Vineyard Woman with Nerves of Steel

Today’s heroine for Women’s History Month is Beulah Vanderhoop of Martha’s Vineyard, a maritime conductor on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. She had the courage it took to assist as many as eight ex-slaves to safety and in my novel, profoundly affected Annie Osborn of Edgartown.
Though Vanderhoop is firmly grounded in history, the details about her are many and somewhat conflicting. Depending on which account you believe, she was either full or half Wampanoag, a member of the Native American tribe who populated the Island long before white settlers. In a custom not uncommon on the Vineyard, she was married to an African-American from Surinam.

Vanderhoop is the woman elsewhere identified by The Vineyard Gazette’s September 29, 1854 account of two women coaxing Randall Burton out of a swamp near Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) and taking him to her home on Gay Head (now Aquinnah)—a distance of some 15 miles; another account says that he was brought to her home on the Wampanoag settlement at the furthest reach of the island. One version has her sailing him six miles across Vineyard Sound to New Bedford, while another suggests that another tribal member did it.

Beulah welcomed Burton into her home and fed him. One can imagine his appetite after being nearly starved hiding for months in a Florida swamp, stowing away on board a north-bound ship for at least five days, and then hiding in the Vineyard’s swamp for three days. All accounts agree that his enjoyment of his meal was short-lived, however, for the pro-slavery sheriff did his best to gather a posse, paying $1 to every man who would help him hunt and recapture the fugitive.

Though the sheriff wanted to search the Wampanoag homes, he had to leave the settlement empty-handed and come back six hours later with a warrant. That delay was enough for some of the Natives to arm themselves with guns, pitchforks, and clubs against the sheriff’s return and for others to undertake the arduous crossing of Vineyard Sound and Buzzard’s Bay, which can involve difficult headwinds and dangerous shoals. For a modern account of such a crossing, as well as some beautiful photos, click here.

True to form, some accounts say that Burton moved on to Canada, while others say that he remained for seven years gainfully employed in New Bedford, just across the Sound from the Vineyard. Personally, I like the one that says that every year he visited Beulah to thank her.

Photo by Jeanne Gehret