An Aquinnah Petition for Temperance Laws

February 10, 1838 | Aquinnah
Aquinnah petition requesting the Massachusetts pass temperance laws to protect their tribe

In 1838, after an internal tribal vote where it was decided that they must do “all that could be done with reason to prevent the evil of intoxicating liquors,” 57 men and women from the Aquinnah tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature requesting the enactment of laws to enforce temperance within their community. Attributing untimely deaths and poverty to abuse of alcohol, the “Indians and people of colour [sic] of Gayhead (Aquinnah)” requested a range of actions including laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to members of their community, preventing tribal members and “nonresidence” [sic] from bringing alcohol on their tribal lands, and the authorization to “search on suspicion” if needed. (1)

The Aquinnah’s petition came during a period of heightened attention to the negative impact of alcohol on family life and society. Temperance advocates organized local groups, like the one formed in Mashpee in 1833, and pushed for alcohol abstinence via pamphlets and public speaking. They urged people to pledge complete abstinence from alcohol, and were successful in pushing for a number of states to ban alcohol sales. (2) Although the Massachusetts legislation did not pass laws specific to Aquinnah, they did enact a law limiting the sale of liquor in quantities of less than 15 gallons statewide—it was repealed two years later. The discriminatory law was unpopular with moderate temperance advocates because it only impacted poorer citizens—those with enough wealth could continue to purchase liquor for their homes. (3)


1. Digital Archive of Massachusetts Anti-Slavery and Anti-Segregation Petitions, Massachusetts Archives, Boston MA, 2015, "Passed Acts; St. 1838, c.101, SC1/series 229, Petition of Zaccheus Howwoswee." Harvard Dataverse, V4 ( https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/XXI6V )

2. History.com editors “Prohibition.”( https://www.history.com/topics/roaring-twenties/prohibition)

3. Baker, Andrew. “The Temperance Issue in the Election of 1840: Massachusetts.” Teaching Us History.com. Old Sturbridge Inc. ( https://www.teachushistory.org/second-great-awakening-age-reform/articles/temperance-issue-election-1840-massachusetts)

Image: Aquinnah petition requesting the state pass temperance laws. (Massachusetts Archives. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:FHCL:13448107)


Mashpee Temperance Society

1833 | Mashpee