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.