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Discovering the Elizabeth Islands off the Coast of Massachusetts

Updated on September 22, 2015
Dianemae profile image

I am a retired special needs teacher who still wants to learn. I enjoy researching and finding interesting facts to share in my writing.

When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 the World Series Trophy traveled to all 351 towns and cities in Massachusetts. That included Cuttyhunk, the least populated (86) town in the state. Cuttyhunk is actually the Town of Gosnold and part of the ElizabethIslands. There are 22 small islands in the Elizabeth Island chain. The seven major islands include: Nonamesset, Uncatena, Naushon, Pasque, Nasawena, Cuttyhunk, and Penikese..

The islands have been written about many times. Covering history, beauty, culture and ownership, but each one has some hidden facts to be shared. The islands form a 16 mile natural separation of Buzzards Bay and Vineyard Sound. Boaters can anchor almost anywhere, but you can only go ashore on the beaches of Tarpaulin Cove, WestBeach and Kettle Cove.


The most easterly island, closest to the mainland, is the home of Slocums. Not one of the many families named Slocum, but a small buoyant float used to monitor the global ocean. Slocums are named after Joshua Slocum, a Fairhaven native who sailed solo around the world. Nonamesset was chosen to be a test gathering center by the Department of the Environment because it is close to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The island housed the facility used to monitor ocean temperatures.

Nonamesst was once home to a 1,000 Slocums. Not only did they study the oceans’ temperature, but also its’ salinity, oxygen and nutrients. They completed studies on the general circulation of the ocean. Slocums are now used throughout the world to continue monitoring ocean patterns.


Uncatena is the most northerly island. This small island with zero population has two distinct honors. It is the only island to have a ship named after it. The Uncatena was a sidewheeler steamer used as a ferry between New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The ship was built in Wilmington, Delaware in 1902. It operated for 26 years, retiring in 1928.

In 1948, Pulitzer Prize poet, Robert Hillyer wrote, “In Memoriam Sidewheeler Uncatena .” Uncatena is the only island to have its’ own poem.


Naushon is an Algonquin word that means, “tide rips at each end.” It is also Wampanoag word that means, “middle.” Naushon is the largest island. It is own by the Forbes Family. John Murray Forbes left the islands to his heirs. The islands are now owned and operated by the Naushon Island Trust, Incorporated.

Most of the islands remain private. Only relatives and invited guests are allowed on the islands. Transportation to and from the island is provide by the ferry, “Cormorant.” It is operated by the Trust and runs from Woods Hole. Travel around the island is done on antique horse-drawn carriages.

There are about 35 houses on Naushon. Two very large stone houses can be seen from the water. Stone house visible from the Buzzards Bay entrance to Woods Hole was built in 1809. Mansion house was built in 1887 and can be seen from HadleyHarbor. Five presidents have been entertained on the island: Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Coolidge and Clinton. All past presidents have planted trees and have their initials carved into trees surrounding Mansion House.

Tarpaulin Cove on the Vineyard side of Naushon is one of the three beaches allowed public picnicking. In 1775, there was a tavern in the cove for mariners. The federal government set up a post office and Seamen’s Aid Society established a reading room and a chapel. The old farmhouse still visible served as the post office and grocery store.

The cove served as a refuge for cargo schooners seeking shelter on the New York to Boston route. This stops in 1914 when the Cape Cod Canal was opened. Captain Kidd sailed into Tarpaulin Cove on his last port of call before heading to Boston. He was captured in Boston, sent back to England and was later hung.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was a close friend of John Forbes. It is said he wrote of the beauty on the Forbes Island Estate in his, “Autocrat at the Breakfast Table.”


Pasque has a population of two. The island is sublet by the Forbes family. Most of the island is covered with poison ivy.


Weepecket is not part of the big seven islands. It is a group of three small islands on the north shore of Naushon. Its population is zero humans, but thousands of double-crested cormorants and sea gulls. The island serves as a breeding ground for these birds. The island is often used as a racing mark for local sailors. Race committees design the racecourse around the island west to east, or east to west depending on the current. The island is publicly accessible, but watch where you step.

The islands were used for bomb, rocket and machine gun target practice from 1941 to 1957.


This is the second largest island and the second island with a population of two. The word Nashawna is Wampanoag and means, “between.” It is also sublet by a different Forbes family. The island was once used for sheep farming. Many of the sheep were killed when coyotes invaded the island. The coyotes swam from Woods Hole.

The family now works with scientists to raise cattle in an effort to manage the vegetation. The cattle can often be seen cooling off in the waters near Canapitsit Channel.


The original name for Cuttyhunk was Pooquohhunkunnah. It is a Wampanoag word meaning, “point of departure” or “land’s end.” Cuttyhunk is part of the town of Gosnold, in DukesCounty. The island is publicly accessible. It is the fourth largest and the western most island. Some of the best fishing is done around and off Cuttyhunk shores.

Charles Church caught a world record striped bass of 73 pounds in 1919. Charles Cinto tied the record with another 73 pound striper in 1967.

Edward Everett Hale, in his “Prospero’s Island ” makes a good case in believing that William Shakespeare used the setting of Cuttyhunk for his play, The Tempest .

On June 24, 2005, Cuttyhunk was the last stop of the Boston Red Sox World Series Trophy Tour.


Penikese is the second island not owned by the Forbes family. The state owns the island. There is no permanent population. Seven boys and four staff members live in a private school for troubled boys on the island during the summer months. The school discourages visitor, as it disrupts the routine. But, it is a state owned island so boaters can land there.

Thomas Buckley published the history of the island in 1997, “Penikese: Land of Hope .” This is an excellent study from the Indian settlements, Gosnold’s arrival and the start of the school.

The Elizabeth Islands provide beauty and history to the Massachusetts coast line. More discoveries can be found at your local library.


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    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 2 years ago from Southern California

      I hope you had a wonderful day on Naushion. I'm not jealous!! Hahaha! (Yes, I am).

    • Dianemae profile image

      Dianemae 2 years ago

      They have been around for many years. I am on my boat in Naushion Island right now. It is cold so only one other boat is with us. It is beautiful

    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 2 years ago from Southern California

      I have developed an interest in islands, particularly ones that are not "famous". I had never heard of these islands you wrote about. They are quite interesting! I enjoyed learning about them!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I've never heard of these islands. Pasque sounds most unpleasant with all the poison ivy!

    • profile image

      Adrianne Balcom 6 years ago

      I have many wonderful memories of dropping anchor at both end of the Elizabeth Islands. With the exception of

      Cuttyhunk: do NOT take your dog! Our dog was almost shot

      by the local homeowner on the north side of Cuttyhunk when our dog ran into his preserve and started "worrying" his deer! Luckily my husband had voice control over the dog, Tisa. She benefited the most after being stuck on our boat cruising for three days!