2: Fugitives from slavery escape via Menemsha, aided by the Wampanoags

The Gazette in 1854 reported this article: “Randall Burton, a fugitive from enslavement, escaped from a ship in Holmes Hole and was rescued by ‘two women’, who took him to a swamp in Gay Head. It appears that the Sheriff attempted to arrest Mr. Burton under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1851, but he became ‘entranced’ and was unable to make the arrest.” (The Vineyard Gazette, 1854)

Menemsha PlaqueMr. Burton was able through this intervention to escape from Menemsha to New Bedford and from there to Canada and freedom. It is believed that Mr. Burton was hidden in Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) by members of the Wampanoag community. The Wampanoag Tribe’s history includes aiding two known escaped slaves, deemed fugitives by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1851. This act was created as a compromise between the north and south, making it a crime to help a slave escape from enslavement to freedom. This act included rewards for the return of fugitives, a strong incentive for reporting them. While there are only two known fugitives aided, it is safe to assume that more helped towards freedom by members of this local community.

Edgar Jones is the other recorded slave to escape via Menemsha. Beluah Salisbury Vanderhoop told of the tribe assisting a slave known as Edgar Jones to his granddaughter. The tale begins of Mr. Jones dreaming of a ship during his enslavement that would travel north and bring him to freedom. That ship did indeed arrive and upon speaking to the sailors, they agreed to hide Mr. Jones under lumber bound for the north. On a stop at Martha’s Vineyard, Mr. Jones’ presence was discovered by the Captain, who appeared sympathetic to his plight. The crew, however, knew better and told him to flee on the island while the Captain left the ship to inform authorities and collect a valuable reward.

Somehow, Mr. Jones met the helpful and truly sympathetic acquaintance of Mr. Vanderhoop. He had Mrs. Vanderhoop disguise Mr. Jones as a woman and hide him in the garret of her home. She informed the rest of her tribe about Mr. Jones’ situation, and when the sheriff and his men arrived at the reservation to hunt for the escaped slave, the tribal members were determined Mr. Jones not be retaken, and their efforts were successful. It is guessed, since the tribe was actively engaged in fishing, that he was put upon a tribal vessel for New Bedford at night, and then passed along to fellow fisherman who would assist Mr. Jones up the coast to Canada.

While the bounty on these men would have greatly helped a tribe struggling to make a meager living from the sea, the Wampanoags conviction and courage to see injustice and help escaped slaves towards freedom makes Menemsha a compelling point on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.

Adriana Ignacio, a tribal member, speaking on September 2, 2002, at an unveiling ceremony of two AAHTMV marker plaques in Menemsha, said: “Our story is one of bravery and compassion, of people doing what is right when to do so meant breaking the law.”

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