Cuttyhunk Harbour, in the early morning
Moshup was the chief god in the pantheon of spirits that watched over the Wampanoag of Martha’s Vineyard. According to legend, he was a kindly old fellow; a very hard worker, when he had to be so, that is, due to some absolute necessity. The legend chronicled here relates how he was outsmarted and his heavy work brought down by a wily old woman.
Martha’s Vineyard is an island, of roughly 15,000 square miles, off the east coast of Cape Cod Massachusetts. There are roughly 17,000 full-time residents on the island. Today, the cost of living on the island is almost twice that of the mainland.
During the summer, the population of Martha’s Vineyard swells to more than one hundred thousand. The island has long been a summer colony for the affluent of New York City and Boston. Originally, though, the Wampanoag settled on Martha’s Vineyard.
The Wampanoag wanted an easy way to get to the nearby island of Cuttyhunk, the outermost of the three Elizabeth Islands and eight miles away from Martha's Vineyard. Settled for a year or so in 1602, Cuttyhunk is likely the first English settlement in New England. Today, the island, of ninety-one square miles, has a population of roughly sixty.
All those years ago, The Wampanoag asked Moshup to build a bridge across the Vineyard Sound to Cuttyhunk. The Cuttyhunk residents were quite happy with things the way they were. Most especially, did not want strangers trampling about their homes or over harvesting the sassafras that grew wild on their island.
The residents of Cuttyhunk were as earnest, in their request that Moshup not build the bridge, as the residents of Martha’s Vineyard were to get a bridge. In time, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard won Moshup over. He agreed to build the bridge for them.
There was a stipulation for the project. Moshup would start working on the bridge at sundown and stop when he heard the rooster crow, whether the bridge was done or not.
The residents of Martha’s Vineyard weren’t worried. Given his size and strength, he would have plenty of time to complete the bridge, in one night. Meanwhile, on Cuttyhunk, the residents were alarmed and concerned, as they had no idea as to how to stop him.
Then an old woman stepped forward. She told the people, of Cuttyhunk, that they should keep a sharp look out for Moshup and awaken her when they saw him drawing near. She would stop him.
The Cuttyhunkers thought her crazy and laughed. They wondered how a tiny, weak old woman could possibly stop a great giant such as Moshup, especially, when the men of Cuttyhunk, with their strength combined and focused, could not.
The old woman smiled and insisted she had a plan. Finally, the Cuttyhunkers agreed to her terms. They kept a sharp watch from every window.
Eventually, they saw Moshup on the beach below the clay cliffs of Aquinnah, with a huge rock in his hands. He looked out over the water, saw the sun drop into the waters of the western ocean and then threw the stone far out into the Sound. His bridge building was underway.
After that, rocks just about literally showered down into the water as he worked feverishly. Some rocks were as big as the largest wigwams in Aquinnah. The bridge rapidly grew toward Cuttyhunk. Soon, the Cuttyhunkers gathered on the beach to watch the terrific pace that Moshup worked.
As the darkness enveloped them, they remembered the old women. The residents of Cuttyhunk ran to her, with cries of alarm. They asked her what she was going to do, but she said not a word and banished them from her home.
Then, lantern in hand, she went to her chicken coop. There she found her sleeping rooster. Passing the bright light in front of his eyes, she caused him to wake up and think it was the dawn of a new day.
Naturally, he did what any rooster at such time: he began to crow, repeatedly. Moshup, hard at work, out in the Sound, heard the crowing. Now, he knew that it wasn’t dawn, but he had set the rule for to how he would build the bridge and, thus, had no choice. He was compelled to stop working and return to his home on the Vineyard.
The bridge was partially finished and unstable. Soon it collapsed into the water. The stones remain there to this day. Many good ships have gone down on the Devil’s Bridge.
Now, some might wonder why it is that it’s not Moshup’s Bridge. I guess we can blame the early White settlers for that. It was a common practice, of settlers, to demonize local beliefs and, thus, eliminate each one. Oh well, so long as we remember the story, we can pay proper honour to Moshup.
This is the first installment, in a four-part series, on the Wampanoag. They are earliest known settlers of Martha’s Vineyard, which, today, is a summer colony for vacationers, off the east coast of Massachusetts.
Click here to read installment one.
Click here to read installment three.
Click here to read installment four.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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