Settling Lieutenant’s Island

Lieutenant’s Island became a seaside retreat in the 1890s, as the Cape began to develop as a tourist destination. Simeon Deyo, in his 1890 history of Cape Cod, refers to:

that sensible practice happily increasing among city people, of checking themselves each year in the rush and hurry of business, to take a vacation to the seaside, has already modified to a great extent the resources and prospects of Cape Cod.

Like other bayside areas of South Wellfleet — the Old Wharf, Pleasant Point, Indian Neck, Cannon Hill and others — Lieutenant’s Island came under the control of one developer, mapped as a “cottage colony” with small lots of land, and sold off to the ‘city people.’

Lieutenant’s Island was nevertheless a recognized part of South Wellfleet long before its tourism development. It was a distinct place as far back as the 1644 arrival of the Plymouth Pilgrims as settlers of Eastham. As discussed in my blog post, “Plantation Period”  the English settlers moving to the outer Cape from Plymouth purchased land that now comprises Orleans and Eastham. When they asked about the land north of Hatche’s Creek — today’s Wellfleet/Eastham town line — they were told no one owned it, and so included it in their purchase.

According to an oral tradition of the purchase tale, a native man named Lieutenant

Lieutenant's Island sketch map

Lieutenant’s Island sketch map

Anthony claimed to be the sachem of this land for the group called the Punonakanits of Billingsgate. A deed was negotiated in 1666 to legally add the Wellfleet purchase to the Eastham settlement:

We did then purchase all that land lying in Billingsgate from that which we purchased before of George the Sachem. To the end of our bounds norward upland and meddow of an Indian called Lefenant excepting reserved for himself to plant upon and sow wee lay claim to all lands within this ownership.

While the land that we today call Indian Neck was set aside for the use of the native people, Lieutenant’s Island was designated for common use in 1662, and in 1673 for the support of the ministry. However, Eastham did allocate “meddow grants” in the surrounding area to early settlers: William Walker had 3.5 acres at Silver Spring in 1659; Richard Higgins got 12 acres of upland and 44 acres of meadow “near Lieutenant’s Island” and his son Jonathan got 3 acres of meadow.

Despite the designation of “Lieutenant’s Island” in the earliest Eastham written records, on maps as late as 1893 the island is referred to as “Horse Island.” I have not found a reason why, but propose here that the popularity of raising horses in early Eastham may have caused the Island to become a place where the horses were pastured with the acres of salt hay for fodder. The early Eastham Town Records contain many entries recording the “earmarks” horse owners used. Numerous cattle earmarks were recorded in the town records also.

Lieutenant’s Island played an important role in the 1690s when the town, still a part of Plymouth Colony, needed funds to contribute to the cost of sending a delegation to London to seek a new charter. Both Lieutenant’s Island and Great Island were mortgaged to raise the funds, with the capital provided by Major John Freeman.

From the earliest dates of Eastham, meadowlands were allocated to the settlers to pasture their cattle and horses, and to harvest salt hay – a process described in my blog entry on harvesting Salt Hay.

With its woods providing a ready source of fuel, Lieutenant’s Island also became a place where shore whales were brought in for removal and “trying” (boiling) the blubber. By 1707 it was recognized that shore whaling needed regulation, since men from other towns were profiting from the practice. The Eastham Town Meeting voted that the harpoon man was to pay two shillings for each man in the boat not a resident of Eastham. Collecting this fee proved impossible.

In 1711 the common woodlands and meadows of Lieutenant’s Island began to be divided and allocated to private owners who had to be “allowed inhabitants” of the town. Joseph Collins, Israel Doane and Isaac Pepper got meadow and woodlot grants in the earliest distribution.

Durand Echeverria notes in his book on Billingsgate history that both English settlers and Indians protested this change to private ownership since they were accustomed to using the common lands for wood and for grazing their stock, and the Indians used the land for gathering berries and other wild resources. Indians were also shore whaling, having taught this to the settlers. These protests were ignored. In 1715, further divisions were made, including land in South Wellfleet. It is difficult to precisely place the allocated land, but we do know that Brown, Snow, Harding, Doane, Walker, and Atwood each got South Wellfleet land grants.

By the 1740s, the upland of Lieutenant’s Island was “wasted” through deforestation and over-grazing, just like many other areas of the Cape. In Enoch Pratt’s mid-nineteenth century book, he describes Lieutenant’s Island as a “sand bank two miles in circumference.”

Eighteenth century deeds for anywhere in Eastham are scarce, but I was fortunate to find three that mention Lieutenant’s Island. One source noted that a Joshua Newcomb (born 1712 Truro), a lieutenant in the British Navy, owned a part of the Island. Mr. Newcomb was killed aboard his ship by a falling spar, and his family sold his property. In the Walter Babbitt Collection of old Cape Cod deeds at Cape Cod Community College, we find Elisha Higgins selling land in 1718 “on the eastern part of Lieutenant’s Island” to Samuel Brown. Another deed, from 1726, indicates that George Ward sold a dwelling house on Lieutenant’s Island to Thomas Mulford. This is the only reference I have found to a dwelling house before 1890 — and the difficulty of access makes me wonder if this really existed.

Barnstable County deeds are not searchable by locations within a town, so I’ve worked backwards to assemble a list of Lieutenant’s Island owners through the nineteenth century. When Robert Howard bought much of the Island in 1889 for cottage colony development, he purchased two portions from David Higgins, a direct descendant of Eastham’s original settler Richard Higgins. Higgins also sold “Small Island” to Howard, but retained the right of way to “convey hay and also the privilege of laying the hay on the land”, thus showing that salt hay was still produced by South Wellfleet farmers. Howard’s partner Edward Reed purchased the other major portion of Lieutenant’s Island from Isaiah Horton’s children, and in this sale they reserved both the right of laying hay and weir (net) fishing.

These two purchases can be traced back further to previous owners of portions of Lieutenant’s Island: South Wellfleet’s Reuben Arey and Samuel Smith of Provincetown, who was Major Witherell’s son-in-law – I’ve written about Arey and Witherell in earlier posts.

One other mid-nineteenth century issue involved Lieutenant’s Island and represented an effort to control use of the land which is such a key issue today. In 1849, the Massachusetts legislature passed an Act to protect and regulate the “common usage” of the flats “lying in the southern part of the Town of Wellfleet between Blackfish Creek and the Town of Eastham.” This appears to be an extension of an 1801 Act regarding the pasturage of horses and ‘neat cattle’ on Great Island. (‘Neat cattle’ is a New England term used to describe domesticated cattle.) The legislators were trying to protect Wellfleet Harbor and its shellfish from “numerous cattle, sheep and horse kind” feeding on the beach and islands adjoining the western side of said harbor and, in 1849, extending that protection.

In early 1850, at the Wellfleet Town Meeting, three overseers were appointed to implement the new law. They posted notices that the tax for turning animals onto the flats would be 12 cents a head for neat cattle and 50 cents a head for horses. (I’m imagining posting this in the South Wellfleet General Store which Mr. Cole opened in 1844.) Starting June 15th that year, anyone using the flats had to have a written permit. The notice also announced a meeting at nearby Caleb Lombard’s house where the Wellfeet men were approved for permits, and six Eastham men were not, as the overseers ruled that these men had no claim to Wellfeet flats.

On June 17, 1850, the overseers went to the “flats and commons” to see if there were any unpermitted cattle or horses. They found Reuben Arey had three cows and John Taylor had one. Arey was still actively farming in South Wellfeet. Mr. Taylor, Mr. Arey’s stepfather, was nearing the end of his life. He was a beloved Revolutionary War veteran and was still living in the Boyington home in the 1850 census.

The overseers also put up notices in Eastham and Wellfleet “forbidding any person cutting any grass or hay on the flats common areas adjacent to Lieutenant’s Island.” The Town then “sold the grass on all the lots that anyone claimed any interest in, so the Town now has the right of possession.”

Petitions against the law ensued, and Reuben Arey and others successfully had the law repealed by the legislature in 1851.

Lieutenant’s Island continued to be a South Wellfleet backwater until forty years later when its contemporary development commenced.


Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-     1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2012)

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, Indian Deeds Land Transactions in Plymouth County 1620-1691, Boston, 2002

U.S. Federal Census collection at

David Kew’s Cape Cod history site:

Barnstable Patriot (various) online archive:

Barnstable County Deeds available at

Newspaper account online at

Cape Codder available at

Cape Cod Community College – Nickerson Archives – Deeds and Papers.





Family history researcher living in New York City.
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