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New Bedford Standard Times
March 17, 1946.

Many Ownership Changes Seen in Tiny Tract Where
Vikings, Indians and Colonists Roamed

No beachcombers have gathered driftwood from her sandy white shores, no artist has set his easel to paint the glitter of the setting sun on her marshy woodland, but running tides have washed wave of legend upon the beaches of peaceful West Island. Relics and bone of Indians, first settlers lie buried beneath the swampy sod of her uninhabited soil, while tales, which date back to the Norsemen, are woven into the unrelated history of the tiny isle. Not more than 5 miles away a busy New Bedford sends out the din of her daily business and social whirl. Not more than 2 miles away, a more peaceful Fairhaven carries out her day’s routine. Less than 1,600 feet away the laughter of children, the noise of the farmer’s saw, sickle and plow create a din of progressive activity on Sconticut Neck.

Solitude Undisturbed

However, nothing more than the gentle spill of salt foamy breakers upon her barren shores disturbs the solitude of the tranquil isle. Soon the quiet of this little island will be a thing of the past. Carpenter and mason, bricklayer and road maker will convert into a colony of Summer homes to be known as the Fairhaven Estates. Soon gay beach parties will drown out the sonorous splash of the breaking waters and people once again will inhabit her wooded slopes. That will put an end to a maze of transactions which has seen this tiny island a buffet of land courts and registries since the time of it’s Indian owners, Wesamequen (better known in history as Massasoit) and his son Wamsutta. However the new stage into which West Island passes will obliterate the saga of its almost fantastic history. It was back in 1650 that recorded legend gives up its first tale about West Island. Long before then the Norsemen, also known as Vikings, led by Leif Ericsson was supposed to have sailed the waters of Buzzard’s Bay. That was about the year 1000 A.D. They put in on many shores to gather booty, food and grapes. Among their stopping points may have been the beaches of West Island and Sconticut Neck.

Sold By Indians

Whether it was before or after the visit of the Vikings that the Indians took possession of West Island and surrounding areas, history does not state specifically. However, according to legend on Nov. 29, 1653 Wesamequen (Massasoit) and his son, Wamsutta sold a grant of land including the island to the colonists. In return the colonists were supposed to have given the Indian owners 20 yards of cloth, eight moccasins, eight blankets, 15 axes, 15 hoes, 15 pairs of breeches, two kettles, one cloak and 10 shillings in other commodity. This is in direct contrast to another tale in which old seafaring men relate that the Indians sold West Island to a man named West for a jug of rum or a horse saddle. However, history has it that in 1664 the township of Dartmouth was incorporated and included in the area was the present town of Westport, then known as Coaksett, along with New Bedford, Fairhaven (including West Island) and Acushnet. The latter three then were called Achusens. In 1787 the Town of New Bedford was incorporated including in its area Fairhaven and Acushnet. West Island at that time came under the jurisdiction of New Bedford. In 1819, when political feeling ran high, the Jeffersonian democrats of Fairhaven, derivatively called Corsicans, effected a division of the township of New Bedford and Fairhaven, including the present town of Acushnet, was incorporated.

Included in Fairhaven

West Island since that time has remained under the jurisdiction of Fairhaven. The last hold any other town ever had on the island passed in 1860 when Fairhaven and Acushnet were divided into their present respective areas. However, while West Island was included in the various area townships numerous mention of her name can be found in history linked with various epic events. In 1675 the little island did not escape the ravages of King Phillip’s War which saw many killed and homes laid waste in the town of Dartmouth. Perhaps the greatest claim to fame in war annals, however came on May 14, 1775. Legend and piecemeal history has it that the first naval battle of the Revolution was fought off the shores of the tiny island. Lieutenant Nathaniel Pope and Captain Daniel Egery, this story goes, commanding the sloop success captured two tenders of the British sloop of war Falcon off the shores of West Island. A rusty swivel gun, lashed to a timberhead, was the only carriage weapon on board the craft. The tale is related that the men on the Success made their attack more potent by adding two or three buckshot to each charge of their muskets.

British Soldiers Captured

Legend and history differ as to the number of prisoners taken during the battle. Regarded as the first naval capture of the Revolution, some accounts say 15 British sailors were taken prisoners. Other accounts give the names of only four. However more persistent reports are that 27 prisoners of war were taken and sent to Taunton for disposition. Also, it is reported that other British warships landed parties at West Island. According to legend, the British believed that sheep were grazing on the island and wanted the cattle for food. Another story is that during the time of the siege by the British, the Red Coats moved from Clarks Cove, around the shores, which now houses Fort Phoenix, taking possession of what they wished. There is one report of the British easily overtaking Fort Phoenix. Another says they met stubborn resistance from a group commanded by a Major Fearing. It is also said that troops from this group set up a Garrison on West Island and when the Red Coats swept onto that side of the shore, drove them back into the sea. Many of the reports have been inaccurate; many have been figments of the imaginations of seafaring men. But even though no record of the sale of West Island by the Indians for a jug of rum can be found, it is almost certain that a man named West was the first white owner.

Old Records Traced

We’ve traced actual ownership through in the Registry of Deeds office back to 1832. In that year a man named Joseph Kinney and his wife, Experience, from Westmoreland, N.Y. and Nehemiah West were the owners. From this year back, however it is almost impossible to trace the ownership history. At that the transfer or sale of the property was merely recorded as a "tract of land in Fairhaven." Unquestionably, judging from records, the original colonist to purchase the island was either Bartholomew, John or Isais West. Since that time there have been frequent change of ownership, a series of planned developments and innumerable legal entanglements involving the island. The first accurate record that Nehemiah obtained the property from Stephen West. Stephen previously had inherited it from his father Samuel. Evidently Samuel had inherited the island from one of his earlier ancestors.

United on Deed

At the time Nehemiah’s ownership was recorded in 1832, the Kinney’s owned Long Island. Long Island, which lies west of West Island and Gull Island, which lies west of West Island, years later were unified with West Island on the deed. In 1880 however, Squire G. Crapo became a part owner of West Island. In 2867, Henry Akin purchased Long Island. In 1880, Nehemiah West became part owner of West Island and full owner of Gull Island. In 1893, Pardon Nye purchased part interest in West Island, as did George W. Nye in 1885. Anthony V. DeCosta of New Bedford purchased all three islands in 1886 and had the three registered in one deed. In the same year he sold the property to Horace S. Crowell of Marlboro. On Aug18, 1886 Crowell sold the island to Wilbur S. Peele. No changes of ownership were recorded during the next 17 years, but on Aug. 1, 1903 Lewis Biersman and his wife Emma of St. Louis became the owners. Henry Semple Ames, an unmarried man of St. Louis was the next owner, but in 1919 he sold the property to Frank C. Ball, also of St. Louis.

Company Buys Property

A Boston land development company with offices on Washington St. in that city purchased the property on Jan29, 1926 but it returned to Ball’s ownership Sept. 26, 1927. Clyde Powell of St. Louis was the next owner, the deed being recorded May 23, 1929. Later in the same year the property was sold to Birch O. Mahaffey also of St. Louis. In 120 the Fairhaven West Island Company of St. Louis purchased the property and has held it to this year. Officers of the company listed on the deed are K. McB. Kelley, president; Merle Becker, vice president; E. R. Christman, treasurer and R.D. Fitzgibbon, secretary. Although activities carried on by these various owners are not available in records, veteran residents of Fairhaven can recall a causeway being built across the waters from the mainland, crossing Long Island, and extending to West Island. Breakwaters protecting the causeway were constructed. Rocks still stand in the water as evidence of this work, old-timers say. They also recall former elaborate plans of land development companied for Summer colonies on the island. The name of an unidentified Mississippi Valley trust company is linked with ownership of the island by the old salts.

Money is Refunded

Also, the story is told of one land development agency selling house lots to individual purchasers. However, the company reportedly went bankrupt and had to return all the money to the purchasers. The story is told of how this company sold portions of the island that were underwater. Only the poor spots and marshland were sold at first, the owner keeping the better land at the southern end of the island for future sales inducement, the tale goes. George M. Mclane of 91 Main St, Fairhaven, caretaker of the island since 1915, recalls stories told him about the island by the late Captain John T. Besse. Captain Besse was caretaker of the island during the days Mr. Crowell owned it. Mr. McLane says there used to be 2 farms on the island. In fact Mrs. McLane’s grandmother, daughter of the late Captain Joshua Grinnell, was born in one of the farmhouses. Three families once lived on the island. They raised vegetables and grazed their cattle, Mr. McLane says. In more recent years the federal Government took possession of a 14-acre tract on the south end of the island and set up a lighthouse. During the War, Navy barracks were built up on the government property. The barracks were removed and today only the lighthouse, still in operation, stands on the tip of the land. The only other remnant of former life is the old homestead of Captain Besse. The house, nearly 200 years old, is located on the west side, clearly visible from the mainland. Recently it was shingled and still is in livable condition according to Mr. McLane. New faces, new life soon may come to this picturesque spot off Fairhaven’s coastline, but the memories which have been built on it’s tranquil silence of ebbing tides never will drift from the memories of men or the pages of history. It will always regarded as "quiet little West Island."