When summer arrives in Massachusetts, thousands of wealthy Americans flock to the luxury resorts of Martha’s Vineyard. But just three miles further out in the Atlantic Ocean, there’s a very different island no one dares go near. Yes, this place is eerily deserted – and there’s a very sinister reason why.
The island is appropriately known as Nomans Land, and you’d struggle to find any high-end restaurants or upscale hotels there. In fact, there are no signs of human life at all – save for the odd naturalist or two. So how exactly has such prime real estate remained empty over the years?
Houses on nearby Martha’s Vineyard average more than $1 million apiece, after all. Surely, then, that makes Nomans Land a prime spot for developers? Apparently not. And the answer to this riddle lies beneath the surface – where a terrifying truth about this seemingly innocuous island is lurking.
Not fit for human settlement
So what happened on Nomans Land? And why doesn’t anyone visit? Today, you’re more likely to encounter wild rabbits or basking seals on the beaches of this desolate island than any wandering tourists. In fact, for generations, humans have been unable to settle here – and there’s a horrifying reason why.
Nomans Land hasn’t always been empty and deserted, mind you. Before British colonization began in the region, this part of the Massachusetts coast was the domain of the Wampanoag people. When the English privateer Bartholomew Gosnold arrived in 1602, a chief named Tequenoman was in charge of the island.
The ancient history
There are some who believe that it was this Wampanoag chief who gave the island its modern name: a contraction of Tequenoman’s land. According to the tribe’s oral history, the outcrop was created when a crab landed in the Atlantic Ocean – having been tossed aside by the ancestral giant Moshup.
Site of burial grounds
Today, it’s believed that there are a number of Wampanoag burial sites located on Nomans Land. But for many years, the tribe’s modern descendants have been unable to visit and pay their respects. An ongoing legal struggle seeks to afford them access to the island, though there is a good reason why the authorities want to keep them away.
Changing hands multiple times
Lovers of historical trivia might find it interesting to know that it’s this island – and not its larger neighbor – that was initially christened Martha’s Vineyard in honor of Gosnold’s daughter. Though over time, the name was transferred to the outcrop that bears it today. Nomans Land, meanwhile, was passed between a series of European owners.
Only a few scattered ruins testify to the fact that there was ever a human presence on the island. Crumbling stone walls can be spotted here and there – marking the spots where farms and houses once stood. Yet where did the people go? And why does no one live on Nomans Land anymore?
Colonized by the English
The low-lying island’s landscape actually has much in common with Martha’s Vineyard, where America’s elite keep their summer homes. Like Nomans Land, this 96-square-mile outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean was once populated by the Wampanoag people. And also like Nomans Land, it was colonized by English settlers in the 17th century.
Something's not adding up...
According to Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, the island is home to some 17,000 permanent residents. This number also swells considerably during the summer months. Though what exactly is the appeal of this wealthy enclave as a tourist destination? And why hasn’t it extended to the shores of Nomans Land – just three miles to the southwest?
Growing in popularity
According to the tourist brochures, Martha’s Vineyard is a peaceful land of gently lapping waters, unspoiled beaches and genteel towns. After the colonial period, it became an important center for whaling – sending sailors out to sea in search of valuable blubber. When that industry collapsed, the island then began to grow in popularity as a holiday destination.
Despite its tranquil appearance, though, this part of the Massachusetts coast has been connected to some dark and troubling stories over the years. Might some of these help us to understand why Nomans Land is such a forbidden and desolate place? In 1974 for example, Martha’s Vineyard shot to international fame as the setting for the Steven Spielberg thriller Jaws.
In the movie, the island doubles as Amity – a holiday resort plagued by a killer great white shark. And such attacks aren’t just the realm of fiction, either. Just across on the mainland, these fearsome predators gather every summer to feed on seals. For years, experts have predicted that it was only a matter of time before a human fatality like the ones depicted in Jaws occurred.
Fear of something else entirely
Then, in September 2018 a 26-year-old called Arthur Medici was killed while out surfing off the coast of Cape Cod. From that point on, great white sharks became a very real and present danger in the waters of Massachusetts. Is it fear of these predators, then, that keeps people away from Nomans Land? Or is it something else entirely?
Bursting with flora and fauna
After all, Nomans Land is bustling with unusual flora and fauna – even while humans continue to steer clear. Some 30 percent of the island is designated as wetland, and it creates the ideal habitat for a number of listed species. While on the beaches, rare spotted turtles and gray seals bask in the sun.
Free of predators
In fact, it is precisely the lack of a human presence – or any other large predators – that makes Nomans Land such an appealing prospect to many animals. When the time comes for songbirds to migrate south, for example, the island becomes an important stop on the route known as the Atlantic Flyway.
Haven for birds
In order to break up their long journey, birds often stop to rest on Nomans Land – taking advantage of its multiple opportunities for sustenance and rest. Others, it seems, rarely leave the island and set up permanent homes on its peaceful shores. And over the years, wildlife experts have begun to cotton on to the outcrop’s potential to shield and nurture vulnerable species.
Ideal for many creatures, actually
In 2019 a team of conservationists arrived on Nomans Land to release a small population of New England cottontail rabbits. There, they hoped that the declining species would experience a new lease of life sheltered from foxes and other large predators. It would seem, then, that experts deem the island an ideal habitat for many creatures – except humans.
Fact or rumor?
Surely, the sort of safe and fertile island that would support endangered species should also provide the perfect human habitat? And even if the seas are filled with dangerous sharks, that hasn’t stopped holidaymakers from flocking to the region’s other resorts. As it turns out, the terror that keeps people from Nomans Land is something altogether more manmade.
Attack on U.S. soil
In 1942 the sleepy island was catapulted into a different sort of conflict. The previous December, Japanese forces had launched a surprise attack on a U.S. military base at Pearl Harbor. This act, as we all know, then drew America into the chaos of World War II.
Last stop on the Atlantic
As U.S. soldiers flocked to Europe to join the fighting, the Navy constructed an airfield looking out across the Atlantic from Nomans Land’s southern shores. Though this wasn’t just a place for planes to land and refuel. From 1943 onwards the island also served as a naval bombing range – allowing aviators to practice their combat techniques.
Selling to a powerful buyer
Two years later the Allies emerged victorious and World War II came to an end. Yet that didn’t put a stop to the violent activities taking place on Nomans Land, as bombers continued to devastate the landscape for many years to come. Then, in 1952 the Crane family – who owned the island – sold it to the U.S. Navy.
Subjected to bombardment
By this time, the actual airfield on Nomans Land had been abandoned – but the range remained active. In fact, by the time that operations eventually ceased in 1996, the island had been subjected to more than 50 years of aerial bombardment. And today, its beaches and hillsides are littered with unexploded bombs.
Let sleeping giants lie
It is because of these lethal sleeping giants that nobody is allowed to set foot on Nomans Land. But that hasn’t stopped the odd intrepid adventurer from making their way to the island’s deadly shores. For instance, in 1973 naturalist Gus Ben David from Martha’s Vineyard was dispatched across the water to survey this strange, abandoned place.
Within active range
At the time, of course, Nomans Land was still an active bombing range. Though this didn’t deter Ben David, who has returned a number of times over the years. As a matter of fact, he has spent more time on the island than any other non-military personnel. And according to him, people should continue to keep well clear.
Just leave it alone
Though it isn’t the threat of undetonated bombs that Ben David is worried about. The naturalist told Smithsonianmag.com that he has observed wildlife thriving on Nomans Land over the course of his visits – despite the constant threat of exploding ordnance. As such, Ben David believes that the island should be left alone. Even removing the remaining devices might disrupt the precious habitats beyond repair.
No cause for concern
“Wildlife is a product of habitat,” Ben David told the publication in March 2021. “You protect the habitat, and you have your wildlife.” Certainly, the unexploded bombs didn’t seem to cause much concern among the conservation workers who released cottontail rabbits on the island two years prior.
Keeping it off limits
“We’ve been coming here for years – and we’re still here,” biologist Stephanie Koch dismissively told the Boston Globe in 2019. Nine years earlier the biologist had spoken to the website Boston.com about the need to keep Nomans Land as a human-free zone. Koch said, “I think it’s important to have a few places that are completely prohibited from the public.”
Is it the military's fault?
Clearly, the argument for keeping the island off-limits and allowing wildlife to flourish is strong. Though some people have other ideas. To ecologist Brian McCarty, Nomans Land is an ecological disaster waiting to happen. And, he believes, the military detritus of over half a century needs to be cleaned up – before it’s too late.
Immediate call to action
Apparently, McCarty’s primary concern is that the munitions still scattered across the island could corrode – polluting the soil and water beneath. Given that Nomans Land shares an aquifer with Martha’s Vineyard, this could lead to some widespread issues. To stop this from happening, the ecologist believes that we need to take action soon.
"You can't just forget about it"
“You don’t manage anything by leaving it alone entirely and not having a connection to it,” McCarty told Smithsonianmag.com. Instead, he proposes a concerted effort to remove the remaining devices from the island and open it up to limited tourism. And McCarty is not the only person who’s keen to get humans back on Nomans Land.
Promised from the beginning
Though what do descendants of the island’s original inhabitants think? Well, in September 2020 Bret Stearns – a representative of the Wampanoag people – addressed a public hearing on the future of Nomans Land. According to the Vineyard Gazette, he said, “The tribe desires greater and safer access to the island, both for cultural use, and for general access by tribal members that was something that was promised, from the very beginning.”
Sweeping the island
As it turns out, the idea of cleaning up Nomans Land is nothing new. From 1997 onwards, the U.S. Navy has conducted four sweeps of the island in an attempt to remove any undetonated bombs. They have succeeded in extracting large amounts of ordnance, yet an unknown number of the volatile devices remain.
At the moment, anyone setting foot on Nomans Land is playing a perilous game. Speaking to Boston.com, Koch explained, “The results could be catastrophic.” But will a time ever come when the island is opened up to the public once more? Or will it forever remain a dangerous and inaccessible place?
The Navy speaks up
At the hearing in 2020 a proposal was put forward that would see clean-up operations halted on the island – leaving the remaining munitions in place. Recommended by the U.S. Navy, the plan would focus on keeping people away from Nomans Land rather than on making it safe. Meanwhile, an alternative option was floated that would involve removing all of the remaining devices from the outcrop.
At the time of writing, the island’s future is yet to be decided. And for the few humans lucky enough to set foot on Nomans Land, the experience is apparently worth the risk. Speaking to Boston.com, Koch added, “When I’m out here, this feels as much like wilderness as any other place I’ve been in New England.”
Not a unique case
Since 1975 the eastern portion of Nomans Land has been operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – an agency dedicated to managing natural habitats. Though this is not the only deserted island with a sinister military past on its books. From 1996 onwards the organization has also been responsible for Midway Atoll – some 5,500 miles away.
Like Nomans Land, Midway Atoll was drawn into the violence of WWII. The setting of a U.S. Navy air base, it played a pivotal role in one of the most decisive battles of the Pacific War. But after the military abandoned it in 1993, the U.S. government took over and transformed the area into a wildlife refuge.
Today, both Midway Atoll and Nomans Land remain closed off to the public, and the sounds of explosions have been replaced by silence and gentle birdsong. Will campaigners have their way and see the Massachusetts island returned to the Wampanoag people? Or will it remain an eerie no-go zone for many generations to come?