Welcome to the Town of Aquinnah
By: Hannah Fillmore-Patrick
For thousands of years before explorer Bartholomew Gosnold discovered and named Martha’s Vineyard, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head inhabited the town of Aquinnah. Today, the tribe still controls sovereign lands within the town’s boundaries and almost a third of the town’s voters are tribal members. In the nineteenth century, residents began to call the town “Gay Head,” but, in 1997, the town changed its name back to “Aquinnah,” which is Wampanoag for “land under the hill.”
Long before whaling became the island’s main maritime industry in the nineteenth century, Wampanoag Indians harvested whales off Martha’s Vineyard by launching harpoons from small boats or, sometimes, directly from the shore. Herman Melville immortalized the town’s legendary Native American harpooners in the character of Tashtego, who ships aboard the Pequod with Ishmael and Queequeg in his classic novel Moby-Dick.
The oldest lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard, Gay Head Light, is perched on the edge of the colorful Aquinnah Cliffs. The town completed the lighthouse, which features a distinctive red brick tower, in 1799. From the tower at Gay Head Light, visitors can see over Moshup Beach, across the Atlantic Ocean, and all the way to the Elizabeth Islands.
Moshup Beach is located below Gay Head Light, at the base of the Aquinnah Cliffs. In the 1960s and 1970s, this popular beach was a haven for nude beachgoers who came to Aquinnah to enjoy “clay baths” at the foot of the town’s crumbling red-clay cliffs. Since 1965, the National Park Service and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head have patrolled the Aquinnah Cliffs, ensuring beachgoers don’t destroy the unique cliffs.
To the east of Gay Head Light, Lobsterville Beach hugs Menemsha Bight, a fertile part of Nantucket Sound that’s home to stripers, bluefish, bonitos, and false albacores. For centuries, this fertile bight has attracted fishermen to the beach and to the nearby fishing village of Menemsha. Lobsterville Beach is also known for its nesting seagulls, its shells, and its sea glass.
Today, the town of Aquinnah, along with the nearby towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury, make up the hilly “up island” region of Martha’s Vineyard. This region is less developed and, due to its larger summer properties, often considered ritzier than the “down island” towns of Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs.
Town Hall Address:
955 State Road
Aquinnah, MA. 02535
Phone: (508) 645-2300
Cost of Stickers:
Beach Stickers: Free for homeowners, Daily or Weekly rates for others.
Transfer Station Stickers: $10 plus pay-by-bag
Shellfish License: $30 resident, $50 non-resident