For the Oak Bluffs Historic Highlands project, I have built the framework for a map that uses publicly available deed documents to represent the history of landownership in the Highlands area of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, a resort town on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Oak Bluffs has historically been a pluralistic, multi-ethnic and multi-racial, summer resort community with numerous year-round residents, famously noted for being a popular place for African American vacationers1.
The web-based map spatializes, or represents visually in geographic space, 19th and 20th century paper property records held in the local registry of deeds. Spatializing these records allows users to view aspects of the Highlands community at different points in time, including the size of the community, distribution of occupied lots, and eventually the hometown of owners, and sale / purchase prices. In future version of this map deed records will be combined with census records, and when available, probate records to provide additional information on individuals and families and the community itself.
The Highlands area in Oak Bluffs was mapped and divided into small 70-foot by 30-foot parcels in 1870 by investors hoping to build a densely populated, thriving, and for them, highly profitable, summer vacation community centered around Methodist summer revivals. But the Methodists never moved their revivals to the Highlands and the economic depression of 1873 meant that property sales were slow. Instead, the investors made a deal with a smaller Baptist organization to hold revivals and the community grew slowly over time, with a mix of summer homes and larger institutions.
The trends in this neighborhood indicate that the earliest residents were predominantly white Americans from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York, including Baptist preachers and their families. The Baptist Revivals held there introduced new residents to Oak Bluffs and the Highlands community and by the first decade of the 20th century it had gained a reputation as being a place where Black vacationers could own property, rent homes, and stay in hotels or inns, a reputation that still stands today1.
The overall goal of the Oak Bluff’s Historic Highlands project is to make the history of property ownership in the Highlands visible and accessible the present-day community, descendant community members, and community heritage experts, like the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, the Oak Bluffs Polar Bears, and the Cottagers. Users of the map can explore how the community grew and changed over time, explore this history of the property their family owns, or view where their friends and family lived in the past.
The map is designed to facilitate conversations about these histories, answer questions about property ownership and land transfers, and, eventually, to record memories shared through these discussions. As secondary goal of the map is to facilitate conversations about cultural heritage, preservation, and initiate conversations about utilizing archaeology as another tool with which the community can preserve, learn about, and share its history.
Users will be able to interact with the map by adjusting the time slider to view the community at a specific time span, clicking on lots to reveal popup with additional information, use the search box to find specific lots or individuals, and switch the historic map layer on and off. Users can also follow a link in each popup to a webpage the provides detailed histories on each lot, the people who owned or lived at them. There is a test version of this webpage attached to Lot 4. As the goal of this project was to develop a test version of a later map there is a considerable amount of missing data. Now that the framework has been completed, the next steps are to scale up the map with more data on each lot and to add additional data beyond deed records. The final version of this map will include information on hundreds of lots from 1870 – 1950 and will live on the website of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.
his map was made by Jeffrey Burnett, PhD Student at Michigan State University during the author's 2021-2022 CHI fellowship. The author worked with the African American Trail of Martha's Vineyard, the Dukes County Registry of Deeds, CHI director Ethan Watrall, and CHI fellows and alumni to produce this map. This is a trial version of a future map licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.