Indian Neck: Part 1, When the Native People Lived There


Indian Neck in South Wellfleet has one of the best “origin” stories of the South Wellfleet neighborhoods covered in this blog. While other locations around Wellfleet Harbor were seemingly uninhabited until tourism developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Indian Neck has a long history, stretching way back to a prehistoric time when native people inhabited this spit of land. There is no extant archive about this era. Later history can yet be understood by studying the following period when the Europeans moved in, took over the lives of the natives, and established a new order.

There are few references to the Indian Neck settlement in South Wellfleet during the 17th and early 18th centuries, so we must be content with simply understanding how the English from Plymouth Colony interacted with the native people. To understand how the native people of the Outer Cape lived, we have had to wait until modern archaeologists discovered them. Fortunately for our understanding of this history, one of the most astounding discoveries was on Indian Neck.

This page on the site for the Cape Cod National Seashore links numerous documents that detail the archaeological work occurring since the Park was established:

Before the Park Service archaeologists began their work in the 1970s, the Outer Cape had a rich history of vacationing gentlemen and local amateurs hunting for Indian artifacts. Many of their finds are at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, now a part of Harvard University. Since much of this material was simply dug up without specifying a location, it is of little use. Today  contractors digging for new homes makes them the effective excavators of ancient artifacts. Human bones were found recently in Chatham where a contractor digging a new swimming pool, and there were more discoveries recently in Eastham where the temporary trailer for the Library was set-up in the Town Hall parking lot. Massachusetts now has a process for handling such discoveries which both allows their study and then proper re-internment.

Indian Artifacts


When Indian Neck was Tuttomnest

As told in a previous blog post the Pilgrim men who came from Plymouth in 1645 to expand their settlement on the Cape, purchased the native Nausets’ land from Sachem George, encompassing today’s Orleans and Eastham, to the current Indian Brook (today’s Hatche’s Creek) that marks the borderline of Eastham and Wellfleet. When the “Purchasers” inquired about the land beyond the creek, today’s towns of Wellfleet and Truro, they were told that “no one” claimed ownership, so they just added the land to their holdings.

Later, in 1666, Lieutenant Anthony—the Sachem of the Billingsgate Indians who were also known as the Punonakanits—appeared and claimed ownership. The Punonakanits were one of the Wampanoag federation of tribes. It’s estimated that there were about one hundred living around Wellfleet Harbor in 1620, survivors of the 1615 epidemic that had wiped out so many of the natives just before the Mayflower arrived. A number of these same native people may have been those who met the Pilgrims exploring the area December 7-10, 1620, when they had their “First Encounter.”

The Eastham Pilgrims purchased the Billingsgate land again, with the exception of land the Lieutenant held for his tribe’s use, on James’ Neck, so named by the English, but named Tuttomnest by the natives. The area once held by Lieutenant Anthony is today the peninsula in Wellfleet Bay is known as Indian Neck.

Various maps of Indian Neck show this north/south spit of land surrounded by salt marsh with just a narrow causeway linking it to the South Wellfleet mainland. On the southern portion of Indian Neck, there is an inlet punched into the land called Sewall’s Gutter. On the northern side, the beach wraps around what is called Chipman’s Cove. Near today’s road to the Indian Neck shore there is a fresh spring in the marsh known as Pilgrim Spring, which became a special Wellfleet feature early in the 20th century.

“Sewall’s Gutter” has been so-named for a long time; there is no known Sewall family owning nearby property — so why this name? Justice Sewall who was the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Superior Court might possibly be the source, as he supported a number of native men who became “Praying Indians” and represented their people. Although not a minister, he was a commissioner of the Company for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England and Parts Adjacent (1699-1730). But nothing definitive was found for this place-name on Indian Neck.

INDIAN NECK on 1944 topographical map of Wellfleet

The Outer Cape native people interact with Europeans

The first written account of Outer Cape natives is Champlain’s 1605 description of the Nausets, along with a sketch map of their homes. Champlain’s account in 1606 reported around 150 native people around Nauset Harbor and 500-600 around Stage Harbor in today’s Chatham. No record exists for the settlement on Indian Neck. Another early record is the Pilgrims written account of their “First Encounter” in North Eastham as they explored the Outer Cape December 7-10, 1620.

The Plymouth Colony records of the seventeenth century tell the story of the Cape Indians, the Nausets, helping rescue a Plymouth boy, John Billington, who had wandered away, in 1621. We also know that the Nausets helped save the starving English colonists in 1622 by selling them crop surpluses.

The Eastham Town records document the Town’s dealings with the native people who lived there.  The Town paid both the English and the native people to kill wolves, giving particular encouragement to the natives. This was an urgent need, since the colonists needed to eradicate this predator of their growing herds of cows, horses, sheep and pigs. The Town notes in 1655 that four wolves were killed and mentions wolves’ heads again in 1686, when they set the rate paid to both “Indians and Englishmen” 20 shillings for adult wolf heads and 5 shillings for a young wolf, although paying half in cash and half in “Indian corn.”

We also know from early writing that the Cape natives showed the Europeans how to catch and slaughter the drift whales that were brought to shore and harvested for their blubber. Later, when the Europeans began pursuing the drift whales, the native people were paid to take positions in the whaleboat, giving them a means of participating in the “new economic order” of the Outer Cape.

The Reverend Samuel Treat, the Eastham minister who arrived in the 1670s, learned the native language and preached to the converted known as “Praying Indians” while also serving the European congregation. Treat referenced four distinct “villages” within his purview. One was Potanumicut, in today’s south Orleans, around a pond by the same name, but known as Arey’s Pond today. The second area was Meeshawn, the home of Truro’s Pamets, where the Wellfleet Punonakamits also worshipped. The third was Monomoyick in today’s Chatham, and the fourth the Satucket in today’s Brewster. There are Plymouth Colony records of censuses of the “Praying Indians” during the seventeenth century; in 1674, Truro and Wellfleet congregations numbered 72 people.

Treat trained native men to preach, meeting with them to dictate what to say in their sermons and overseeing their civil life as well. This relationship is held up today as one of great affection, so much so that when Treat died in the winter of 1717, the native people asked for the honor of taking his body to his church for the burial service, although held up some days due to the blizzard that had enveloped Eastham at that time.

The Cape Cod tribes did not engage in the bloody King Phillip’s War of 1675-76, but instead pledged their support to the Plymouth Colony, and sometimes worked as scouts for the English. At this time, the tribes of southeastern Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were not united as one group, having had a history of disputes between each other that may have been the reason the Cape Cod natives did not join the War. The Eastham Town records of 1671 mention an oath of fidelity signed by the Nausets and the Pamets, not naming the Billingsgate group, which may be an indication of their diminished number.

Other rules in the Eastham records give orders that deal with the diminishment of native rights. In 1665, the Town ordered that no one was to buy “quarters” of whales (drift whales that arrived on shore) from any Indians, as any such whale belonged to the Town. There were other references to restricting use of common land — which was also diminishing, as the English moved to a landscape of private property. In 1680, there was a law passed to “stop Indians from setting down their dwellings on the Town’s commons.” Other laws of the Town mandated severe penalties for selling intoxicants to the native people.  In 1691, Eastham decided to build a Meeting house at Potanumicut for the Praying Indians, another indication that the diminishing number of native people now needed only one place of worship.

Indian Neck history in the Early Eighteenth Century

In 1715, when much of the Eastham common land was undergoing assignment to private owners, the Eastham Town recorded a document that set out lands for the “use and benefit of such Indians as are the proper natives of said Town to set their houses on and for firewood to burn in.” One of the places the document names is the land at “Jameses Neck” at little Billingsgate and gives a topographical description as commonly given at that time, starting the description as many deeds do with “a certain pine tree.” The upland of the peninsula was included, but not the meadow and marshland between the neck and the mainland, as that was most likely already in use by the English for making salt hay and grazing. The native people had freshwater at Sewall’s Gutter, and access to the rich shellfish beds in Chipman’s Cove. Still another two small parcels, about twenty acres south of Fresh Brook in South Wellfleet were reserved for the natives.  At an Eastham town meeting in 1716 the nominal grantees for the James Neck land were designated: Pepas Frances; Frances Frances, James Mark, Sam Tripp alias Tuis, and Nacan Jones, alias Abram Jones. These were leaders who represented their groups, although no records show how many native people were living on James Neck.

Later, in 1734, the Town traded some portion of this land with Samuel Smith, and this was probably the end of the designation of Indian Neck as a set-aside area for native use. There is no record of the inhabitants at this time. Samuel Smith also owned tracts of Great Island where his tavern was located.

In the National Park Services’ Cultural Landscape Report for the Atwood Higgins House , “The Provincial Census of 1765” reported 928 inhabitants of Wellfleet, including 14 African Americans and 11 Native Americans. By 1792 the Punanokanits numbered less than half a dozen. Numerous local histories name Delilah Sampson Gibbs, who died after 1838, the “last Wellfleet Indian.”

 The Indian Neck Ossuary

The connection of the Billingsgate natives to Indian Neck was reinforced in September 1979 when a contractor, digging for a new septic tank at a modest summer cottage on Indian Neck Road, unearthed a collection of bones.  At this time, National Park Service archaeologists were working in the area on a survey of prehistoric remains on the land of the Cape Cod National Seashore. They were able to get to the site quickly and determined that the bones were historic. While the contractor destroyed as much as half of the site, the remainder then was carefully excavated. After the material was taken to a laboratory for study and analysis, the unexpected discovery came to be known as the “Indian Neck Ossuary,” a technical term for such a deposit of bones.

Today, this ossuary site is known as one of the best-documented outside of northern New York and adjacent parts of Ontario, and around Chesapeake Bay. It has added to the knowledge of New England’s native people by providing evidence that the coastal natives were more settled than previously thought. Until this discovery, Cape Cod natives were thought to be seasonal visitors, much as many of us are today, enjoying the bounty of the land during the warmer weather. However, the ossuary indicated permanent habitation.

The deposit on Indian Neck turned out to be a multi-layered find. Under a few inches of topsoil, archaeologists found a “midden,” an ancient rubbish dump of animal bones, shells, and broken stone tools. A piece of metal indicated that the midden had been in use after the Europeans arrived. The stone tools were dated to the “late Woodland” period which began about AD 900 and ended with the arrival of the Europeans. Carbon-14 analysis of the cremated bones gave an estimate of 900 years plus or minus 200 years.  Thus, we have Indian Neck firmly established as a site of human habitation in the late 10th or early 11th century A.D.


“The Indian Neck Ossuary” Scientific American Volume 258, Number 5, pp 98-105. May 5, 1988

“Decades Later, Questions Remain Over Indian Neck Ossuary” The Cape Codder, September 29, 1989

Dolores Bird Carpenter Early Encounters-Native Americans and Europeans in New England, Michigan state University Press, 1995

The Cape Codder online at the Snow Library in Orleans

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)

Cape Cod National Seashore website:



Family history researcher living in New York City.
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