The Long Blue Line: The Wampanoags at Gay Head Light

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Undated photo of the Gay Head Lighthouse and keeper’s quarters with keepers standing on each catwalk. (Coast Guard Collection)

Undated photo of the Gay Head Lighthouse and keeper’s quarters with keepers standing on each catwalk. (Coast Guard Collection)

Written by William H. Thiesen, Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

Native Americans have participated in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services since the early 19th century, representing the second earliest minority group to serve in the Coast Guard.

The first Native Americans known to serve in the Coast Guard were the Wampanoag in Massachusetts. In the early 1800s, Ebenezer Skiff, the lighthouse keeper at the Gay Head Light, on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, hired members of the Wampanoag Tribe to support lighthouse maintenance and operations. In an 1815 letter to his superiors Skiff reported, “When I hire an Indian to work, I usually give him a dollar per day when the days are long and 75 cents a day when the days are short and give him three meals.” It was common for Gay Head keepers to hire Wampanoag tribal members as assistants because they proved more reliable than local white residents.

Locally famous lighthouse keeper Charles Vanderhoop, of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, who oversaw lights on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. (Coast Guard Collection)

Locally famous lighthouse keeper Charles Vanderhoop, of the Aquinnah Wampanoag, who oversaw lights on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. (Coast Guard Collection)

One of the most memorable events associated with Native American service is the 1884 S.S. City of Columbus rescue. The passenger steamer plied East Coast waters from Boston to New York and ran aground off Gay Head on a bitterly cold January night. One hundred passengers and crew drowned within 20 minutes of the grounding. Led by Gay Head Lighthouse’s white keeper Horatio Pease, Wampanoag tribal members volunteered to brave the wind and weather and launched a surfboat into the waves. In their first attempt, the surfboat capsized in the heavy seas, but the crew returned to shore safely. The surfmen tried again and reached the survivors still huddled on the steamer’s deck. On the return trip, the overcrowded surfboat capsized again, however, all the crew and survivors got to shore safely.

Overnight, the Wampanoag lifesavers became heroes, imperiling their own lives to rescue nearly 30 City of Columbus passengers and crew. The members of this volunteer force received medals and cash awards from the Massachusetts Humane Society.

In reporting this story, the press believed the Wampanoags were “deserving of all praise and the fund for their benefit and encouragement should assume large proportions. Without any expectations of reward they periled their lives for others.”

Several of them later served at the Gay Head Lighthouse and the Gay Head Life-Saving Service station when established in 1895.

Wampanoag Coast Guardsmen have also served with distinction in time of war. Carlton West, a Wampanoag citizen of Nantucket, served as an enlisted man in World War I and World War II. In 1919, Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal member Charles Vanderhoop was assigned as keeper of the Sankaty Head Lighthouse under U.S. Navy control. When he took charge of that lighthouse, Vanderhoop became the first known principle lighthouse keeper of Native American ancestry and the first Native American supervisor of a federal installation.

A photo of Wampanoag Carlton West during World War I. Native Americans served with distinction in Coast Guard predecessor services since the early 1800s. (Nantucket Historical Association Collection)

A photo of Wampanoag Carlton West during World War I. Native Americans served with distinction in Coast Guard predecessor services since the early 1800s. (Nantucket Historical Association Collection)

In 1920, the Coast Guard appointed Vanderhoop to the keeper at the Gay Head Lighthouse. His duties required around-the-clock supervision of the lighthouse, including cleaning, maintaining and refueling the lighthouse’s first-order Fresnel lens. Standing 12 feet tall and weighing several tons, Gay Head’s first-order lens was immense and incorporated over 1,000 leaded glass prisms. Vanderhoop’s daily routine included climbing the narrow spiraling staircase to the lantern room to light the lamps at nightfall and during any low-visibility days. Each morning, he ascended the stairs again to extinguish the lamps, disassemble the lanterns and clean them. Lastly, he was responsible for polishing all the light’s brass appurtenances and resetting the lantern wicks in preparation for the next illumination.

Keeper Vanderhoop was the 10th principal keeper at Gay Head and he became renowned for providing tours of the lighthouse for visitors. During his time as keeper, Vanderhoop provided tours for approximately 300,000 men, women and children, including celebrities such as President Calvin Coolidge. By the early 1930s, Vanderhoop had manned the light through hurricanes and tropical storms and provided local shipping with decades of faithful lighthouse service. However, years of climbing the tower had taken their toll on him physically and he finally retired on disability in 1933 after 20 years in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

Native American tribal members, such as Charles Vanderhoop, have served in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services for over 200 years. Like all other servicemembers, they walk the long blue line and their efforts have benefitted all who serve in the U.S. military, federal government, and the nation as a whole.

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