Devil’s Den

From a 1933 Gazette edition:

Many Vineyarders and many Island visitors have heard the name the Devil’s Den. And there are many Islanders and others who have visited the place when it was intact. Yet so great are the changes wrought by the activities of man and nature in the space of a few decades that comparatively few people can find the spot today, and only a few know the history of this spot that bears such a fearsome name.

To go back through Island history, Devil’s Den might be found to be the name bestowed by white missionaries who patterned their actions after the early Christian missionaries in the British Isles. Historians relate that in order to discourage Druid and Scandinavian customs and to instill a horror of the deities of those faiths, the missionaries renamed many points of interest Devil’s Bed, and so on. And so it may well have been on the Vineyard, for the den was named first by the Indians, who called it Moshup’s Den, naming it for their popular deity who was supposed to have lived there.

It was a deep ravine on the northerly slope of Gay Head’s cliffs. Narrow and brush-grown, it was said that when the visitor penetrated to the deepest portion, it was damp and cold as a cellar might be, and that the sun’s rays could not penetrate to the innermost corners. From a nearby point extended Devil’s Bridge, or Moshup’s Bridge, the dangerous ledge of rocks that makes out from the Gay Head shore extending toward Cuttyhunk, and which was supposed to have been stepping stones cast into the water by Moshup in an attempt to wade across to the Elizabeth Islands.

But the den itself was a place of fascinating interest. Here, said the Indian tradition, lived Moshup, his wife and their sons, feeding on the sea creatures which they were able to catch near the shore. Did anyone doubt the story, they would scratch the steep banks of the cliffs to disclose huge bones and teeth of prehistoric sharks, shellfish and crabs, all petrified in the clay, cast out by the Moshup family after their feasts in the ravine. Scores of tales have been told and are still told of the activities of these beings. One such tradition was to the effect that their campfire was never extinguished, and it is a fact that steam or smoke issued from fissures in the cliffs. Chemical action is believed to have caused the phenomenon, but it supported the tradition and was viewed with awe by many who beheld it.

Although Christianity prevailed among Island Indians from a very early date, it was a fact that many of them had a very wholesome respect for Moshup’s Den, and for certain other landmarks named for the same character. It was not merely superstition, but some feeling that went much deeper. Gay Head Indians have never been heard to say much about this, unless, in years past, visitors have attempted to employ some small boy to pilot them through the hills. They would then discover there was a deep-seated belief in the tribe that certain things were best left alone.

It was the white man, guilty of destroying about all that ever belonged to the Indian, who brought about the destruction and almost the obliteration of the Devil’s Den. A vein of valuable clay was discovered in the cliffs, and much of it lay in the depths of the Devil’s Den. Arrangements were made with the town to mine this clay, and there must have been much earnest discussion of this matter among the Gay Head Indians, but the white man had his way in the end. The clay was mined and the profits therefrom enriched the townspeople and provided employment.

The interior of the den was ravaged and then the business was abandoned, leaving just a raw gully in the cliff face to mark the spot where Moshup and his family once dwelt. A few bushes and an occasional patch of grass have found soil in which to root, and there are still fossils to be found now and then in the great middens of the Indian gods. But the mystery and eerie atmosphere of the den have been destroyed, the name has fallen into disuse, and even its locality is rapidly being forgotten.

No wrath from the spirit world befell as a result of this sacrilege, no bane fell upon Gay Head, nor, so far as it is known, upon the white men who directed the destructive action. But Gay Head cliffs are crumbling, crumbling rapidly. Great slides occur in the early spring, and the sea undermines the brilliantly colored banks, causing a wastage that has eaten away much of the picturesque landscape. Many of the Gay Head Indians believe that the cliffs are doomed and perhaps this is true. They do not mention Moshup when speaking of the crumbling of the cliffs, but the older inhabitants will often look far into the distance and observe that digging hastened their destruction, and when they utter these words the understanding listener knows instinctively that they are thinking of the old Indian deity who was so good and kind to their ancestors, and whose lodge would never have been disturbed had it not been for the mercenary white men.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner