A Wash-Ashore’s Island Family Root

Though we’ve settled on the Vineyard, many of us still feel like wash-ashores. As the daughter of a diplomat who moved around the world every year or two, feeling rooted is a challenge. Then, a few years ago in the Vineyard Gazette, I came across some lesser-known names of early settlers of the Vineyard and was surprised to see my husband Jeff’s surname: Wass.

Jeff was born in the Boston area and went into the building trade, establishing his own business on the mainland. After vacationing here as a kid and coming back to fish as a young man, he moved his company to the Island twenty-five years ago, eventually joining Rosbeck Builders Corporation. All the while, he had no knowledge of his Vineyard roots.

Inspired by my excitement at finding his surname in the paper, Jeff dug up an eighty-six-page family history (plus a seven-page bibliography) from a paper bag in the basement. The 1945 manuscript chronicles a journey speckled with unusual twists and turns, and to me reads more like Wilbur Smith–style historical fiction than a typical family tree.

I suppose many a New Englander’s lineage might hint at ties to the forefathers of this country. In Jeff’s case, it’s to George Washington, who, it’s said, at a reception in Philadelphia in 1782, “expressed his pleasure at being present among the people of his forefathers’ blood, as he claimed descent from the family Wass, who emigrated from Denmark.”

Possible founding-father associations aside, the first direct link to my husband is John Wass, of Charleston, Massachusetts, circa 1644. To get to the Vineyard, we skip two generations and go to John’s great-grandson Wilmot, who was the first Wass to stake a claim here after marrying a Chilmark girl, sixteen-year-old Rebecca Allen, in the 1730s.

At first glance, the story seems straightforward. The bride’s grandfather Reverend William Homes, who was pastor of the Chilmark Church, officiated the ceremony. The couple settled in West Tisbury, where they remained for thirty years. (Interestingly, Jeff and I met in West Tisbury and live in Chilmark. Furthermore, we married on February 9, 2006 – 295 years to the day Wilmot was born.)

Wilmot is noted as a “leading citizen, occupying positions of trust,” and he had the credentials to back it up, including deputy sheriff, excise collector, and member of the local militia. The couple’s many children married into the Mayhew and Coffin families, among others, and by the third generation, there were six Wilmots and five Rebeccas. (As it turns out, my husband has distant generations of Island cousins!)

In their fifties, Wilmot and Rebecca picked up stakes and moved to a settlement called Pleasant River in what is now the state of Maine – “a radical and strange move,” says the family history. I can understand they were in search of a better life, drawn by the abundance of fish, lumber, and coarse hay from the salt marches. And I can relate to making dramatic life changes: Thirteen years ago, I left my first marriage and career, lived in Vieques, Puerto Rico, for two winters, enrolled at Yestermorrow Home Design/Build School in Vermont for a four-week course, then moved to the Vineyard sight unseen, not knowing a soul. Blessedly, I met Jeff my second month here, on a beautiful summer evening in the parking lot of Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury. We have been together ever since.

Rebecca and Wilmot’s dramatic move did not initially bode as well for them. The area settlements were fraught with turbulence, as a 1770 petition to the governor recounts: “A great spirit of mobbing and rioting prevails, cursing, swearing, fighting, threatening, stealing, pulling down houses and the like as we can’t sleep a night without fear.” The petition suggests that a justice of the peace be appointed, specifically, “One Captain Wilmot Wass, a man of good reputation who removed from Martha’s Vineyard.”

Thankfully, sons and daughters of Wilmot and Rebecca flourished in Maine and elsewhere, becoming farmers, mill workers, teachers, shipyard owners, lighthouse keepers, fishermen, and seamen, with many Wass captains on record. A story to be told at another time is that of the Wasses and other Vineyard families who set sail in a three-masted clipper from Pleasant River to colonize Palestine; in 1869, Mark Twain wrote about the surviving colonists in his book Innocents Abroad.

When this colorful story of Jeff’s heritage came to light, I thought, three hundred years later, we probably live a stone’s throw from where the original Vineyard Wasses made their home. Turns out, they owned land somewhere between Waldron’s Bottom and Deep Bottom – at most three miles from where we live.