Lost diary recounts whalemen’s fate

Homes-ChilmarkI went searching the other day in the quiet Chilmark Cemetery on Martha’s Vineyard to track down the headstone of a long-time island resident, William Homes. The lettering on many of the headstones dating back to the early 1700s is worn and faded, at times nearly impossible to read, and it took some time to find Homes’ marker. It was my son who finally spotted it near the crest of a hill. William Homes had served for much of the early 1700s as a minister in Chilmark. He also kept a diary which, 300 years later, provides a rare glimpse into a vicious string of pirate attacks that occurred along the New England coast in the summer of 1722.

Homes’ church in Chilmark was only a few miles from where Thomas Mumford had likely grown up. Mumford was a young Wampanoag man who worked on whaling crews from the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket during a period when whalemen still hunted in the Atlantic and had not yet begun to venture on extended voyages to the Pacific. On the first Sunday in June 1722, Mumford’s crew was captured by the pirate Edward Low — a man who would soon be so feared that one British official claimed “a greater monster never infested the seas.” In a single day, Low’s crew captured three vessels, tearing them apart, stripping them of sails and rigging, beating the men aboard, and choosing several of the Wampanoag whalemen — including Mumford — to take with them as they sailed away.

Mumford would survive his voyage with Low’s crew, but two of the other Wampanoag men would not. They were brutally murdered within days. Mumford later told a courtroom in Newport, Rhode Island that shortly after he was captured by Low, the pirates “hanged two of the Indians at Cape Sables,” at the southern tip of Nova Scotia. Word of the executions reached the islands by summer’s end, and William Homes recounted the horrifying scene in his diary. A sea captain “sailing from the Eastward,” Homes wrote, “found the dead body of a man floating upon the water with his head cut off and his hands and feet bound, which act of cruelty is supposed to have been done by the pirates which greatly infest the coast.”

The diary of William Homes of Martha's Vineyard. (Courtesy of the Maine Historical Society.)

The diary of William Homes of Martha’s Vineyard. (Courtesy of the Maine Historical Society.)

While Homes lived most of his life on Martha’s Vineyard, his diary ended up at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, Maine, where it is now archived. Homes’ diary had been kept by his daughter, Hannah, but was taken by her nephew Zebulon Allen to Farmington, Maine, in 1822. It was later deposited in the Maine Historical Society, where it remains today. (For more about Homes, Thomas Mumford, whaling, and pirates, see my article “Dangerous Waters” in Martha’s Vineyard Magazine.)

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