Today is launch day and I am sharing completed my mapping project for the CHI 2021 – 2022 fellowship. For my 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, since the early 1900s, has had a reputation for being 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 vacationers[1]. The web-based map spatializes, or represents visually in geographic space, nineteenth and twentieth 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 map was built using Leafletjs, an opensource JavaScript library for creating web-based interactive maps. After opening the map users will see the full extent of the lots owned and lived on since the Highlands area was subdivided in 1870. For the test version this is only thirty lots. 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.

Image of Oak Bluffs Historic Highlands map in its current version as the user opens it.
The informational popup associated with Lot 4. Lot 4 had multiple owners during the period between August 8, 1870 and July 7, 1889 so the popup shows the information for both. The photos included are not of Lot 4, they are placeholder photos of Oak Bluffs taken by the author.

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 twentieth 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 today[2].

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.

The Oak Bluffs Historic Highlands 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.

[1] Adelaide M. Cromwell, “The History of Oak Bluffs as a Popular Resort for Blacks,” Dukes County Intelligencer 26, no. 1 (August 1984)

[2] Cromwell 1984; Robert C. Hayden, African-Americans on Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket: A history of people, places and events, Select Publications, 1999; Jocelyn Coleman Walton, “Life in the Highlands,” Martha’s Vineyard Magazine, 2016; Elaine Cawley Weintraub, Lighting the Trail: The African American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard, 2015.