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