Making Salt in South Wellfleet

This summer, the Wellfleet Historical Society and Museum presented an exhibit on Wellfleet’s waterfront, about the many ways that waterfront land, structures, and businesses supported the economic life of the town.  One of the operations was the manufacture of salt by evaporating salt water, a growth industry in the early years of the nineteenth century in Barnstable County. The exhibit included a model of a typical saltworks, showing details of the wooden structures that dotted the bayside shoreline until they disappeared by the 1850s.

These cobbled-together structures sprouted up all over town, using wind and water to produce bushels of salt. I found three owners in South Wellfleet.  The 1937 brochure of the South Wellfleet Neighborhood Association provided the only written reference to South Wellfleet’s role in salt production:

Arey’s at the foot of Cannon Hill on Blackfish Creek, known as the Mill Ditch and used today by the Summer people as a bathing beach. Townsend’s was at the foot of Paine Hollow, and Lewis’s was East of the Highway.

Saltworks were located close to the homes of owners, since the family provided the labor. That may explain why there were no saltworks located on Lieutenant’s Island shores since no one lived there until much later.

Various reports of salt-making in Barnstable County cover Wellfleet’s participation; these annual numbers for Wellfleet show the growth and demise of the industry:


Year Number of saltworks
1802 2
1831 35
1837 39
1845 28
1855 13


The number of bushels in the most productive year in Wellfleet, noted in several accounts, is 10,000. Wellfleet’s fishing industry was also growing during this time, creating a strong demand for salt in the era before refrigeration, although bushels would have been shipped over to Boston as well, helped by the packet boats that began regular operations after the War of 1812.

William Quinn’s excellent book, The Saltworks of Historic Cape Cod, explores the history and town-by-town description of this early-American “manufactory” as operations were called then. These two photos in the Cummings collection at the Snow Library in Orleans show the ruins of a saltworks in Dennis.

Cummings photo of saltworks in East Dennis


Another photo from an old book shows the saltworks in operation on Billingsgate, although here located erroneously in the town of Eastham.

Saltworks at Billingsgate


Long wooden vats were nailed together for the three-part evaporation process. They were covered with wooden or canvas superstructures or roofs on moveable rollers used to cover the vats when it rained. Windmills pumped the water into a first vat where, depending on the weather, the saltwater would evaporate in four to six weeks. The concentrated brine then went into a “pickling” vat where evaporation continued. Once crystals started forming, they would be skimmed in the salt vat (or “salt room”) for final production. Glauber salts or Epsom salts could be made from the by-product of the process. Records for Brewster and Dennis show production of these salt products, but Wellfleet appears not to have produced them, according to reports in an 1835 Massachusetts Business Directory.

The wood for these saltworks structures had to be brought in from Maine.  South Wellfleet’s Cedar Swamp, some portion or all of which was owned by the Arey family, probably provided the hollowed-out logs that moved the evaporating water from one vat to another. Those without cedar logs used pine.

The Revolutionary War played a role in developing saltworks in Barnstable County and other locations in southeastern Massachusetts. During the war, when imported salt was halted, there were some efforts to make salt by boiling seawater in large vats. On the Cape where trees had been substantially removed by the early 18th century, firewood was scarce.  Captain John Sears of Dennis, the inventor of the evaporation process used on the Cape, started work on his process by 1776. When the British man-of-war Somerset was wrecked on the outer Cape in 1778, Captain Sears had obtained one of its bilge pumps in the process of stripping the wreck. He used this to pump the water into his saltworks, and continued perfecting his process.

When the President of Yale University, Timothy Dwight, made his excursion to the Cape in the early years of the 19th century he got quite excited about the possibilities of “salt manufactories” as he observed the Cape landscape. The Cape was viewed by him as a place of “gloom and solitude” and “everlasting desolation.”  He hoped that the saltworks to come would provide “a mighty change” for the towns and villages of the Cape.

Saltworks were relatively easy to build, requiring a relatively small investment. Retiring sea captains who had capital to invest often chose this home-business. Labor costs were minimal and could often be operated by family members.

The chief reason given by most writers for the demise of the saltworks in the 1840s and 1850s was the competition from salt manufacturing in New York state, around the town of Syracuse, where brine springs were developed into an industry in the late 1700s.  In a 2013 article, William B. Meyer cites another reason: the change in tariffs that the U.S. government imposed on imported salt from the early days of the country through the 1840s. He makes the point that the collection of tariffs early on was done to raise money for the new U.S. government, but had the consequence of protesting the nascent salt manufacturing. When tariffs might have been removed after the turn of the century, they were kept in place because of uncertain situations on relations with England, and then the War of 1812 cut-off all imports. In fact, the saltworks of various Cape towns were threated during that war with destruction by British ships that sought to collect a ransom from the town to save the salt-making structures.

Tariffs played a role in national politics, sometimes creating a crisis as states’ rights were asserted over national tariff policies, particularly in the agricultural southern states where they depended upon imported manufactured items. Meyer argues that it was the removal of tariffs in the 1840s that pushed the Barnstable County salt manufacturing into its final throes.

The placement of saltworks in South Wellfleet is shown on two maps. The 1831 Hales map, written about HERE recently showing three places on Blackfish Creek where there are saltworks. On this map, Drummers Pond is referred to a “Cohog Pond.”

As discussed .below, I believe that the saltworks near Cohog Pond were owned by the Lewis family, and the Arey family owned the two on the south and north side of the end of the Creek.

The 1849 topographical map of Wellfleet, with its South Wellfleet section shown here, has two saltworks marked by the long rectangles with hatch-marks, one near today’s Pleasant Point, and the other in the location north of Drummer’s Cove. Two other locations near the eastern end of Blackfish Crook are noted (circled) showing long rectangles with no markings. These are probably saltworks that are no longer in operation, an informed guess provided by Chet Lay, Wellfleet civil engineer and a friend to this writer. I would suppose that these are the Arey saltworks, no longer in operation.


1849 Topo map of Wellfleet, Blackfish Creek detail with saltworks


Using the 1858 Walling map of Wellfleet which shows property owners in Wellfleet, and various federal censuses, along with deeds and family records, I’ve determined that the John Lewis family were the owners of the salt works north of Drummer’s Cove. In 1850, both John Lewis Senior and John Junior headed households in that area, just to the east of Moses Hinckley. Deeds show they owned property upland from Blackfish Creek, on the north side.

The same type of search determined that James Townsend (1808-1884) owned the salt works near his home at the end of (today’s) Paine Hollow Road. His home had been built by his father, Dr. James Townsend (1780-1812), when he married Hannah Doane. In his handwritten will, Dr. Townsend left all of his property to his wife when he died in 1812. If Hannah remarried, the property would go to his two children, James Junior and Nancy Beals. It appears that the children did indeed get their inheritance, and James Junior, married in 1831 to Desiah Smith, is listed as a carpenter on various censuses that cover the period of his life, a useful occupation to have when building a saltworks. The appearance of the saltworks on the 1849 map fits with James Townsend Junior’s lifespan.  The Townsend house, today located at 290 Paine Hollow Road, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Arey family’s ownership of saltworks can be more definitively determined, since the saltworks are mentioned in Reuben Arey’s will of 1839. He left “one-half of a string of saltworks” to each of four of his heirs, which may imply two such structures, perhaps the ones on the south and north sides of Blackfish Creek at its eastern end.  Perhaps the saltworks were already not in operation, since they appear to have less value than other pieces of property left to his children. The four heirs receiving the saltworks were Charles Arey, his youngest child, born in 1822, who left the Cape and became a minister; Miranda Davis and Ruth Dodge, two married daughters; and Sally Chapman, a granddaughter whose mother had died. None of these children seemed to be in a position to take over a manufacturing operation, so perhaps all that was left might have been the wood, always recycled on Cape Cod.

In the past ten years or so, a few small business ventures have sprung up on the Cape, to produce boutique salt made from salt water evaporation, including the Wellfleet Sea Salt Company



Quinn, William P. The Saltworks of Historic Cape Cod Orleans, Massachusetts,  Parnassus Imprints 1993

Holmes, Richard, Carolyn D. Hertz, and Mitchell Mullholland Historic Cultural Land Use Study of Lower Cape Cod University of Massachusetts, Amherst, accessed on August 2019.

Meyer, William B. “The Making and Unmaking of a Natural Resource: The Salt Industry of Coastal Southeastern Massachusetts” Massachusetts Historical Review, Vol 15 (2013), pp.123-150

“Saltworks Ruins-East Dennis (circa 1880)” Snow Library H.K. Cummings collection, accessed August 1, 2019,

Reuben Arey will, 1839

Walling, Henry F. The 1858 Map of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, & Nantucket On Cape Publications, 2009

Hales map:



Family history researcher living in New York City.
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