The Diminishing Fish and People

The years before the Civil War brought a good degree of prosperity to South Wellfleet. The South Wharf and its fishing operation brought many families to this part of town, and soon it had two churches, a store, and its own post office, as I’ve already written. The growth of South Wellfleet resulted from the increased size of the mackerel fishing fleet, with Wellfleet claiming more than 100 vessels between 1845 and 1865.

South Wellfleet Old Wharf pilings
Photo by Bill Iacuessa

The good fishing reached its maximum during the antebellum years, but after that the fishing diminished over a 20 year period. By the 1880s, life was quite different.

Cod Fish

Diminished fishing was a Cape-wide problem. In his 2010 book, Clearing the Coastline: The Nineteenth Century Ecological and Cultural Transformation of Cape Cod, Matthew McKenzie wrote about the changes in Cape Cod from an 18th Century backwater to a 20th Century resort destination.  McKenzie explains the differences in both “Banks fishing” and the “in-shore fishing” that Cape fishermen pursued.

Banks fishing, off the Grand Banks on trips lasting two to three weeks diminished as the stocks of cod, halibut, and other commercial fish declined. To pursue the fish in deeper water the schooners had to become larger and faster, and became too big to enter the Cape’s smaller and shallower harbors. While a fleet remained in Provincetown, other schooners consolidated and shifted to ports on the mainland in Boston and Gloucester.  These places had better auction houses, ice and refrigeration facilities, and a concentration of buyers and business contacts.

The in-shore fishermen experienced changes as well. Fishing had long been a source of needed protein for local populations, as the Cape’s agriculture was limited due to the poor soils, and made worse by certain actions early in Cape history. The early spring spawning of the alewives had always provided relief to winter-hungry people. But, in the early 19th Century, towns began to sell the rights to take these fish, and soon they were primarily harvested as a bait source for Banks fishermen.

Weir fishing became more popular in the 19thCentury. This technique involved building a “holding pen” for the fish, close to shore, with the nets buoyed with wooden floats on the upper edges, and weighted with leads at the bottom. The fish were caught in this trap, and the owner had to ride out onto the flats at low tide and pitch his catch into a cart. Besides saving labor, these devices did not require the capital investment of a ship and equipment. Men who worked the weirs were paid an hourly wage, not a share as they were on the schooners. There were fourteen weirs on the shore between Brewster and Lieutenant Island in South Wellfleet, according to McKenzie. Another report, from 1879, indicated that

Fish Weir

Wellfleet had five weirs, four of them off “Horse Island,” the early name of Lieutenant Island.

A review of New England’s fishing industries in 1879, noted that Wellfleet had thirty schooners with an average crew of fourteen men — this number of schooners was greatly reduced from levels earlier in the century. The 1879 report also notes that, with one exception, they all used purse seines. The report notes that from May to November these fishermen followed the mackerel from Cape Hatteras early in the season to Mount Desert, Maine later in the year. From November to May, these same vessels carried oysters from Virginia to the Boston market.

According to Deyo’s history, purse seines used by the mackerel fishermen were the cause of the fish diminishing. Deyo charted the barrels of fish taken by Wellfleet schooners, showing the numbers increasing from 3,912 barrels in 1840 to a high of 36,784 barrels in 1884. He shows the dramatic fall-off in 1886-1889 (he was published in 1890) when annual counts became an average of 9,000 barrels, ending in a new low in 1889 of just 1,690 barrels.

Another form of in-shore fishing — mackerel gill net fishing  —  took place in the spring and the fall. The gill netters caught as many fish as possible from a school, sometimes “driving” the fish into their nets.

Gill Net Fishing

Wellfleet’s decline in population did not happen overnight, as might have occurred if a large factory had closed. The following population figures showed the change in the town:

Year Wellfleet Population
1790 1,117
1800 1,207
1810 1,402
1820 1,475
1830 2,046
1840 2,377
1850 2,411
1860 2,322
1870 2,135
1880 1,875
1890 1,201

These numbers are from Charles Swift’s history of Cape Cod, written in 1897.  I looked at the Federal Census images after this period and noted that the population was 989 in 1900; 826 in 1920, and 840 in 1940. (In 1900 the total population is written on the last page of the Census document; for the latter two, I multiplied the number of people counted times the number of pages.)

When I apply this population decline to South Wellfleet, it is difficult to construct an exact chart as South Wellfleet is not particularly well-defined.  Sometimes the census taker labeled certain pages “South Wellfleet Village,” and on other censuses I had to guess the South Wellfleet pages by the names of the families living there.

My estimate is that in 1860 there were approximately 500 people living in South Wellfleet. By 1900 there were only 125. The census takers also distinguished between dwelling places (houses) and families – sometimes, especially when the population was at its height, there was more than one family in a dwelling.

What really struck me was the comparison of the 1850 Federal Census with 96 households in South Wellfleet (defined by me as from the Eastham Town Line to Paine Hollow) to the 1940 Federal Census when there are just 40 households in the same general area.


Charles F. Swift, Cape Cod: The Right Arm of Massachusetts,  Yarmouth: Register Publishing Company, 1897

Matthew McKenzie, Clearing the Coastline: The Nineteenth Century Ecological and Cultural Transformation of Cape Cod, Hanover and London: University Press of New England 2010

Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898.   Wellfleet chapter on line at

“Federal Census Collection” database.

David Kew’s Cape Cod History site:


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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