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THE AQUINNAH CLIFFS are composed of one hundred and fifty feet of sediment from six glaciers - including red and white clays, green sands, white quartz, black organic soil, and lignite. They tell the story of the past hundred million years one colorful layer at a time. The streaks of red in the Cliff are from the blood of whales that Moshup would drag onto the Cliffs to cook. The discarded remains from his table are now fossilized deep in the clay. To the Wampanoag, the Aquinnah Cliffs are a sacred spot for the very reason that Moshup chose this special place as his home - they are a watchful place of great bounties.
Before there was even a paved road, the Aquinnah Cliffs were a destination for tourists traveling by land or sea. From far and wide people came to see the colored cliffs and the famous lighthouse with its Fresnel Lens. In the late 1800s, visitors came into Aquinnah (then Gay Head) by ship and then were driven in ox carts to see the lighthouse or dine in one of the many restaurants offering lobster dinners. The allure of the area is no less today than it was then (though the trip is less arduous since the roads were paved in the 1920s!) One hundred years later, visitors are still coming from faraway places to see the unmatched beauty of the Aquinnah Cliffs. All businesses located on the Cliffs are owned by tribal members and continue to serve visitors and provide for their needs from April to November.
THE AQUINNAH CULTURAL CENTER (ACC) encourages Wampanoag cultural enrichment and is currently sponsoring cultural classes for all tribal members, while also raising funds for a museum facility.
AQUINNAH LIGHT is the oldest lighthouse on Noepe. The original lighthouse was built in 1799 from bricks made of clay from the Aquinnah Cliffs. "She is the strongest light on the northeast seaboard," some proudly said when the light had her famous Fresnel Lens, which consisted of 1,008 prisms lit by sperm oil supplied from whaling ships. The Fresnel Lens was installed in 1856 after winning a Gold Medal at the World's Fair in Paris. The first and only Aquinnah Wampanoag keeper was Charles W. Vanderhoop, who served from 1920-1933. Under him, the light had an excellent reputation for reliability. Charlie was also known for his knowledge of the Fresnel Lens. Among the many people he entertained with stories and information during tours of the light was former President Calvin
Clay from the Cliffs in modern days has been used for bricks, pottery, and paint. Early versions of Aquinnah Light were built with bricks made from Aquinnah clay. While there once was more red and purple in the Cliffs, those colors have eroded away. Now the Cliffs are protected as a National Historic Landmark: climbing and the removal of clay are both prohibited by law.
AQUINNAH TOWN HALL features a plaque dedicated by Governor Samuel McCall in 1918 commemorating that Aquinnah sent more men to World War I in proportion to its size than any other community in New England. All but one of the men were Aquinnah Wampanoag. Another plaque nearby lists the men by name.
BOYER'S HILL is the site of the Wampanoag Tribal Facility. Children who once picked berries here now work here for the betterment of the tribal community. The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) has a popularly elected tribal council form of government. Meetings are open to all tribal members to encourage involvement in all phases of community development. It is also the site of the Legends of Moshup Pageant held on the third Saturday of July and August each summer. The Pageant is open to the public.
CATTLE POUND is where stray cattle were brought for holding and identification when their owners were not around, beginning around the early 18th century. The cattle pound was important in that it established firm boundaries for Wampanoag land. The tribe rented their land to the settlers in exchange for "shares" (a portion of the livestock born or crop harvested). When their lessees did not pay their rent, they could hold the settlers' cattle in the pound until they were up-to-date on payment. Cattle that strayed from the settlers land onto Wampanoag land could also be confiscated until claimed.
THE CITY OF COLUMBUS On January 18, 1884 at 3:43 am the Gay Head Lighthouse keeper sounded the alarm. The City of Columbus, a 275-foot luxury steamship, was going from Boston to Savannah when it crashed onto the shoals of Devil's Bridge during a tremendous storm. Despite the frigid weather and terrible gales, Wampanoag men launched a rescue. Again and again, the men went into the icy waters - rowing lifeboats out to the wreck. They were able to save 29 of the 132 people on board. The bodies and possessions of the less fortunate who washed ashore were brought to Gay Head Community Baptist Church to be claimed. The City of Columbus is remembered as the worst shipwreck off the shores of Noepe. Wampanoag rescuers received Massachusetts Humane Society medals of honor, which are proudly passed down
through the generations from one family member to another.
DEVIL'S BRIDGE is a treacherous shoal and favorite fishing spot off Aquinnah. According to tribal history, Moshup was building a bridge to Cuttyhunk with heavy boulders when a giant crab latched onto his foot. In his pain and anger, Moshup became distracted and abandoned the project. The scattered remains have been the site of many a shipwreck, including the City of Columbus disaster.
DEVILS'S DEN is the furthest point out on the Cliffs. This is where Moshup is believed to have lived with his wife Squant and many children before the European settlers came. When Moshup was hungry, he would wade into the water for a whale and cook it over an open fire. In order to fuel his fire, he pulled up trees by their roots, leaving the Aquinnah Cliffs without any heavy timber today.
GAY HEAD COMMUNITY BAPTIST CHURCH is the oldest native Baptist church in continuous existence in the country. It began in 1693 as the first Christian gathering of Wampanoag. The pews, which are one piece of solid wood, have been used for the past 150 years. As people moved up from the Old South Road section of Aquinnah to the center, their "meeting house" came with them. When the new church was being built, the rafters from the former were taken by ox teams to be used for another house. The folks living in this house were said to sometimes hear natives singing hymns of praise.
GAY HEAD SCHOOL was built in 1827 and enlarged to its present size in 1857. Until 1968 Gay Headers went to school here for grades 1 through 6. The two doors in front allowed boys and girls to enter the school separately. Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal members Clara Vanderhoop, Nannetta Madison, and Helen Manning were teachers here. Helen's mother, Evelyn Moss Vanderhoop, also taught here. The building is now used as the town library.
HERRING CREEK was dug by Wampanoag in the 19th century to allow alewives to run up from Menemsha Pond to Squibnocket to spawn in the spring months. The herring roe is eaten. The herring themselves are cured and sold for cod and lobster bait. At one time even the scales of the herring were sent to New Bedford where they were made into "Priscilla" pearls. Old Ones from the tribe remember coming to the runs and scooping the herring out of the water as the fish swam southward into Squibnocket Pond. The herring run on tribal lands continues to this day.
LOBSTERVILLE was a small, seasonal fishing village started around 1878 during an upsurge in lobster fishing. It was destroyed by the 1938 hurricane. The beach here used to be lined with lobster pots, fishing gear, and tubs where flounder and skates were salted together with trash fish. Dealers came in from New York to buy lobster at five cents apiece. With the dredging of Menemsha Creek, the tribal fishing community gradually moved to West Basin and Red Beach. Net House (where nets were once taken in, repaired, and hung out when not in use) is among the only remains.
Both sides of LOBSTERVILLE ROAD going south toward Menemsha pond are Wampanoag tribal lands. The wild cranberry bogs here are the scene of Cranberry Day, observed by tribal members each October.
MENEMSHA AND SQUIBNOCKET PONDS have always been under the care of the Aquinnah Wampanoag. (In more recent history, the care for the ponds is shared with the towns of Chilmark and Aquinnah.) The Ponds are both very healthy. Menemsha Pond qualifies as "pristine" by Environmental Protection Agency standards. The land between Menemsha and Squibnocket ponds is known as Nashaquitsa, meaning "at the little divided island."
Squibnocket means "at the place of the red cliff bank." Archeological records show that the shellfish resources found in Squibnocket today are the same as those found more than 7,000 years ago.
MONEY ROCK was a landmark that Old Ones can remember at its original home in East Pasture. This great stone got its name from its ability to ring like a coin if struck in the center. Many a Wampanoag child would walk past Money Rock on their way to Menemsha Pond and pitch a stone at it to make the rock ring. In 1966, when the Department of the Interior designated the Gay Head (Aquinnah) Cliffs a National Landmark, people thought it would be nice to have the stone moved there. So the stone was brought to the Cliffs and, during a ceremony attended by Secretary of the Interior Morris Udall and other dignitaries, a plaque was placed on it. The Rock - which once sung when struck - has never rung again.
MOSHUP TRAIL was completed in 1958 and follows the south shore across the dunes to an exit near the lighthouse. So important is Moshup that the main Aquinnah town road along the shore has been named after him. When Moshup envisioned Europeans coming to his fishing grounds, he is said to have left Aquinnah. He then changed his children into killer whales, turned his pets into stone, and with his wife Squant walked down the beach to disappear behind Zack's Cliffs. Fog today is attributed to the smoke of Moshup's peudelee (pipe). Cries heard off the south side during a storm are said to be Squant calling to her lost children.
NORTH, SOUTH, AND OLD EAST PASTURES were Wampanoag common pastures used to plant acres and acres of corn and graze livestock. Old East Pasture was used alternately with Middle and South Pastures for grazing and was divided by stone walls into three smaller pastures: Hog Pasture, Middle Pasture, and Fatting Pasture (where the best feed for livestock was found). North Pasture was the site of all the cranberry bogs, before the '38 hurricane wiped most of them out.
OLD SOUTH ROAD was created from the original path to the Aquinnah settlement on the Cliffs. Before Aquinnah was a town, the majority of folks lived along Old South Road, which was the center of activity. Though it is now impassable, parts of this once important road are still used as a walking path. The "newer" paved South Road used today was built in the Twenties as a more direct way into Aquinnah.
WAWITUKQ is the Wampanoag name referring to "the winding, twisting river" that connected Menemsha Pond to the Bight.