Shared Stories, Shared History
(Note: The following is an excerpt from the NEH grant proposal)
An Oral History Radio Project from WGBH/WNAN/WCAI
February 1, 1999
by Sue Schardt
“History is a tool we can use to paint a rich tapestry of our diversity, of differences, and of those things that unite us.” — Charlotte Maison, Director of the Nantucket Athenaeum
In 1672, Nantucket’s first whale was caught, the same year that John Gardner came to the island to “set up the trade for the taking of cod-fish.”(1) The distinguished, maritime history of Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, spans 200 years, and is the source of rich lore from those days of life on land and sea.
Storytelling has always been an integral part of this history, and can be traced to these early maritime days when the gam served as a means of both examining important news and of breaking up the monotony of long months at sea. The gam refers to the process of trading information, both factual — weather conditions, map coordinates, births and death — and interpretive — rumors, hearsay, and stories of people from back home. Ships that passed one another on a voyage would stop so that the captain and first mate could meet for an hour or so with their counterparts to “gam,” or to exchange this news of loved ones, of destinations, or success in the hunt for whales.
Building on this rich storytelling tradition, Shared Stories, Shared History explores the regions’ situation as a crossroads. The Cape and, in particular, the Islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, are relatively isolated regions, with a rich history as the site for intermingling of cultures, whether as the vacation destination for contemporary elite or as a primary center for the comings and goings of American whaling ships. This cultural complexity dates to the earliest recorded history of the region and can be traced through the centuries: the Wampanoag Indians, indigenous to the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, are among the earliest recorded Native peoples in the US; the African Meeting House, established in the 1820’s and set at the four corners of what was once known as “New Guinea” on Nantucket, was one of the earliest public gathering place for blacks in the US; the Portuguese began arriving in the 1880’s to take up strawberry and cranberry farming; Cape Verdeans converted old whaling vessels into packet ships to transport new immigrants from their islands to the shores of Cape Cod and the Islands right up until 1982; members of the scientific community, who now constitute the largest single population on the Cape, began arriving in Woods Hole early in this century to work by the sea. Shared Stories, Shared History will present their history, stories of “others” who arrived, and of those who are the shapers of the present day community.
While the communities involved in Shared Stories, Shared History are in close proximity, each is physically isolated, with its own history and cultural distinction. Martha’s Vineyard is seven miles out to sea from Woods Hole — Nantucket, thirty. The radio studios are situated on the mainland in Woods Hole, on the lower Cape. Shared Stories, Shared History will take place primarily in each of the three locales and will be closely guided by Community Scholars who represent each area. By mingling the voices and stories from each community, the radio station serves to unite the three in a bioregional community.
1 Nantucket Argument Settlers, 1659-1966, p11. The Island Press. 1966