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Biography: Hannah Mayhew
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(Mayhew: Hannah6, Thomas5, Matthew4, Thomas3, Robert2, Simon1)


Hannah Mayhew
The Deputy Governor of Martha's Vineyard
By Dr. Charles E. Banks (1904)

(Printed in The Dukes County Intelligencer published by Dukes County Historical Society, Inc in Edgartown MA August 1962, Vol. IV, No. 1)

This paper was read at the Edgartown Public Library in 1904 at the unveiling of a bronze memorial tablet to the founders of Edgartown - Editor



It has been said with some wisdom that the hand which rocks the cradle rules the land. This figure of speech signifies the important function in our social system devolving upon the mothers and daughters of the land. It means that indirectly the mother keeps her hands to the wheel of the ship of state through her children, and the influences they carry from her guidance of them in infancy and youth. It does not often come to pass that women actually rule the land, directly, though we have frequent ancient and modern instances of this condition, in the hereditary monarchies, where daughters succeed to the throne and wisely guide the destinies of the nations under their rule.

Occasionally, as in the circumstances which I shall relate, the power "behind the throne" is a woman, and it happened to be the case on this island [Martha's Vineyard] in the early days of its settlement. The old Governor Mayhew brought with him to his new possessions a young family by his second wife, and of all the daughters, Hannah, his first born, seemed to be his favorite. She was born June 15, 1635, in Medford, where the father then lived, and was about 10 years of age when she came to live in Edgartown.

With such meager records as are available for the antiquary at this day to construct a story of the male population at that time, it becomes a much more difficult task to build up a chapter about a girl of that period, who had not reached her "teens." Those who read this can as well as the writer conjecture what the life of such a girl would have been in this straggling settlement, on the edge of civilization. We only knew that she grew up, and because she did this story is possible.

At the age of 18 her name appears upon the records in 1653, when she is in the list of owners of the lots divided to the proprietors. She is the only female in the list, and I take it that her father gave her a share of land as a "portion" upon her coming of age. This may be said to be the beginning of her career as a public personage.

About four years later she surrendered her name to Thomas Daggett, but from subsequent views which we can obtain of her it was about the only thing she surrendered. It could be fairly stated that Thomas Daggett was merely the husband of Hannah Mayhew. She was the Governor's favorite daughter and she knew it.

In the course of events 10 little Daggetts came along and we might reasonably suppose that this quiver full would furnish her with sufficient domestic business without participating in the affairs of man. For a score of years she had a young child to bring up, and the reader can better appreciate this statement than a mere man. But not so with Hannah Mayhew Daggett. She was the business woman of the settlement.

Twenty real estate transactions are of record under her name and she did the business herself and would not be carried down to posterity under the designation of "and wife of the said Thomas Daggett." This was an unusual condition in those days, and the husband made the best of the situation, though with some probably mental resistance, and maybe overt acts of resistance to his domestic extinguishment. It appears that he could not be restrained from an attempt at exercising his control of the property of his wife, for in those days the husband owned all that his wife brought with her at marriage and there are frequent references in wills of the husband bequeathing to his prospective widow clothing and furniture "which are hers."

So Thomas Daggett must has undertaken to assert his prerogatives, after 20 years of married life, for there is on record a curious document comprising a "promise" of Thomas Daggett to Governor Mayhew, in 1679, not to meddle with his wife's property. It was the only known time when Thomas Daggett essayed to manage his wife's affairs. The old Governor refers to it in his will, as follows: - "My son Daggett hath given a note under his hand not to meddle with aught" of Hannah's property.

That such a woman could not confine her energies to rocking the cradle must be apparent to all. And she did not, at least in the estimation of the people of the Vineyard, if we may believe a contemporary writer.

In a letter to the Governor of New York, Simon Athearn of Tisbury was rehearsing the social and political troubles of himself and neighbors, and in the course of his statements made the following allusion to Hannah. "Thomas Daggett's wife, Mr. Mayhew's daughter (which woman the people of Martins Vineyard very generally call the deputy governor"). Here we have it in black and white in the year 1675, Hannah Mayhew Daggett, Deputy Governor of Marthaÿs Vineyard, by the voice of the people. We know from all obtainable evidence that she had been governor of her own affairs for many years. There is no intimation that she occupied her high office to the detriment of her subjects, but here is a suggestion that she was not the unanimous choice of the islanders. All this while Thomas Daggett had been holding the office of assistant to the Governor, and theoretically "ruling the land" but no one can have any allusions as to the real "power behind the throne".

In his will Governor Mayhew handsomely remembered this favorite daughter, giving her one half of the tract known as Chickemmoo, on the North Shore, three eighths of Naushon, numerous division lots in Edgartown and a quarter of all his landed estate not specifically bequeathed to others.

Deputy Governor Hannah Daggett, as "the people of Martins Vineyard very generally" called her, was at the date of her father's death about 46 years of age and the mother of 10 boys and girls, two of whom at least had reached manhood and their majority.

How long she continued to exercise the unwritten duties of her office does not appear, but we may surmise that her nephew, Matthew, who succeeded to the practical duties of his grandfather, was not so amenable to the petticoat assistance as the aged governor after this. She may have so peacefully ruled the concern that even Matthew did not know he was being controlled, or she may have wisely abdicated when she saw it was not prudent for her to be the Warwick of two administrations.

It is unfortunate that we have no portrait of her husband ÿ a character sketch of the man whose name she bore for nigh 40 years. In an obituary notice of her son of the same name Parson Homes records that "he was a peaceful man and well inclined." Thomas Daggett, husband of Deputy Governor Hannah Mayhew, was also "a peaceful man and well inclined." Such traits were not inherited from this masterful woman who began at the age of 18 to be a manager of her own concerns, and held her place in the affairs of the day, despite the social prejudices of that period regarding the participation of women in public business.

Thomas Daggett died in 1691, and she remained a widow for over 10 years, when she took upon herself the burdens and obligations of a second husband, Samuel Smith of Edgartown. She was then about 70 years of age, and it is a tribute to her character that a second candidate for her affection should be forthcoming in the evening of her career. She continued to manage her property interests just the same and when she had reached the age of 75 made her will "just like a man" but that formality did not mark the end of her career. She survived for 13 years more, and early in 1723, probably, her estate was settled by the court.

She had lived 80 years and had seen grown up around her large family of children, and witnessed a feeble seaside settlement develop into a thriving and well organized government comprising a thousand souls. No stone marks her resting place, but she undoubtedly is buried I the "acre" at Tower Hill.

- many thanks to Steve Spicer for sending me a copy of this article.

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08 May 2001