Island Wilderness is a work of fiction based in large part on real people and events. Most of the characters are drawn from the facts as we know them, or presented with only minor changes. Others like Storm Gull have been created to dramatize issues that were crucial to that moment in history. Like the forensic anatomist who builds up a real life image by adding muscle, flesh and skin to a few fragments of ancient skull, I have tried to add back the anguish, the intrigue, the humor and the love that is often bleached from history, working from extensive historical research, contemporary accounts, old maps and public records. And from my own imagination.
Thomas Mayhew, his wife Jane, his son Thomas , Jr. and his grandson Matthew are all based on the information we have about the real people. John Daggett, Tewanticut, John Pease, Hiacoomes, Hannah Mayhew and the townspeople all existed, and their characters come from the information gathered by Banks, the island's great historian. Matakou, the Indian who sold land to Daggett is invented, but the unlawful sale of the land actually occurred. Daggett was heavily fined, not banished. He sued Mayhew to keep the land and, after a long, bitter but ultimately successful legal battle, he left the island with his family and never returned. Abel, the Indian evangelist was real but he actually lived about ten years later than suggested in the novel. His character, captured in Gookin's contemporary account, Indian Converts, was so wonderful that I couldn't bear to leave him out. The Paumpas, the rogue cult of Indians living on the western headlands, was invented, but that fundamentalist reaction among the Indians was real.
Colonel Lovelace, Matthias Nicolls and Cornelius Steenwyck were the real examiners of Mayhew in 1671, and Lovelace ended his life just as the story tells it. Calliope is a figment of the imagination, as is the old Walloon, typical of several spies who were active in Fort James at the time.
Storm Gull is entirely fictional, and there is no suggestion in the historical record that Mayhew ever had such a friend. But I believe that one of the central issues in Mayhew's life—and in everyone's at that time—was how to reconcile the harsh theocratic government of the old world with the natural, even spiritual freedom of the new. It was a personal experience, and Storm Gull allows us to feel that struggle in dramatic terms. Captain Pierce, the mercenary, is a fictional composite of a number of military advisors who came to the island in those years, including Miles Standish. They encouraged a much more aggressive defense than Mayhew was willing to adopt, and the genocide they advocated against the New England Indians became a tragic reality.
Most of the events in the story are drawn from actual occurrences. Mayhew's life in Boston and his purchase of the patents happened essentially as told. Pease's offer of a red coat, Hiacoomes' brave stand against the pawwaws, the Governor's decision to enlist the Indians as allies, and the Indians' farewell to young Mayhew are stories island children are taught even today. And, as a result of the mooncussers' piracy that stormy night, Mayhew really was summoned to New York at the age of seventy-eight to explain his stubborn independence. The arrival of the sheep and the horse race that followed are imagined. Something like that must have occurred, though, and I enjoy thinking that it might have been the origin of today's annual Agricultural Fair to which we all troop each summer.
The devastation of the Indians by smallpox is sadly true. At least half of the Indian population of the island died of the disease within twenty years of the colonists' arrival. Confronted by the technology of muskets and the ruthless ambition of the settlers, the Wampanoag people and their culture were largely destroyed, and their notion that we should share the earth as we share the seas has vanished. But it is worth repeating that Thomas Mayhew, that prideful patrician whose family, friends and neighbors resisted so many of his ways, nonetheless kept the peace. In his years as Governor, forty in all, not a single Indian or settler was killed.
Such a reconstruction of the island's early years is possible entirely because of the work of Dr. Charles Banks who compiled and published the History of Martha's Vineyard in 1911; of Eleanor Ransom Mayhew, Gale Huntington, Arthur R. Railton, Tom Hale and others who have done so much to teach us about our origins; and of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society whose loving devotion to our past has provided the best record a small community could wish for, seven miles at sea.