Aquinnah is not the place to go looking for interesting houses without trespassing. Interesting stories, yes, but the houses visible from the road are few and far between.

The exception of course is the Vanderhoop Homestead. Tucked into a curve of the cliffs with its pointed roof peaks announcing its presence, it has been a magnet over the years for all kinds of speculation and comment.

The house has been recently restored to what it was originally. There is no heat (hence no visitors in the winter), and its plumbing is rudimentary. The original outbuildings are gone, although stone foundation remnants remain. There is a soapstone sink in the kitchen. The rooms are small but filled with natural light and with donated furniture and pictures. It is altogether interesting, and the interest is enhanced by its docent Linda Coombs.

The homestead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is now owned by the town of Aquinnah and occupied by the Aquinnah Cultural Center. It is open to the public in the summertime.

Until its purchase by the town, it had been owned by the Vanderhoop family. This house is a good example of a truly historic house, not for its architectural beauty, but rather for the contributions of the family who inhabited it and the cultural remnants which it contains. It would have been a travesty for this place to not have been preserved. Luckily, the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, which preserved the land around it, and the town of Aquinnah have made this place an exemplar of what a truly historic house actually is.

It is not an old house by New England standards, and it is unclear exactly when the house was finished. Parts of it may have been moved to the site by its first owner, Edwin DeVries Vanderhoop, the son of William Adrian Vanderhoop and his wife Beulah Oocouch Saulsbury.

Edwin purchased half the land from his father who acquired it in 1890 from William Morton to whom it had been set off in the Division of the Indian Lands. The other part Edwin received in the set off.

Edwin had served in the Navy in the Civil War on the battleship Mohaska, then had spent a few years as a whaler out of New Bedford. Later he attended Wayland Seminary in Washington D.C., a school for future black ministers and teachers, which eventually became the Virginia Union seminary.

Edwin traveled to Pine Buff, Ark. to teach, probably at the Branch Normal School, a college created by the Morrill Act of 1862 and which is now the Pine Bluff branch of the University of Arkansas. His sister Anna, who was also a teacher there, died in 1881 of “brain fever.”

It was at Pine Bluff that Edwin met Mary Amelia Cleggett, who was also a teacher. Mary was the daughter of William S. Cleggett, a free black man and his wife Rebecca Hollensworth.

Edwin and Mary married in March of 1883 at Pine Bluff and in 1884 their first child, Nannetta, was born.

I don’t know why the Vanderhoops returned to Gay Head, but I have my thoughts. The death of Anna may have been a factor. Edwin’s parents were getting older. Also in the 1880s, Pine Bluff was very prosperous, but no place for a mixed race couple to raise a family in peace. So, in 1885 they returned to the birth place of Edwin to raise their family and contribute to the political, social and economic life of the newly formed (1870) town of Gay Head.

Edwin became the first Native American to represent his town at the Massachusetts General Court. Mary became the Gay Head Post Master in 1908. By that time, the couple had seven children: Nanetta (who married Napoleon Madison), Anna (who married Merian Hayson), Edwin P. (who died in 1909 in Maine), William D., David F., Leonard F. and Pauline. All of the children, with the exception of David, apparently were named for Edwin’s siblings.

The house was crowded in those early years, but by 1923, the year of Edwin’s death, most had married. Mary lived until 1935 and died in New Bedford at the home of her daughter, Nannetta, who was teaching there. David and Leonard F. remained at Gay Head. For the most part they and their brother William were fishermen. David also served in the Coast Guard and Leonard had been a nurse in a hospital. David’s art work can still be seen at the house.

Anna lived with her husband Merian Hayson, a native of Washington D.C., who kept a store and gas station in Gay Head. Pauline never married, but became successful both as a teacher and as an inn keeper and property owner in Gay Head. In addition to raising these seven children, Mary became one of the first people to write about and memorialize the stories of the oral tradition of her husband’s tribe. She first published these in a series of articles in the New Bedford Standard Times in 1904. In 1920, the Vineyard Gazette re-published them. This reprint was probably occasioned by Henry Hough’s father who was the editor and publisher of the New Bedford Standard Times and who gave the Gazette to his son for a wedding gift.

Mary made a point of learning and teaching others about their singular heritage. Her Gazette obituary mentions that her writings were a standard of reference for scholars. These stories and other writings have been extremely helpful to others who have written about and studied the Wampanoag culture and history, so it is quite fitting that the home she and Edwin made at the rise of the hill is now the Aquinnah Cultural Center.