.

It was a sufficient force, large enough to ward off small attacks or make small skirmishes against the British ships passing through the Sound. But on Nov. 16 of that year, an order was given by the General Court for all forces to leave the Island. General Howe was advancing in New York, and troops there were seriously outnumbered. Twenty-five men remained to defend the Island, and King’s troops took Newport as a stronghold.

More petitions were sent out - by Tisbury in December, 1776, by Chilmark in January of 1777. But the word from the General Court was handed down as follows:

“It is hereby recommended to the Inhabitants of Martha’s Vineyard to send off said Island as many of their cattle, sheep and other goods as are not absolutely necessary to their present support.”

Needless to say, the Islanders were not please on being left without any aid, and no reference was made to the war in town records during the next 12 months. The Islanders could not have wanted to invite the attack that active war efforts would bring.

A total of 4,333 British soldiers were sent to get provisions for the companies stationed in Newport in September of 1778. Under the command of Major General Sir Charles Grey, a good number of them sailed into Vineyard Haven harbor in more than 40 ships, and Beriah Nortonm colonel of the Island militia, went down to the landing to see what they wanted. General Grey let it be known that the British would have the Island’s sheep and cattle, or would resort to force.

The raid lasted four days, and it is here that Island spirit came to the fore. Arms were hidden, buried in the woods, and cows and pigs were tied up there too. There’s an old tale of a girl who locked herself and her prize cow in the attic to avoid capture, another of an old woman who tried to hide a pig behind her petticoats when the British invaded her house. When they discovered the animal, and lunged for it, she picked up a broom and, according to the story, cried, “Away with ye, cursed seed of the oppressor! Despoilers of the widow and the fatherless! Take what ye have of mine and begone! But this is Josey’s pig, and not a hair of him shall ye touch!”

Major Grey summed up the Island losses in the following manner:

“In Old Town Harbor, Martha’s Vineyard: 1 brig of 150 tons burthen, burnt by the “Scorpion.” 1 schooner of 70 tons burthen burnt by ditto.
23 whaleboats taken or destroyed.
Arms taken at Martha’s Vineyard:
388 stand, with bayonets, pouches, some powder, and a quantity of lead, as by artillery return.
1000 (pounds) sterling, in paper, the amount of a tax collected by authority of the Congress, was received at Martha’s Vineyard for the Collector. Cattle and sheep taken from Martha’s Vineyard: 300 oxen, 10,000 sheep.”

For the next 15 years, Colonel Beriah Norton tried to obtain payment for the Island’s losses that Major Grey had promised upon his arrival in 1778. But the attempts were fruitless. The Vineyard had made its contribution to the war in the form of a loss to the British, and its effects were strongly felt for the next 25 years.

Compiled by Hilary Wall