Native Americans of Gay Head Light Helped Save 21 Lives
in New England’s Worst Disaster
One of the main events that has brought lots of news this Spring involved Gay Head Lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard, which was recently moved back from dangerous cliffs. With so many fierce storms over the past years, erosion along the multicolored clay cliffs caused the lighthouse to be a mere 46 feet away from toppling over. The 450-ton brick lighthouse started its move along steel rails lubricated with soap and driven by hydraulic pistons on Thursday, May 28, and arrived at its new location about 135 away from the cliff edge to a cheering crowd on Saturday morning, May 30th. Gay Head lighthouse and the nearby life saving station in Chilmark is also famous for its personnel of Native Americans, and their involvement in the rescue of survivors of the wreck of City of Columbus, one of New England’s worst disasters in the late 1800s.
This historic beacon is still currently located about 130 feet above the cliffs on the western side of Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. It was built in a region surrounded by the Wampanaog Native American tribe where many descendants live there today as well. It lies in the town of Aquinnah and is often referred to as Aquinnah light by the locals. The lighthouse stands guard where an underwater rocky ledge known as the Devil’s Bridge reaches out from the Gay Head Cliffs threatening ships that enter into Vineyard Sound and along the main shipping route to Boston Harbor from the south. The ledges were considered one of the most dangerous points in the region. They form a large cluster of submerged rocks creating a double ledge.
The lighthouse is also famous from a historical point as having the first Native Americans to be employed and serve as volunteers at both the lighthouse, and the lifesaving station nearby in Chilmark. In the 1800s these were separate branches of rescue service but all personnel worked together.
In 1884, Keeper Horatio Pease’s assistants were members of the Wampanoag tribe who were mostly volunteers to help with the duties of the lighthouse, and they assisted him in various rescue efforts. In nearby Chilmark, the Massachusetts Humane Society Lifesavers had a lifesaving station managed by Chief Simon Johnson from the local Wampanoag tribe. His crews were ether fishermen or whalers who would volunteer to assist in rescue missions.
The Rescue of the City of Columbus
In spite of the power of the lighthouse, shipwrecks would still occur quite often in the region. One of New England’s worst maritime disasters occurred during this time when the steamer City of Columbus driven by gale force winds, ran aground on Devil’s Bridge and sank on a bitter cold day on January 18, 1884 at night, drowning 103 persons on board in a less than a half hour.
At around 5 AM, the wreck was spotted over choppy surf from the shore by lighthouse Keeper Horatio N. Pease at the Gay Head Lighthouse. Pease gathered a volunteer crew of six Wampanoag Native Americans who were known as part of the Gay Head Lifesavers from the local Wampanoag tribe to assist him in the rescue. Chief Simon Johnson from the local Wampanoag tribe also headed up the Massachusetts Humane Society Gay Head Lifesaving Station in nearby Chilmark and helped to gather additional volunteers for another boat. A few of the Wampanoag men were sent on horseback to a telegraph station in Vineyard Haven to alert the mainland of the disaster. The one lifeboat from the wreck was also sighted near the beach by the lighthouse and the five exhausted survivors were brought into a neighboring house and given food and dry clothes.
The first boat of Wampanoag volunteers organized by Pease was finally launched from the beach, but capsized from the thunderous freezing surf. Luckily everyone made it back to shore safely. A second attempt was made around 7:30 AM where it took over an hour to reach the stranded wreck. The rescuers were exhausted, drenched, and freezing from the bitter cold after rowing over the raging waves. The lifeboat crew feared approaching the steamer would cause their own boat to smash onto the rocks. As they neared the distressed vessel, they called to those on the rigging to dive into the icy waters to be rescued. Seven reluctant passengers made the terrifying jump into the sea and swam towards the lifeboat. The crew brought the craft alongside the survivors and hauled them aboard. With as much strength as they could muster, they made their way back over the thrashing waters and biting winds towards shore by the lighthouse and finally were close to shore around 10 AM. The lifeboat was overcrowded with the additional seven survivors and got caught in the raging surf. It capsized a short distance from the beach, dumping all into the icy waters. All managed to swim to the beach and safely make it on dry land, but the boat was destroyed.
A second boat manned by the Massachusetts Humane Society Lifesavers consisting also of Wampanoag Native Americans from nearby Chilmark rowed out to gather more survivors. The volunteer crew had recently come back from a long voyage on a successful whaling hunt. The boat was tossed around effortlessly by the huge waves and biting winds, making the rescue efforts exhausting. Through their tenacity in not giving up, the brave crews of Gay Head’s Humane Society managed to bring several more survivors ashore. With little time for rest, they started out again to gather another group of survivors determined to help at all costs, even at the risk of their own lives
The crew of the Revenue Cutter Dexter, which happened to be in the region, heard the distress signal, and also aided in rescue efforts. Immediately a boat was launched with Lieutenant John Rhodes in charge of five volunteers. The pounding waves carried the boat up and down as it took some time to reach the ill-fated steamer. As the lifeboat made for the wreck, it became apparent that it would be impossible to bring the craft directly alongside the masts and rigging where the remaining survivors were clinging for their lives. Upon reaching the wreck, the heavy seas were still breaking over the vessel, which was surrounded with debris and bodies, making the task even more difficult than expected. Rhodes yelled for the men clinging to the masts to jump into the water. One by one, seven more men jumped into the waves, as Rhodes and his crew managed to get close enough to haul each onto the boat when they rose to the surface. The crew on the crowded lifeboat now made their way back to the Dexter, where one of the survivors died shortly afterwards on deck from exposure. Rhodes and his crew nearly exhausted and freezing from the biting winds and spray, made another trip out to the wreck over the mountainous waves and was able to retrieve one other reluctant survivor back to the Dexter.
As Rhodes and his crew rested from exhaustion and exposure, Lieutenant Charles Kennedy of the Dexter, with a party of four volunteers, was lowered into the thrashing waves and made his way over to the wreck. The debris was still everywhere and again the craft was unable to get too close to the ship, as it would certainly have been smashed against the vessel. Kennedy managed to talk four more exhausted survivors into jumping into the icy waters. As they reluctantly jumped one by one, Kennedy and his crew managed to quickly maneuver the boat to grab the struggling survivors into the safety of their boat. While they then made their way over the waves to the Dexter, the second lifeboat containing the 6-man boat crew of Wampanoag Native Americans managed to retrieve a few more survivors and transported them onto the Dexter. Again, with little time for rest, the Gay Head lifesavers started heading back towards the wreck, exhausted and freezing in the gale force winds, but determined to help in the recovery efforts at all costs. Rhodes went out twice more and retrieved a couple more survivors, as others had perished upon reaching the Dexter.
On one attempt, as Rhodes and his crew neared the wreck, the crew of Native Americans from Gay Head were still in the area searching for any survivors. Rhodes and his assistant Roth tried to bring their boat along the wreck, but the attempts proved unsuccessful as the waves and debris prevented their efforts. Rhodes saw the Gay Head lifeboat crew and called for their help. They maneuvered their smaller craft alongside his in the churning seas, and he jumped into their lifeboat to try to get closer to the wreck. He tied a rope around his waist and the brave crew was able to bring their boat within 30 feet of the wreck. Rhodes then jumped into the icy waters and started swimming towards the wreck. He nearly reached his destination over the rising waves when he was struck by a large piece of timber on the leg and started to sink. The Wampanoag crew quickly pulled him back onto the boat and found that the timber had created quite a bloody gash on his leg, which needed to be treated. All on the boat were exhausted and in danger of freezing to death from exposure and mustered all their strength to row back to the Dexter through the gale force winds. One final attempt was made for two still clinging to the rigging, but they perished before reaching the Dexter.
By 4 PM that afternoon, Captain Gabrielson of the Dexter decided there were no more survivors left on the wreck and pulled up anchor. He transported 21 survivors with four who had died from exposure, and headed towards New Bedford’s port. Back at Gay Head light in Martha’s Vineyard, the local Wampanoag families opened their homes and provided those survivors from the one lifeboat, and those brought ashore by the Native American Lifesavers assistance with food, clothing and medical treatment to nurse them to health. The bodies and possessions of those that had perished that had washed ashore were brought to the Gay Head Community Baptist Church to be claimed.
Despite the frigid weather and terrible gale force winds both the Wampanoag men and the crews on the Dexter repeatedly went into the icy waters and bitter winds out to the wreck of the City of Columbus, risking their own lives to make sure all survivors were rescued. The Native American volunteers of the Gay Head Lifesaving crews were involved in the rescue of 21 of the 29 survivors from the wreck. They managed to row out multiple times through the thunderous surf from the beach out to the wreck and bring some of the survivors through the biting winds and raging waves back to the shore for help until the Dexter arrived. Determined to help at any cost, again they went out and helped in the transport of survivors from the wreck to the Dexter.
The Wampanoag Native Americans who made up the crews of the Gay Head Light and Massachusetts Humane Society Lifesavers, and the crew of the Dexter were honored for their “brave and humane conduct”. They were written about locally and nationally as heroes. Each of the Wampanoag Native American volunteers received rare silver or bronze medals for their heroic efforts by the Massachusetts Humane Society.
This coordination of the branches of Lighthouse Service, Life Saving Service, and also the Revenue Cutter Service became one of the first successful coordinated attempts, which led to many more successful future rescues in other regions. These three rescue branches evolved into our current Coast Guard in 1915.
Gay Head’s First Native American Keeper
Gay Head Lighthouse also had the first Native American Keeper, Charles Vanderhoop, an Aquinnah Wampanoag Indian born in 1882, became one of the lighthouse’s most popular keepers known for his openness in allowing many tourists and locals to enjoy the view from the top of Gay Head tower during his service from 1910 through 1933. It is believed he showed over 300,000 guests during his tenure, including President Calvin Coolidge. He and his brother Bert also owned a restaurant close to the lighthouse originally owned by their parents.
The area is beautifully quiet on Martha’s Vineyard western shoreline where people come to relax and enjoy walking along Moshup Beach below the cliffs for spirituality and to enjoy the views. At times nudists for connectivity frequent it. Aquinnah and Chilmark are for those who desire to get a way from the busy ports and relax. When you vista Martha’s Vineyard, explore this quiet area, and think of the historical significance of the Wampanoag Native Americans to the success of Gay Head Lighthouse.
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